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“I May Live in Hell, but I Know the Streets”: Find Freedom Beyond a Mythic Past

When looking back at the history of our family, our culture, and our faith, we can learn lessons that give us the ability to continue moving forward in personal growth. This week’s Adult Bible Study Guide lesson talks about learning lessons from our spiritual history, observing the Lord’s faithfulness and supremacy, and how recalling our past can lead us to repentance and praise. 

Critically engaging things that happened beyond the present can be difficult, even scary. Yet it is in looking back that we gain insight to guide us so that we don’t repeat the same events that cause pain and brokenness in the world. Learning lessons creates wisdom.

In his book, Necessary Endings, clinical psychologist Henry Cloud shares a quote from a patient who said, “I know I live in Hell, but I know the names of all the streets.” Sometimes we prefer the “devil we know” as opposed to the discomfort of confronting old memories in the hope for new growth. The Israelites exemplified this line of thinking after they were freed from Egypt. In the harsh wilderness, they began yearning for the familiarity of their prior oppression over their current wandering state. 

Sometimes our brain can play tricks on us as we look back on “the good ol’ days,” especially when entering a new season of life. It is interesting how we experience selective memory of our past, especially when faced with a current challenge. In the 1994 movie Shawshank Redemption, the character Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, refers to the  “yearning for Egypt” that the Israelites faced after being freed from slavery. He calls it being “institutionalized,” which refers to a mental state in people who have become accustomed to systems that tell them what to do and when to do it. Even when they leave, they want to return to being controlled because the freedom of the new world can be terrifying. They may even commit small or large criminal acts so that they can return to the familiar safety of prisonEven though it may be hell, at least they know the names of the streets. 

A professor of philosophy at Yale University, Jason Stanley writes in How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, that one of the underlying principles of fascism is to create a “mythic past.” Stanley says, “They rewrite the population’s shared understanding of reality by twisting the language of ideals through propaganda and promoting anti-intellectualism.” Over time, this results in creating a state of “unreality,” which makes room for dangerous and false beliefs to take root. This idea can be seen throughout history from Mussolini, to Hitler, and even recent leaders. Stanley notes that “while fascist politics fetishizes the past, it is never the actual past that is fetishized.” Like with the Israelites in the wilderness, history takes on an additional narrative that romanticizes the oppression of the past. This creates a new reality that never existed but sounds wonderful. The longing stirred by those ideas is based on the mythic past.

Writer, podcaster and filmmaker Ben Howe, notes in his book The Immoral Majority how we can easily create narratives and even use Scripture to back up a created history we want to highlight. This happens while we sweep other parts of history under the rug. Too often, those who protest or try to bring to light the historical reality of the way things were are silenced or shamed. Laws are even sometimes passed to ban awareness of historical facts that challenge contemporary beliefs.  

As the lesson pointed out this week, if we don’t look to the past, we could be destined to repeat it. And leaving out parts of our history is a sure way to do so because we refuse to learn. Those who have gone before us offer a gift in the truths of their story. When we bury their testimony due to discomfort, we waste the gift of the lesson in the past. We should be cautious that we don’t pervert what it means to be a follower of Christ. As we see the rise of Christian nationalism in the U. S., even within the Adventist church, it is of utmost importance that we don’t forget the story of Christ, and what happens when the church assumes a political identity.

In the book, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, authors Chris Haw, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton, along with Christian activist Shane Claiborne, ask what would the world look like if Christians actually lived out what Jesus stood for? Claiborne and Haw write about the history of Rome during Jesus’ time. They help make sense of many of Jesus’ teachings that have caused confusion for those who aren’t aware of the political landscape of that time. When we are reminded of the way of Jesus, we begin to see how upside down the world is. 

We must learn to move forward while not losing sight of where we’ve come from. We are called to live a liberated reality, even amidst our pain and brokenness. In doing so, it might be the witness that could offer hope to someone else on their journey.

Image credit: Adventist Media Exchange

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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