Interpretive Historical Keys Important in Discussing Christian Piracy

Reading all over the blogosphere about the nature of “Christian Piracy” has led me to write about the importance of historical interpretative keys.  As an historian by degree, I read the History Teacher as it comes out in its periodical form each quarter.  One article in particular, Descent from the Ivory Tower (August 2009, The History Teacher), really got me thinking about the chasm between the professional historian and the people who use history as a means towards an end.  She quotes British Historian John Tosh, who says:

Professional historians insist on a lengthy immersion in the primary sources, a deliberate shedding of present-day assumptions, and a rare degree of empathy and imagination.  Popular historical knowledge, on the other hand, tends to a highly selective interest in the remnants of the past, is shot through with present-day assumptions, and is only incidentally concerned to understand the past on its own terms.

Tosh’s love for his craft reminds me of a theologian’s love for his craft of theology.  In a similar fashion, theologians and Bible scholars often deal with people who “pick and choose” from the Biblical texts.  These people come to theologians with present-day assumptions and apply them unilaterally to the Biblical text.

This is similar to what I see in the present-day debate on Christian piracy.  If you go through all the posts recently from Pete Rollins and others you’ll see (in somewhat convoluted fashion) what I discussed above (see my last post for links to these different people).  It appears to me that Pete Rollins has one interpretive key for the Somolian pirate situation and Richard has an entirely different interpretive key.

For instance, Richard says:

‘Well, if you ask a poor Somali woman whose children have been killed by the Somali warlords growing rich on the piracy (for that is yet another side of the story), the answer would be a no-brainer. The point is that there is a coherent moral vision to be applied, inescapably, and we practice that moral vision in community and in our tradition’.

Whereas, Pete says:

Yes they [the pirates] are often brutal and violent, but by stealing ships full of Tanks (bound for Kenya) and luxury goods (made often under horrific conditions) we need to go further and make the (non-symmetrical) connection between the subjective violence of the pirates (which should be condemned) and the objective violence of the system that they are directly attacking.

John Tosh would obviously think both know little of what they talk about.  Neither has probably taken extensive classes on the effects of the African Slave Trade or read many historical books on the history of the Somalian problems.  Sure, they may have seen Black Hawk Down or perhaps they have read an article or two on the problems in Somalia, but I doubt either of them speaks Somali or any of the other ethnic languages or have ever visited the region.

What seems to be happening here is the use of the Somali people to prove a larger theological point in whatever direction they wish to point it.  Rollins, laying the blame on the west, paints the Somali pirates as victims, whereas Richard paints them as the aggressors.  They both have their points, but I just think there is a problem using an anachronistic view of history to try and talk about theological issues.

I can understand what Brewer and others are trying to get across, but I simply don’t like seeing limited views of contemporary history and pirate history to try and make those points.  History can be very dangerous when it is painted in such skewed colors in either direction.


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