The key word above is some. If I attempted to discuss all historical injustices, or only a majority of them, this post would take up the whole Internet and beyond. So I am just going to stick to a couple of what might be called personal injustices which could easily be rectified but have never been and probably never will be.
William Tyndale. Undeniably a linguistic genius. He translated all of the New Testament and a good part of the Hebrew scriptures from their original languages (instead of the Latin version) into English. The King James NT is mostly a takeover of his work. Estimates of 83% to 90% have been given for how much of the King James is Tyndale. Yet he has never acquired the credit he is due, though from time to time you might come across a scholar who acknowledges his accomplishment. The majority of scholars, while giving lip service to his achievement, spend more time praising the King James. Oddly, when they quote verses of the King James they are fond of, it is usually pure Tyndale, a fact they conveniently omit.
Think what that is like. Imagine if someone, say, named Johnson, took Shakespeare’s plays, made changes to about 10% of the dialogue, put his own name on it, and ever after, when people quote from these plays, they cite Johnson as the source. It would be an outrage. In fact, it would be so outrageous, it would never happen. But this is exactly what has happened to Tyndale. For 400 years and it shows no signs of ending. Why?
Or consider Robert Chambers, author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Fifteen years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Chambers proved a theory of evolution, as it is called now, but known as development in his time, of species descending from previous species. He proved it is more probable than the theory of independent or special creation (each species being created separately and apart from each other). He too never gets credit. Why is it that when Darwin assembles evidence A, B, C, D, E, it counts as proof, but when Chambers offered the same evidence to prove the greater probability of common descent, it gets ignored?
Scholars will argue that Chambers was not the diligent, thorough scientist that Darwin was. There is a little bit of truth to that, but only a little. Chambers is too often unfairly dismissed as an amateur. The greater truth is that Chambers saw what all the other professional scientists of the time failed to see: That facts like the fossil record, commonality of structures (like the resemblance between bones in the wing of a bat and the bones in a human hand), similarities in embryos of very different adult animals, immense time making slow, gradual changes a possibility, and more, all pointed to the development and transmutation of species from common ancestors. So who was the real amateur? Along the way, Chambers made some silly mistakes, but so did Darwin. One is forgiven, the other not. Why?
I am not claiming that Chambers’ priority means he influenced Darwin. Darwin made his essential case in two early essays (1842 and 1844) that were never published in his lifetime and were completed before Vestiges appeared. This was a case of two great minds thinking alike. Yet one has been virtually erased from history. Why?
My third case is probably the most severe travesty—a good man being labeled evil. The Reverend John Philip was a Christian missionary in South Africa in the early 19th century. He made it his business to expose the oppression of colonialism and the attempted extermination of natives. I learned about him from Patrick Brantlinger’s Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (2003; see 77-80). Philip was accused of lying, fanaticism, and holding back the progress of prosperity and civilization. The startling thing is not just that British and Boer settlers hated him, but that his reputation was so blackened that it lasted at least to the 1960s. Very much as was done to Judas, John Philip’s name became a synonym for wickedness, and also as in the case of Judas, it was entirely undeserved. South African schoolchildren were indoctrinated into this false legend (see Brantlinger, 209 n.13). Hopefully, it has changed by now, but the long-lasting vicious reaction to him was a shock to read about. Why did it happen?
I am sure that in all three cases, there are specific reasons for the ongoing injustice unique to that case. It would be interesting to analyze them all. For example, in the case of Chambers, his approach to evolution was more holistic, as it might be called today. He did not wed evolution to capitalism and imperialism as Darwin did. You could say Chambers was out of touch with the zeitgeist of his day. Chambers believed very much in the interconnectedness of all things, so that any injustice committed by one part would come back to bite that part in the ass. That is not what the authorities wanted to hear.
If I had to pick one reason that might be common to all three, I would say that all of them were perceived to be a threat to the powers that be. Perhaps not so ironically, it was Tyndale who coined the expression ‘the powers that be’ in his translation of Romans 13:1. It has since been dropped in more recent translations like the RSV and NRSV. (The King James followed Tyndale to a T, as it usually did; it was from the King James that Tyndale’s language made it into the common parlance.) More ironic is that Paul was speaking of giving respect to these powers because they were appointed by God, yet the term came to connote something evil and devious.
But it was not only the powers of their time that deemed these people should be stricken from the record. The succeeding powers did not let up. There is this commitment to making sure that the injustices should be continued. That is what is so hard to take. They cannot be corrected because to do so would be to admit that a conspiracy of power takes place over time. We cannot admit that we have ever made a mistake, not a serious one. If we ever admit one profound error, our whole system would fall apart. We have to protect future authorities. We owe them a continuation of power more than we owe Tyndale or Chambers or Philip justice. Authorities stand packed together and that line must be protected rather than achieving justice. This may not be the profoundest conclusion one can get out of this. This is just my first crack at it. I consider this a draft for further reflections.
© Leon Zitzer 2012