The Tyranny of the Past

W. John Murray
The Astor Lectures
Divine Science Publishing Assoc.
New York, 1917, 8th ed.

“That which has been is now, and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.”
— Ecclesiastes 3:15.

[290] TRADITIONS and customs, conceived, conceived in the minds of antediluvian ancestors, seem to have exercised a power over the race, despite all its progressive unfoldment. Modern we are, yet woefully primitive in some of the most important aspects of life. We outlive one superstition only to enter into another equally absurd. We revere what is ancient, whether it be true or not, and we look askance at that which is new in much the same way.

A new religion, a new science, a new philosophy, are all regarded with superstitious awe. We may not be perfectly satisfied with the old, but we are so bound by the iron rings of custom that when the new is presented to us, we hesitate to investigate it, much less accept it. We rarely try the new by comparison with Truth, but always by some theology. Thus it is that we stand on the threshold of a higher revelation, only to turn back to some tradition of the past, with which this larger vision does not coincide. The tyranny of the past is that it wears a ditch [291] in the brain, into which all new thoughts tumble, and are carried away before we take time to assimilate or digest them. The torrents of tradition are like those torrents of the mountains which cut deep furrows in the hillsides, and create rivers to the valleys, on the breast of which twigs, branches and trees are carried ruthlessly away.

We accept the decrees of the ancients, whether they be right or wrong. We burn a supposed witch because Moses said that they should be put to death. We never realize how much the race is the victim of the tyranny of the past, until we begin to analyze some of the prevailing customs that have come down to us from the earliest centuries. Consider, for instance, the custom of capital punishment which exists in many of our states today, and with which some of the brightest minds in the legal, social and religious worlds are in sympathy. We call this a Christian country, but is this a Christian custom? Has the state more right to kill than the individual, that a custom so barbarous should persist, despite the fact that the Founder of Christianity denounced it? “Ye have heard it said by them of old time, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and by whomsoever man’s blood is shed, by man shall his blood be shed also, but I say not so.” (Matt. 5)

For thousands of years before the advent of Jesus this custom has prevailed and had been accepted as a national law, from which none [292] seemed to dissent. Now, if we believe in Jesus at all, we must know that he regarded this time-worn custom as one “more honored in the breach than in the observance.” Yet here today, we find our Anti-Capital Punishment Society struggling for the abolishing of a custom which has no higher justification for its continuance than its antiquity. Two thousand years of so-called Christianity have failed to abolish this particular tyranny of the past.

The tyranny of the past in man’s attitude towards woman has not yet become wholly eradicated, for we still find traces of the idea of ownership and domination by force. Two thousand years ago Paul the Apostle said, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak, but they are commanded to be under obedience, as under the law.” (I Cor. 14:34.) By law we are to understand that it was custom–a tyranny of the past–which subjected women to an enforced silence to their husbands opinion. This senseless custom has extended itself down to the present day, so that we find ourselves questioning the place of women on the platform and in the pulpit, notwithstanding the fact that we accord to them more spirituality than is generally accorded to men.

“Not she with trait’rous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could danger brave,
Last at his cross, and earliest at his grave.”

[293] Whence this tyranny of the past? Why its continuance? Was it man’s law or Divine Love which bade women be silent in the church?

As man has been so imbued with the sense of superiority that sex inequality has become an accepted fact, even among the women themselves, in some strange way the belief in caste has been handed down to us. Society has become divided on artificial grounds;–such as heredity, wealth, and the divine right of kings. One man may dominate a million. The pride and prejudice of the enlightened, which leads to class distinction and a loss of interest in the poor and ignorant, is called unchristian, but it is only another evidence of the tyranny of the past.

Class distinction, like every other error of the human mind, began in a small way. A few felt themselves superior to the many and the unthinking majority, through self-hypnosis, accepted a bondage which was never imposed upon them by God. That which began in the minds of the few, in process of time became a subconscious impression with the many. Thus it is that we find patrician and plebeian, prince and pauper. So deeply rooted is this tyranny of the past that there are those who dare assert it to be a dispensation of Providence. Such an opinion receives a merited rebuke from Milton, where he says in Paradise Lost:


“O execrable son! so to aspire
Above his brethren, to himself assuming
Authority usurp’d, from God not given.
He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl,
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but man over men
He made not lord; such title to Himself
Reserving, human left from human free.”

The tyrannies of the past seem to be numberless. The ones which affect society as a whole are the more easily perceived by reason of their bigness, but there are those tyrannies of the past which affect individuals, and which we do not always recognize. We see a man who starts life on this planet as an apparently healthy baby, who grows to youth and early manhood, when suddenly he manifests a tendency in the direction of physical malady of a moral weakness. He knows nothing of the secret lives of his parents, nothing of the conditions prior to his conception and birth, and is ignorant of the so-called Law of Heredity. In ignorance of his divine birthright, he is subject to race belief, for error exercises an influence over us until we “know the Truth” about it. To a great extent, he is the victim of the tyranny of the past in his parents lives; for while it is not God’s Law that a man should suffer because of the sins of his parents, it is an accepted belief on the part of the majority, and until he realizes the superiority of spiritual understanding over human ignorance, he is more [295] or less at the mercy of this human ignorance. Every day we see the evil of this particular form of tyranny, and we know that there is no remedy for it save in the knowledge that “One is our Father, even God.” The belief that man is the father of man “makes thousands mourn” the day they were born to an inheritance corrupt and corroding, morally and physically. But the days of our mourning are ended when we become conscious of the Truth of our Being, and learn that we are born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” The tyranny of the past, with all its painful consequences due to the false belief in human or fleshly inheritance, disappears before the light of that Truth which says, “Beloved, now are we the children of God.” Man, conscious of his Divine Sonship, throws off the shackles of superstition, and enters into the enjoyment of “The glorious liberty of the Sons of God.”

We have traced the tyrannies of the past from our remote to our immediate ancestors, yet there must be some references made to those tyrannies which are more directly connected with ourselves. When David the Psalmist, going over his past life, cried in the agonies of his soul, “Remember not the sins of my youth,” he gave some hint of the tyranny of the past in the life of every man that is born into the world. Who has lived and loved who has not felt the sharp sting of remorse? Who is there who, in the silent watches of the night, has not recalled his past mistakes, and wished words unsaid and deeds undone, to the end that he might have peace and enjoy that “Peace that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care”? How many lives have been ruined and what prospects blighted through vain regret?

Years ago we sinned, and life has never been the same to us since. The tyranny of the past is that it robs the present of its highest uses, and the future of its brightest prospects. Yesterday we sinned, and today we cannot pray. Self-condemnation is making self-recognition impossible. Unhealthy remorse is not real contrition, for it bows the head in the dust when it should be upraised to Deity in silent recognition of a Force that is stronger than sin, and which will one day prove its superiority. “Shall we not sorrow for our sins?” asks one. Certainly we shall, but let our sorrow be of the character that will make for sin’s discontinuance. The sincerest act of contrition is reformation; but there can be no reformation if we merely supplant a positive vice with the negative virtue of self-disparagement, and cry “Woe is me.”

God does not wish us to expiate our offenses by wallowing in the mire of past memories. It is His will that we should arise from the dust and go in the direction of the thing we desire to be. Yesterday we resolved to guard our thoughts against evil and error; today we have made another frightful mistake. What hope is there for one who so soon tumbles from the height of a good resolution? Shakespeare says, “What’s [297] gone and what’s past help, should be past grief.” If the just man falls seven times a day, it is not because he stays down the first time; it is because he picks himself up after each fall. This is not an argument in favor of sinning and justifying one’s self. It is merely a suggestion to rise again, no matter how often one falls, nor how soon after he has resolved never to fall again.

Today our hearts are heavy because of something which happened yesterday. We cannot put out of our mind the thing which our heart condemns. We have tried to pray, and each time our unworthiness has made itself so sensibly felt that we have given up in despair. The mistake of yesterday is like a huge barrier before today’s possibilities. We may take some comfort from the fact that we are sincere in our repentance, since we have shed tears only in the privacy of our own rooms, but let us not be like those who are so occupied with the remembrances of their own sins that they have no consideration for the sorrows of others. Whatever interferes with present usefulness and future improvement is a sin, and an evidence of the tyranny of the past which can never be recalled. No matter what our past has been, no matter how grievous nor how recent our mistakes, let us leave that past behind us, as Joseph left his coat in the hands of Potiphar’s wife.

The past is an encumbrance ever, as the future is a myth. Therefore, we should be too busy with the well-filled hour to look backward or forward. [298] Sufficient for the day is the experience thereof, and if we would make it a profitable day, spiritual and otherwise, we must remember that “now is the accepted time”–not yesterday or tomorrow. As we cannot feel the weight of any misery one moment before it arrives, let us not drag the clanking chains of yesterday’s sins into today’s activities. They are excess baggage to him who would climb the Alps of self-conquest. A new day has come, and with it new strength from the Source of all strength. Let our repentance be shown in careful watching and steady growth. The tyranny of the past is tyrannous only to him who, like Lot’s wife, looks back upon it. Today is big with opportunities. Live in it, pray in it, and it shall yield rich harvest.

Next: God, our Supply

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