The Wrong Side of History?

I don’t make a practice of reblogging stuff, especially if it’s on a blog I’m guessing a lot of my readers already see. But the three quotes below, collected by Justin Taylor, were so excellent that I had to make certain to pass them on and add my two cents. The quotes have to do with one—in my opinion, increasingly common—rhetorical jab pointed at opponents of same-sex marriage, namely that we are “on the wrong side of history.”

First my two cents: Why should history be right? “The wrong side of history” taunt assumes a Western vision of history as a progress toward eschatological hope, a vision not shared by all cultures. This progress is something that materialistic evolution mimics but cannot deliver, for in that worldview “progress” may very well mean extinction for the human race. Even if we survive, our mores can never be called “right” in any ultimate sense, only “useful”—useful for the propagation of our species or for some other purpose owned by a given community. It is only Christianity that provides a real morality derived from an absolute Person, as well as a true eschatological hope at the end of history’s single trajectory. So those who use this slam are unwittingly stealing from the very Christianity they are trying to undermine. And putting me on the “wrong side of history” is a way of demonizing me, a way of relativizing and justifying whatever violence one might feel is necessary to correct my ideological heresy.

Now let’s hear from others—such great writing (though I don’t agree with every line, particularly the very last).

Michael Hanby:

The appeal to history is thus a nifty little piece of rhetorical violence, a ‘performative utterance’ that seeks to bring about the fate that it announces and to excuse the opposition’s loss of agency as the inevitable triumph of justice.

William Voegeli:

Upon inspection, “X is on the right side of history” turns out to be a lazy, hectoring way to declare, “X is a good idea,” by those evading any responsibility to prove it so.

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

We invoke the future’s verdict of guilt precisely because we’d like to smuggle back into our politics the moral force of Divine judgment. But our appeals to progress are a pathetic substitute for the concept of Providence. The former stifles critical reflection about the past. The latter is at least flexible enough to account for the sudden flowering of great evil, even in an age as advanced as ours.

What we do know from history is that the future often rejects the past. Political ideals are often abandoned, rarely refuted.

And so we are thrown back on ourselves. If your cause is just and good, argue that it is just and good, not just inevitable.

Update:

Carson, Piper, and Keller answer the question, “What do you say to someone who says, ‘Aren’t you on the wrong side of history?'”

D.A. Carson:

The question itself presupposes a certain view of history, an inevitability of certain social trends that are going that way no matter what we do and you don’t want to be on the losing side—that’s what is meant by it. But if you look at history another way, that is, space and time are going to unravel as the Lord Christ, the Lord of history, brings all things to pass—you bet I want to be on the right side of history! It’s going to come to a glorious end in a new heaven and a new earth, the beginning of all things, resurrection existence. And so I want to be on the same side of history as Jesus is. So there’s a sense in which you have to go sort of offensive on it.

Having said that, then there are some other things that need to be said: when certain trajectories begin to play out in history, sometimes they’ve been really frightfully wrong. Some scientific things—the study of the shape of the human head in order to determine who is retarded or not—I mean, that was universal science at the beginning of the 20th century. Or certain views of racism and Nazi genocide; that was all part of science and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history—that was the argument that came out of the Marxists and came out of the Nazis. It’s very faddish; it’s very temporary. At the end of the day, Jesus still remains King. If I look at the right side of history on that question on a longer haul, they’re increasingly in the dustbin of history even though at a certain time that sort of argument would have looked very powerful. Now it looks slightly silly.

So one has to return to Scripture, confess Jesus as Lord, understand where history is going from a Christian faith perspective. And then after that, then I’m happy to start talking about suffering for Christ against the history that’s overseen by Satan himself, who’s the ruler of this dark age in some derivative fashion. And in that sense, I don’t want to succumb to the trends of history at all. I want to fight them.

John Piper:

History is a flow and history changes, and so to be on the side of history today might be being on this side, against history, tomorrow. And so we’ll wait and see where it’s going. And…history is happening, so happenings can’t dictate what ought to happen. It’s a logical confusion to say that what is tells what ought to be. And so I would say, “So that’s what you’re saying? You want me to determine what I ought to do by what is? Which group of isness is going to determine [it]?”

Tim Keller:

Here’s my little conversational strategy…. If someone says to me, “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?” I usually say, “Is there anything right now happening in history—is there any historical trend right now going on that you don’t like?” And almost always, the person says, “Well, yeah.” And I say, “Well then, aren’t you on the wrong side of history? And why should I not stand against some historical trend.” And that usually ends it. And especially if I’m talking in New York, to most people I say, “Don’t you see rising inequality? Isn’t it possibly true that only after World War II was there not that but in general that capitalism brings about rising inequality?” Most people in New York would say, “Absolutely.” I say, “Aren’t you on the wrong side of history if you vote for a Democrat.” Generally speaking, they say, “I see your point.”

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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