The so-called Respect for Marriage Act has pushed the issue of gay marriage back into the spotlight and, with it, the slogan “The right side of history.” That mantra is a clever way of bullying people into accepting a political idea or social agenda. Either you agree with what’s being proposed, or you’re on the wrong side of history. Which is amazing peer pressure. Nobody wants to be left out. But to be on the wrong side of history? Now that’s frightening.
More broadly, the phrase expresses our culture’s mistaken view of history. Namely, that it’s a story of ever-improving humanity; that all of history is arching toward perfection. Of course, we do see progress in certain areas. We’ve practically eradicated certain diseases. Our means of travel and communication are extraordinary. The camera on the iPhone is amazing. Etc.
Problem is, we think that the same trend applies to ourselves and our society. We presume that, like our technology, we ourselves are constantly improving, and by our own efforts and ingenuity. Thus, history is simply a march toward human perfection. Anyone who disagrees with that is on the wrong side, not just of the argument, but of history.
The whole concept is terribly naïve. Yes, we have made amazing advancements in science, technology, and medicine. But what do we use them for? For great good in some instances – and for great evil in others. As much as we’ve advanced in certain areas, we still have the same capacity for evil as our most ancient ancestors. And we cannot free ourselves from that evil by our own efforts.
Another problem is that leaders tend to be in a hurry to get to the right side of history. That makes sense. If that’s the ultimate goal, why wait? Nothing should get in the way. So, during the French Revolution the Reign of Terror beheaded those stick-in-the-muds who wouldn’t sign up for the Republic and the “Cult of the Supreme Being.” Lenin and Stalin chased after the workers’ paradise at the price of millions of lives – of their own citizens. The body count of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward was, if anything, even greater. Getting to the right side of history requires a lot of bloodshed.
This view of history also enslaves people intellectually and spiritually. Since the right side of history is always in the future, nothing in the past is valid. Any appeal to history, or tradition, or the wisdom of the past is forbidden. Statues need to be torn down, history whitewashed, street and school names changed.
But the future never quite arrives either. It’s always some utopia, just beyond the horizon. Of course, it’s not in the interest of leaders that the perfect moment arrive, for then they would lose their leverage. So, people are robbed of both the past and the future. With no tradition to live from and no realistic future to live for, we become orphans of the immediate.
But what does this have to do with the First Sunday in Advent?
Well, the Church has a radically different view of history. We don’t believe that the most important moment is some vague “right side” in the future. We believe that the hinge of all history is the past event that we begin to prepare for today: the birth of Christ. Everything else either leads up to or flows from that. What we look forward to in the future, at the end of the world, is not a new thing but the fulfillment – the unveiling – of everything begun at his birth.
And we don’t necessarily expect things to get better in the meantime. Verse upon verse in scripture conveys the point that for God’s people things do not get better but worse as the end nears. Then our Lord will appear to save his people and reward their fidelity.
Now, this can seem discouraging and pessimistic. But it is realistic and freeing: not everything is always improving. There is great wisdom in the past and there will be great wickedness in the future. It helps us put what we see around us in proper perspective. Cultural upheaval, wars, disease, famine, and so on should sadden us. Injustice should anger us. But these things should not surprise us or throw us off kilter. Because we don’t expect this world’s constant improvement. We don’t look for the perfection of all things in this world.
This Biblical view also clarifies our purpose. We should strive to build a just society, to care for the sick and to help the poor. That’s what Christians have done throughout history more than anyone else. But we do those things as expressions of faith, as works of mercy, not because we think we can perfect this world. Bending the arc of history is not our job. We seek not to perfect things here but to remain faithful to that great event in the past as we look to its fulfillment in the future.
Thus, for the Christian, all of history, not just some elusive moment in the future, has meaning. History’s defining event is in the past, so we can look to the past and find wisdom, truth, and meaning. The past is not forbidden. And we look ahead as well. History’s culmination is in the future, so we ought to look ahead in hope – not to the perfection of this world – but to the coming of Christ in glory.
*Image: Our Lord Jesus Christ by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]