June 27 – the Vanity of Trying to Find History’s Right Side

Right Side History(1)I guess I just don’t have to worry about how history will judge me so long as am more concerned that I will, in time, hear a righteous judge say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my joy.” 

My undergraduate degree was in history because I liked it. It had little career potential then and less now. We probably need more history majors. Maybe if we had more history majors we’d be less obsessed with the false notion that history always has a right side and a wrong side, and that we are somehow capable of knowing which side is right and which side is wrong as the future becomes the present.

Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

You’ve probably seen those famously wrong statements about the future made by people standing on present ground, the only ground on which any of  us is able to stand. A lot of them are about technology.  In 1936 the New York Times stated confidently that a rocket would never be able to leave the earth’s atmosphere.  In 1943 IBM founder Thomas Watson predicted a world-wide demand for maybe five computers.  In 2007, then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, “There is no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” (Click here and here for these and other wrong calls about history.)

We’ve been wrong about more than technology, however.  In 1962, following an audition by a British band, a Decca Records executive declared, “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Seven years later a British politician said, “It will be years – not in my lifetime – before a woman becomes prime minister.” The politician’s name was Margaret Thatcher.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told a group of Western diplomats gathered in Warsaw in 1956, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you…”

More recently, the sides of history have been invoked against Vladimir Putin and the Washington Redskins, who are the wrong side, and for the advocates of marriage equality and by the president in 2011 concerning his Middle East policy, as being on the right side.

History is not a righteous judge. She does not decide in favor of good or evil, right over wrong. She simply tells the story of what happened, sometimes pointing to a winner or a loser; sometimes not. Those of us who stand on present ground, the only ground on which any of us can stand, have a hard time knowing what story history will tell.

History tells us that Adolf Hitler lost. His loss was not necessarily inevitable. Hitler was evil not because he lost as history tells us, but because he lived hate – hate for others and hate for God. In the end hate inevitably loses because God defeated it on Calvary’s cross. In the meantime it often wins in the stories history tells.

Obsessing about being on the right side of history is foolish, arrogant, and vain. It is not good practice for the followers of Jesus who is Lord of history and on whose side we are called to stand. C.S. Lewis got it right (again) when he wrote in The Screwtape Letters (chapter 25):

  • [God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking, “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is it the way that history is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.

Is it righteous? We have but one reliable standard of righteousness, Christ  who is righteousness. We have but one reliable source to know how righteousness is worked out in the daily-ness of our lives, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

Yogi Berra was right about the tough business of making predictions. C.S. Lewis was right about which questions matters most.

By the standard of those who wade boldly (and foolishly) into the business of making predictions and of those who neglect the important questions for the unanswerable, I am undoubtedly on the “wrong side” side of history concerning any number of topics – the reality of sin, the greater reality of redemption in Christ, the future of the church, the power of love, the strength of hope, the difference one life can make, the importance of Christian worship, the authority of Scripture, the call to mission and service, and yes, the meaning of marriage.

Luther, not knowing what the next day would bring, said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Joshua with a fickle people on the verge of Jordan declared, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

I guess I just don’t have to worry about how history will judge me so long as am more concerned that I will, in time, hear a righteous judge say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my joy.”