The “Right Side of History”?
by Robert Bugbee
You may have missed this, because I don’t think anyone has made it into a specific marketing slogan. In recent years, however, prominent voices keep commenting on big decisions being made in society—for example, when marriage was re-defined in Canada, or when our Supreme Court recently approved of physician-assisted suicide. In the midst of the comments, you sometimes hear it said that a given judge… or court… or politician… or social activist… was “on the right side of history.” It is usually said to describe someone who pushed for approval of a practice or mindset that was not accepted in the past.
What does it mean, this “right side of history”? It is almost made to sound as though “history” is a great, noble personality marching forward, or the current of a mighty river. You have two choices: unite with that current and let it take you along; or foolishly resist, get pulled under, and drown. Perhaps nobody has defined it in so many words, but it’s increasingly clear that the “right side of history” seems to consist in whatever changes the majority of people have come to prefer. I guess it is no accident that those who speak of the “right side of history” frequently point to public opinion polls telling us how Canadians feel about all kinds of stuff being debated in the parliaments and courts.
Christian people shaped by God’s Word in Scripture surely rejoice over any number of changes the years have brought. We’re glad when governments protect citizens who were abused for years, for example, because of their skin colour. It’s a great thing when the same institutions resolve to stand up for women injured by a husband, instead of pressuring them to suffer in silence. We’re happy that provisions have been made to vaccinate children against certain diseases that formerly destroyed people, but now are rarely heard of in our country. Christian people don’t automatically balk at every change that comes as history moves on.
I’ve often found it curious how various lands and peoples—especially in what we call the “Global South”—continue to encourage values most Canadians have set aside. Many of them resist the idea of changing marriage into something other than a lifelong union of one man and one woman, to give one example. Are they all to be considered “on the wrong side of history,” just because their majorities don’t agree with the majorities in countries like ours?
Perhaps this is why the Bible does not seem to fret much over whether God’s people are on “the right side of history,” the way commentators celebrate that idea. From the Scripture’s point of view, history gets it right sometimes and other times gets it wrong. History may bring healthy changes in one part of the world, and self-destructive trends someplace else. Scripture points you past “the right side of history”—whatever that’s supposed to be—to the Lord of history. The Lord created time (Genesis 1:5). He lets it tick forward (Genesis 8:22). He will make an end to history as we know it (2 Peter 3:10-13). Sometimes He actually makes fun of the big stuff nations, peoples and rulers think they’re going to accomplish, and brings it to nothing in His own good time (Psalm 2:1-5).
The Bible does not seem to fret much over whether God’s people are on “the right side of history,” the way commentators celebrate that idea. From the Scripture’s point of view, history gets it right sometimes and other times gets it wrong.
Nobody can make that clear to you quite like Jesus Christ does.He looked like nothing when He was born. He didn’t seem to have much influence over the majority of people in His time nor those who ruled them. Very quietly, the Lord of history used one of those rulers—one who didn’t even believe in Him—as His instrument to see to it God’s Son came into our world where His prophet had predicted (Luke 2:1-7; Matthew 2:6).
Jesus’ later life shows this, too. If you had told representatives of the Roman empire in those days that their mighty structure would crumble, while lowly Jesus of Nazareth would gather a people leaping over boundaries, crossing oceans, and enduring through history’s changes, they’d have laughed you to scorn! That kind of laughter, by the way, is being directed toward the sons and daughters of God in many parts of our world. Yet this is precisely what Jesus has done. And He continues to do it.
Your call is to worry less about being on “the right side of history” and instead to cling in faith to Christ, the Lord of history. Paul said it like this, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). He tells us something similar in the last letter we have from him, when he wrote of Jesus, “if we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12). With all due respect to the “right side of history,” you and I do well these Lenten days by repentance and faith to stay on the right side of the Lord, our Help for today and our Hope forever.
Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee is President of Lutheran Church–Canada.