“until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Ephesians 4:13-15
There is a lot of revisiting and re-assessing of history going on in our country. Many historical figures and institutions are being seen in a different light, mostly based on their attitudes and actions regarding racism. Many are learning that the historical accounts they were taught growing up glorified individuals, ignored significant details, and/or followed a certain narrative that was incomplete at best.
As a result, there are discussions of removing statues of various historical figures. Planned Parenthood of New York is removing the name of the organization’s founder for her views on eugenics, and asking the city to do the same.
To a degree, surely every generation revisits its history in light of current convictions, but it seems that this is happening with a greater force in this moment.
In conjunction with all of this is a desire for ourselves to be on the right side of history. Seeing the failures of those who proceeded us makes us want to do better, so that history will judge us better.
Surely this is a conviction we all share to a degree, because we all care about being “right” as well as being perceived as “right.” And we certainly shouldn’t be cavalier about being and doing what is objectively right. But a few words of caution.
- A little historical perspective and humility require us to realize we won’t always be on the right side of history. If we had lived in historical cultures that we now universally judge as being on the wrong side of history—Nazi Germany, Antebellum American South—are we really so sure we would have stood against the tide and gotten it right? Even if our inner convictions didn’t agree with the majority culture, is it likely we would have gone to great lengths to push back against evil and injustice? It’s possible, but not likely. Likewise, what makes us think that we are going to get it all right in our current culture? For one thing, our current culture cannot be the judge of that.
- Being on the right side of history requires being rooted in something that transcends any cultural convictions or ideals. If historical examples offer any warning, it’s that the convictions and ideals of cultures are always shifting, and that anchoring yourself to what is currently en vogue is a recipe for eventually be proved wrong, at least on some things. This is no different today. We are wise to be aware of what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
- Being on the right side of history is neither a progressive nor conservative thing. If there is such a thing as objective truth and right, as the idea of “the right side of history” requires, then the categories of “progressive” and “conservative” are of limited help. We must decide where we need to progress past old convictions and where we need to cling to old convictions by an objective standard, which is the word of the Sovereign, Creator God. In this, a biblical understanding of sin should help us acknowledge that the process always includes both progressing (as we confess and repent of sin) and conserving (as we cling to the unchanging truth of God).
- The right side of history is ultimately judged by God, and that’s the only judgment that matters in the end. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4 should be the conviction of every Christian: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” What matters is not the judgment of others; what matters is not even the judgment of ourselves. What matters, now and ultimately, is the judgment of God. We live and die before God. And the Bible leads us to expect that living for the approval of God will often mean being disapproved by the world around us.
The truth is, we don’t fully know how future generations will judge us. But we don’t have to wonder and guess how God will judge us. We have the promise that for those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior, God will look favorably and welcome into his presence and goodness for all eternity. Not because we got it all right, but because he is loving and merciful. All glory be to God!