On Being On The Wrong Side of History

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(Caveat: The argument I am about to make has nothing to do with promoting the agenda for or against the Christian support of Same Sex Marriage. It is solely about this argument that is often used to urge church support for it)

When someone tells me “we need to be on the right side of history” I look quizzical and ask whose history? Which history are you talking about? Has anyone been reading literature these past forty years (the beginning of postmodernity)? There is no one interpretation of history. There are multiple histories. To claim one history is right over another is an imperialist move of first order magnitude. Have we just reverted back to Enlightenment fascism? There’s only one history and we own it?

Usually by the time someone says something like this, the right side of history has already been determined. And, using this argument, I am being asked to make a decision between being on the right side and wrong side. The discussion is over. The whole discussion on being on the right side of history is a discussion ender. Who the hell wants to be on the wrong side of history? It’s another instance of Godwin’s law, that law that says when you bring up Hitler, all discussion ends. By the way, if there ever was a good example of the claim to be on the right side of history, it was the Third Reich and all the German churchmen that joined in with that believing this was God at work in history.

Most often people use the argument like this: The church was behind on the abolition of slavery. We were late on being on the right side of history. The church was behind on equal rights of women and women’s suffrage. We again were late on being on the right side of history. Let’s not make the same mistake now regarding Gay/Lesbian Marriage.

Huh? This is not the way I read this history. It was the local churches, the grassroots movements who led the way on the abolition of slavery way before the government acted. Preachers like Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, and Charles G. Finney, in what came to be called the Second Great Awakening, led massive religious revivals in the 1820s that gave a major impetus to the later surge of abolitionism. These were the holiness movements. Likewise in regards to women’s rights, it was Charles Finney again, and Oberlin, the Wesleyan Methodists beginning in the1840’s, Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, Hannah Whitall Smith of the British Keswick movement, the Methodist evangelist Phoebe Palmer and other prominent evangelicals who were leading the way. This was years before government did anything. I learned all this from my teacher years ago Donald Dayton (read his book Evangelical Heritage – it’s still one of the best on this subject). These were evangelicals leading on the ground, grass roots movements (called revivals back then), often living (by choice) among the poor.

The churches that used Scripture and church tradition to support slavery and patriarchy were the churches most aligned with power, money and the State. They were the ones in power in the churches who had the most to lose if indeed slavery ended and women were given full entry into the power structures of society. In fact, go to the origins of the church’s collusion with slavery and patriarchy and you see this same dynamic (some of us call it Constantinianism). They, like government, held on to these oppressions for dear life and used Scripture to support them. As I see it, the church appears to be on the wrong side of history everytime it aligns itself with power, money and the State. We should not follow what the state, money and power do. We should resist and struggle seeking faithfulness until by God’s sovereignty and power, the state, money and power become faithful too. In that order.

Take a look, down through history. Anytime a church aligned itself with money, power and government, they ended up being on the side of money, power and government. Government, together with money, is to be distrusted. When it comes to being on the wrong side of history, money, power, privilege, this seems to be the wrong side of history for the church.

That’s why I’m not a fan of this argument – being on the right side of history. And regardless of how I feel about SSM, I’m not likely to jump on a bandwagon that sees state government approval as a sign we are now headed in the right direction.

I was asked a couple years ago to sign a document where Evangelicals Support Equality of Marriage. I think there are some reasons why evangelicals, regardless of our stance on the issue of Same Sex Marriage, should support legal avenues for same sex couples to live in monogamy and faithfulness. But, I have a problem cozying up to the state.  I fear they will in the end use their power to exploit and oppress. I fear they could use this latest development to exploit and oppress Same Sex couples. I realize that is counterintuitive. But as Michel Foucault helped us see, it is the trick of (bio)power to make us think this was our idea. Am I paranoid? Probably. This is what reading Foucault can do to you.  

Call me paranoid, Call me a contrarian. Call me suspicious. Call me grouchy.

But for all these reasons, “being on the right side of history” remains for me a dubious moral argument. I prefer a less ambitious more humble posture.

What do you think?


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24 responses to “On Being On The Wrong Side of History

  1. Agreed. It seems that "being on the right side of history" is just another aspect of humanism in the world – that someday, if we keep making these strides for equality and happiness and love, we will reach a complete, peaceful world. But it ain’t gonna happen, as long as we are the ones defining what that equality and happiness and love are.

  2. I wonder, then, do we need to divorce ourselves (see what I did there?) from the state in regards to being the agent of the state for marriage? SSM isn’t the basis for this for me, but I wonder about my involvement in signing marriage licenses for the same reason you’re stating; being aligned with the state. I’m reconsidering my call to officiate weddings – or at least legal weddings – and wondering if my role as pastor should be limited to the covenant ceremony of marriage between believers and God. Am I way off base in relating this to your post?

  3. This is one of the reasons I stopped officiating weddings as a representative of the state a few years ago.

  4. I think, in terms of the argument here, the real shift this change may represent is local churches choosing to either be with or away from the state. With that may come a loss of money (tax status) and power (rights). These determinations maybe made on the basis of accepting or rejecting SSM. I think this entirely plausible and that will be the real test for which side of "history" we land on.

  5. Maybe I need to re-read this again, but haven’t many pastors, grassroots movements, and other communities been speaking for LGBTQ equality long before the Government took interest/became supportive? I don’t have any disagreement with your main point regarding the danger and downfall of faith communities that align themselves with money/power/government. However, wherever you journeying in the conversation, this movement has a long history prior to money/power/government joining the movement. There are many that have used this support to push their denomination, but in many of those denominations there has been movement/groups long before, at least to the 70’s. I only give the date of the 70’s because I’m consciously aware of my Uncle (PCUSA Pastor) and other representatives going to General Assembly with this conversation. And I’ve since learned stories in the ECC and others similar in nature. I am very appreciative of the points that you bring up.

    1. I’m focusing on the fallicy of the argument "being on the right side of history." I’m specifically not excited about seeing the government/state as an agent of redemption n and of itself. Of course, I’m not saying grassroots churches haven’t worked for SSM etc. But grassroots movements/churches have worked for all sorts of things I think we all would suggest are bogus – Westboro baptist church comes to mind.

  6. This seems like a self-defeating argument. You say that this post is about the fallacy of "being on the right side of history", then go on to cite example where the church DID lead the way. When someone points out that the same leadership was/is used in the sexuality conversations, you claim that not all the things the church stood for were/are good. However, while you feel free to cite the ones you believe are in alignment with Scripture and, ultimately, good, you still avidly refuse to acknowledge the possibility in this case. You can’t play the ideology card only when it suits you.

    1. I started out by talking about how there is no one account of the "right side of history." That that is itself a story, an imperialistic one. Then I proceed to give an alternative account which makes more sense to me? How is this self defeating? I think this is what we all ultimately do … narrate different stories …

      1. Given all that you have written here and elsewhere, it is clear to me that you unfairly and inconsistently apply your ethic with respect to ideology. This is very disappointing, but seems to be par for the course.

        1. Alice, so, first thing, what s self contradictory here. It seems I broke down the idea there is one read on church history in regard to "the Right Side of History." Thn I offered one example of counter narrative which is more compelling to me. I’d like to hear whether you find that counter narrative at all interesting? What do you do with it?
          I should and commit to listening to the contradictions in my thought, and my life. I’m sure there are many. Each time someone points out a contradiction (which may just be a tension) … I grow. Peace

          1. Then answer me this: Why is it that you criticize people taking an affirming position on sexuality issues, yet show no hesitation on taken the same posture and public response to other theological issues? Where is the consistency?

          2. Alice, I criticize people taking affirming position? In this piece? I thot I was criticizing the "right side of history argument." I said at the top of the post that the point I’m making holds irrespective of one’s position on same sex marriage etc., Granted I did use the example of the way the argument is used to affirm same sex marriage etc. to display how it works. But my purpose was to unwind the use of this argument and its imperialist posture. I then tried to show how an alternative story makes as much sense. This is how I see dialogue taking place. You tell a story (maybe a different one in this case) and ask: do you see what I’m seeing? does this view of history make sense? That’s what I thought I was doing, although I acknowledge I’m alittle snarly about the "right side of history argument’ and that tone may have got in the way here.
            What "other theological issues" are you talking about? Because I do take alot of theological positions. I also have a "no position" argument for LGBTQ relations for the church as a posture of mission in the world. But I don’t see that this conflicts with me taking positions on things within the discourse of Christian theology and mission. I hope this explains a little bit of the seeming contradictions you see in my work. But if not, I’m open for more … and if there’s something I’m not seeing here… it wouldn’t be the first time… so please point out the ‘log in my eye.’ I won’t resent, I will (try to) be thankful 🙂

          3. I have heard you speak and unhesitatingly affirm heterosexual marriage. After all, you are. So you do take a clear position in that you privilege one "position" explicitly higher than others. You can do all the theological and philosophical gymnastic you want, that fact remains you are inconsistent.

  7. This is so good, Fitch. I would add that, although we are obsessed with being relevant, the problem with the church is never our relevance to the culture. Quite the opposite. The problem is that we lack the courage to be different from the world around us. We don’t want to piss other people off because those people are the means by which we pay our bills and maintain our affluent lifestyles, and we need our affluence more than we need God, need to be faithful, or need to be on the right side of history, or whatever. (e.g., Pastors don’t want to piss off the state or we might lose our housing allowance tax benefits). With regard to any ethical issue, the moment that voicing our position requires no courage of any kind… that’s the moment we have become full of crap.

  8. Heterosexual white male christian clutches pearls in fear that those uppity queers are not behaving according to ancient Sky God’s book of very important rules for maintaining Heterosexual Patriarchy. Knowing that he cannot just call them ABOMINATIONS like in the good old days, said HWMC has to be creative and use those mad critical theory skills he learnt in his tres hip pomo Seminary class. Since those silly Queers worship Saint Foucault (who can’t really be the one true God because he dies of AIDS and we all know the one real true God sent AIDS to kill of those queers, who apparently never got the message from Prophet Falwell because they still luv the buttsex) instead of that pissed off Old Testament God that smote Sodom & Gomorrah, I will dazzle them with my brilliance and use that dead queers theories against them! Critical theory lends itself to boundless theology because neither require logic, reason, or evidence because those smack of Enlightenment arrogance, reductive positivism and oppressive normativy, which must be true because some really, really smart German jewish exiles from WWII said so take that you secular ninnies!
    For a kinder takedown, read Fred Clark http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2015/07/02/try-not-to-be-the-bad-guy-in-the-story-what-it-means-to-be-on-the-wrong-side-of-history/
    PS – You aren’t the first christian to appropriate Foucault in the service of homophobic attacks of gay rights but when you break it down, its just concern trolling…

  9. The problem goes back some 1700 years.

    Jesus said to Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not of this world [kosmos].’ I think it is a mistake to see the nature of this kingdom as some otherworldly heavenly realm elsewhere (hence why Marx could much later say religion is the opium of the people). The ‘kosmos’ of which Jesus refers is rather the world of state power which is of course maintained by violence (remember, Jesus was addressing Pilate).

    If you look at the many times Jesus refers to the kingdom it is comprised of outsiders who must care for one another because no one else will, operating on the principle of agape, rather than state-sanctioned violence, which was the only ‘world’ people knew back then. This is what made Jesus a radical then. This is what Jesus meant by ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ — that is, ‘My kingdom doesn’t operate on the principle of power and violence, but of love.’

    Then along came Constantine and Christianty gained power through the state. The persecuted became the persecutors. No lessons were learned — Christianity as an institution became no different than any other group wielding power.

  10. Yeah……..no. I get that you hate the term, but what you have here is not only a case for supporting Same Sex Marriage, but full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian people in the Church. You have actually made quite an elegant case for taking the side of those less powerful – remember, in much of the country, one can legally be fired and evicted simply for being gay- and those whom would be considered outsiders. This piece, whether you meant it to or not, serves as a dynamic motivation for the Church to once again prove that the statement "On the right side of history" is wrongly APPLIED to the church. Then again, I’m a UCC guy, so our whole shtick is pretty liberal and that whole avoid the money/power/government thing is rich up our rhetorical alley. Well, now that Congregationalism isn’t the prominent denomination. Anyway, this is a great post detailing why you’re joining with Tony Campolo in full support for the inclusion of the LGBT community within the church.

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