On Being On The Wrong Side of History

(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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