by Bob Phillips
On November 18, 1956, the slogan that “History is on our side,” was born. Its linguistic twin is the suggestion that one needs to be on “the right side of history.” The place of birth was the Polish embassy in Moscow. The witnesses were various diplomats, from East and West, present on the occasion of a Soviet-Polish agreement. The statement was birthed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Actually he birthed back-to-back statements that developed instant fame, or notoriety. To the Western diplomats present he remarked, “History is on our side. We will bury you.” Well, Nikita, how did either of those statements turn out for you?
When I hear someone confidently declare the importance of being on the right side of history, I make several assumptions. First, the speaker thinks he or she is in a state of blessedness, i.e., on the right side. I have yet to hear anyone publicly announce while debating an issue, “Actually, History is on the side of my opponent.”
Second, the statement typically is flung like a grenade with the intention of producing multiple mental traumas on the “others’ who lack their preferred vision of history.
Third and related to number two, its purpose or effect are to stifle dissent, whack dialogue and foreclose further discussion on whatever issue is at hand. History has decided; only conformity and submission to the determinism of history remain. Or, as the Borg said in Star Trek, “Resistance is futile. Prepare to be assimilated.” This is an especially amusing tactic when employed by advocates of open and diverse viewpoints and opponents of exclusionary notions.
Fourth, when I occasionally hear such statements I gently conclude the speakers simply are waving the intellectual white flag; having run out of ideas, they verbally tip the chess board in the name of a cause ‘history’ has decided and announce victory.
Charles Krauthammer observed that the great philosopher and social critic Isaiah Berlin was convinced “Historical inevitability is bunk; it is a kind of religion for atheists.” Comments about history being on this or that side is a kind of Calvinist predestination minus God or tithing. This is not the same as affirming God’s sovereignty in history, nor Martin Luther King’s observation that the arc of history bends toward justice. The ‘right side’ of history is an anvil dropped on authentic dialogue, squashing the integrity of diverse convictions. It has become the religious liberal’s equal to the conservative bumper sticker: The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it. Substitute “history” for “Bible” and there’s your bumper sticker for the left fender of your Tesla.
Some get annoyed with this pompous statement and turn unhelpfully bombastic, growling “I’d rather be on the right side of God.” That is understandable but can wobble into the dreamland of ego and confirmation bias, not good places to visit. ‘History’ also can be a squishy word. Again, Krauthammer commented that insofar as history is concerned, Russia has trouble predicting the past (merrily re-written every few years) and Israel has trouble predicting the present (for reasons ranging from chutzpah to Hamas rockets). One can kindly ask a person who launches the “right side” line to clarify just what ‘right side’ he or she is assuming or ask clarity on the right side of whose history. Unless they have a working crystal ball or a time machine, the only two “reliable” sources for such confidence, predicting the future of history remains dicey. “History” in such cases can be nothing more than the scorecard prepared by the verbal spin pronounced by one camp in opposition to another.
Christians can be freed from such word games. Clear, focused and respectful Christ-like dialogue and discussion demand it. The better way is to align the teachings of scripture, the ‘historical’ witness of the church in her living tradition, and Spirit-led common sense (and in that order) into the hard conversations. Wesley’s insistence of the ‘plain sense’ of interpreting scripture aligned with his recurring emphasis on Isaiah 8:20, “To the law and to the testimony…” as the boundaries and sign-posts for Christian life and faith. Engaging the great tradition of the church acknowledges a God and a faith that is not limited to white, western, middle class, English speaking, 21st century truth, but to verities that have transcended and weathered centuries, continents and cultures with the unitive Gospel of Christ in matters of faith and living. Spirit-infused common sense is key. I have known too many sincere Christians who have the answer to world peace, world hunger and climate change but who are unable to organize a three-car caravan or start a lawnmower. And common sense, or the lack of it, is a challenge for all camps.
Seek at all events to be true to God and in the company of Christ in the moment, which is the only fragment of history we possess in its eternally fleeting way. And remember: Ultimately, history really is on “His” side, against that day in time beyond time when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess…” Yes, and amen!
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)