Which Way to the Right Side of History?

by Ken Briggs

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As a big, well-heeled Presbyterian church nearby has been cutting ties with its mainline Protestant heritage in rebellion against the denomination's full inclusion of gays and lesbians, I find myself declaring that the congregation is "on the wrong side of history." I speak it with puffed-up authority as a conversation stopper, implying that I discern with an eagle eye who's going with the historical flow and who's not.

To correct my hubris, I wonder whether I would have been on the "right" side as hysteria burned witches at the stake or during the Thirty Years War as a Protestant or Catholics fighting to the death over different versions of "truth."  If I'd been born white in Alabama in 1840 would I have defended Dixie as the "wave of the future"? All of which is to state the obvious: that presuming to march to beat of history's future can be an exercise in folly, a passion shaped by circumstances.

I'm not quite ready to give up the phrase in certain cases, however contradictory that may seem. For better or worse, I often claim legitimacy for judging broad social and political movements on the basis of a single standard: whether they expand or cramp egalitarianism.

That conviction has arisen over many years. It is rooted in the equal-worth, everyone a child of God preaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and by the apostles in Acts and the Letters of Paul. We are members of one body, each blessed in the same measure by life itself, called to faithful practice rather than loved for whatever human status we have gained. Whatever widens the demonstration of that equality in the world is worthy of praise; whatever narrows it is the "wrong side of history." 

I realize the objections. Some argue that "nature" stamps some as inferior or warranting "separate but equal? treatment (one version of it is "complementarianism," used to retain male perks in the Catholic church). Others try to justify racial discrimination by denying a common ancestry and common endowments. I believe these are evasions and falsifications of the scientific encyclopedia and of the Gospels themselves. I thereby reject their use by those who reject egalitarianism pure and simple.

Further, I'm convinced that the Enlightenment was the greatest instrument in delivering the good news of egalitarianism either because the church refused to honor the Word of its founder or flat-out lost track of it in chasing monarchical orders that made a mockery of everything the first little churches around the Mediterranean believed. The Holy Spirit, having lost hope that the churches would reclaim the democratization of souls, went public, making this most powerful message to the world through the world itself. Revelation once again was channeled through secular means. Pretty soon slavery was under attack, then ethnic hatred and now look, homophobia seems to be on the run. It feeds off the essential, divine reminder, the burst of inspiration that has driven causes since. Others may disagree, but I believe that course is inexorable.

That criterion exhausts my dogma but I think it covers enough ground to account for an array of human aspirations. Forces of reaction pound against it and drive it into retreat on many fronts, most painfully in crusades against poor people, but my skeptical self still thinks egalitarianism will come to pass. It will require daring, perhaps mostly within churches that will continue to preserve their pretenses, but it seems we inch toward it. Just last week, two Mennonite colleges, Goshen and Eastern Mennonite University, took action to support same sex couples. I think it's safe to say that these exemplars of Christian living were merely following fads.

That Presbyterian church mentioned earlier is therefore, by my measure, on the wrong side of history, divine revelation. I don't believe for a moment that it is the purpose of the Almighty to impose indignity on what has been granted full measure of dignity.

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