“The Right Side of History” and Other Fundamentalisms

right side of historyOver and over again, I heard one phrase being used on my side of the same-sex marriage debate: “the right side of history.”  Yes, most of us who believe in marriage equality do think this is the right thing to do.  We liken this current debate in the backdrop of the civil rights movement and interracial marriages where equality was seen as the march of progress and those who disagreed were out of touch and archaic. The steady march of progress on marriage equality can make one think that those of us on the pro-same sex marriage fight are truly on the “right side of history.”

Despite all of this, if I were King of Everything, I would have that phrase banished from the English language.

The problem with the “right side of history” is that it smacks of hubris and certainty, the very things we accuse the other side of all the time. I’ve said this before, my coming out experience was based less on certainty than it was on faith and grace.  The Bible really doesn’t say much positive on being gay (probably because in biblical times the focus was on the sex act not the person’s sexuality).  It also doesn’t say much about the gay man who is in a monogamus long-term relationship, either.  So, since the Bible is not telling me much to help me, I have rely on faith that God loves me no matter what and also rest in God’s abundant grace.  Grace isn’t about being on the “right side of history” as much as it is how we can be loving to one another; how we can welcome each other even when we disagree.  For Christians, same sex marriage is not about the inevitable march of progress as much as it is about two people entering in a covenant with God and each other.  That’s not as thrilling as being on the right side of history, but it is what Christians are called to do.

Earlier this year former Anglican Bishop and well-known author N.T. Wright warned Christians who use the “right side of history” or progress as the reason to do something.  Not every mark of progress is a good one.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

He then remarks on the then failure of the Church of England to allow women bishops:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

Progress is not always a good thing and it shouldn’t be the basis for ministry and mission in the church.  Sometimes the church will do things that might mirror society.  Other times it might be in direct opposition to culture.   We can only discern where God wants us at a point in history.  But we can’t be so sure that we have history on our side and in the end that isn’t our concern.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that the certainty of liberal Christians tends to mirror the fundamentalism of conservatism.  Berger looks at the recent goings on in the Episcopal Church and how the denomination is beset by two fundamentalisms:

I am not concerned here with the merits of these various contentions. (By way of examples, I see no reason why gays and lesbians should not be priests or bishops, but I have serious difficulties with an endorsement of abortion without any limitations.) My point here is simply to point out that two fundamentalisms are embattled here. I am not acquainted with Bishop Schori, but I am prepared to stipulate that as a person she may be amiable, even tolerant. But her public record impresses me as representing a dogmatic adherence to current progressive ideology. This fundamentalism is mirrored by fundamentalism on the conservative side. In the Anglican case this is a mix of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical groupings, which are at odds with each other but (sort of) allied in opposition to the liberal theology and (less strongly) progressive politics dominant in mainline Protestantism. The two fundamentalisms are very visible in their respective approaches to the Bible. Anglo-Catholics are more concerned with fidelity to tradition than to the Bible, but for Evangelicals the Bible, Old as well as New Testament, has an absolute if not “inerrant” authority. It seems to me that there is a different “inerrancy” operative on the other side—that is, an unquestioning certitude of being “on the right side of history”. Both conservatives and progressives comb the Bible for “proof texts”, an exercise that often leads to very imaginative exegeses. Take, for example, the problem of excluding from imputed “inerrancy” some of the hair-raising penal texts in Leviticus. Schori’s exegesis of the text from Acts is a nice example of hermeneutic imagination on the other side.

In the next few days, I will head down to Orlando, FL for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We will be discussing a resolution on being a table of welcome to all including gays and lesbians (or LGBT).  While I’m in favor of the resolution, I hope that those on my side will not talk about the church “getting with the program.”  We don’t need to be modern as much as we need to be faithful.

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