One of the most fascinating things you can do on Google is to go to a thing called Google “N-Gram.” Google N-Gram lets you search for words and phrases in pretty much every text ever published. And it spits out a graph telling you how often that phrase has been used in different eras.
Put in the phrase “the wrong side of history” and you’ll discover that almost no one said it before the 1950s. Things got going in the ’90s, and really took off around about the time US President Obama was elected in 2008. Everyone then was “on the wrong side of history” or “on the right side of history.” Obama himself used the phrase 15 times in his speeches, saying things like: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.”
The terrorists, by contrast, are on the wrong side of history. Like some massive, rolling boulder, “history” will just keep coming in the same direction and crush everything. And you’ve really got no choice but to go with it, right?
The idea that human history is progressing from stage to stage – the “right” side – is obviously one we find very attractive.
The idea that human history is progressing from stage to stage – the “right” side – is obviously one we find very attractive. It’s a great story – a heroic and triumphant epic of human progress from darkness to enlightenment. After all, I would much rather live today than a century ago. A trip to the cemetery makes me think of that, because you see tombs with so many small children in them – and then you realise that infant mortality is not an ordinary experience anymore, at least in urban Australia. So much has changed for the better.
And won’t that continue?
In a book I’ve recently read, Homo Deus (literally “Divine Man”), author Yuval Noah Harari argues that human beings are just at the start of an age of rapid progress that will see us even conquer death. We will, through our technology, banish suffering, hunger, disease, and live … well, on and on. And if that’s the case, and history seems to be moving in a certain direction, who are we to get in its way?
If there’s a right side to history, it’s hard to see Jesus Christ and his followers have much of a future in it.
And that’s often said about the followers of Jesus Christ. We have dated morals. We have a worldview that seems embarrassing. We believe in miracles. The church seems to represent a dangerously outmoded vision for human life that would be quaint if it weren’t so dangerous. If there’s a right side to history, it’s hard to see Jesus Christ and his followers have much of a future in it. So, hadn’t we better get out of the way – or quietly accept our irrelevance?
However, it’s worth saying that, even though the “right side of history” story is popular, there are many reasons to doubt it. Is that story really true for the millions who live in grinding poverty and at risk of disease? Can we really be optimistic when a trillion-tonne hunk of ice has just broken away from Antarctica? Can we look at North Korea’s nuclear programme and talk about our confidence for a better world? Hasn’t the development of the internet, coupled with liberal sexual ethics, led to an epidemic of porn addiction with the devastating effects already visible among us?
One thing does not progress: the problematic character of human beings.
This gives us a reason to think cautiously when Harari trumpets the triumph of human progress. One thing does not progress: the problematic character of human beings.
There’s more than a few cracks in the story of progress. There’s one scene from the Book of Revelation that I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s John’s encounter with the risen and glorious Jesus Christ, in all his majesty, in chapter one. Jesus says to John, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
It’s a pretty impressive CV! He says: “I am the first and the last.” Which reminds us of the way God is called the Alpha and the Omega. You cannot get to a point prior to him, nor see to a point beyond him.
And he’s the living one. “I was dead, see, and now I am alive for ever and ever.” He is so full of life even though he once was dead. So supremely victorious over death that he was able even to experience death and now stand alive. And this is not alive to die once again – this is living of the eternal kind.
And more than that – he has the keys to death and Hades. He has the power over death and Hades, the place of the dead. Not only because he has risen from the dead but because he now brings new life to those who follow him.
Jesus was once on the wrong side of history, of course.
What you can see when you look at the followers of Jesus isn’t the full reality. So, what can we see?
We are sometimes few in number. In some places, we are being hunted to death. Closer to home, it feels like history is passing us by. We are broken, and in many respects we’ve failed. We’re divided when we should be united. We neglect the poor and vulnerable. But when you lift the curtain and look behind it, Jesus Christ is there in the centre of it.
This is no grounds for smug self-satisfaction. In fact, as John will discover, it is a fearsome thing to be in the presence of the risen and holy Jesus Christ. His churches need to be humble and change. Where we haven’t been loving or represented him with grace and kindness, we should be ashamed.
But there’s also this powerful sense of confidence: that if we stand with Jesus Christ, we will be standing in the awesome presence of the one who has the keys to death and Hades. If we are beset with disaster and threatened with extinction, it’s no reason to despair.
Our job is not to get with the times; it is to listen to him. We aren’t to look fashionable: we are to be faithful.
Jesus was once on the wrong side of history, of course. He was simply steamrollered by Pontius Pilate – cast aside as an irrelevance and a nuisance. He was scorned by his countrymen and mocked by his executioners. But that’s not where it ended. He’s transformed human history and reversed its verdict.
The risen Jesus calls on us to be faithful witnesses to him, come what may. Our job is not to get with the times; it is to listen to him. We aren’t to look fashionable: we are to be faithful.
If you are like Christ, you will stand for purity and faithfulness, when the surrounding culture gives licence to unbridled desire. If you are like Christ, you will stand for forgiveness, not vengeance. If you stand with the risen Jesus, you will be a peacemaker not a warmonger. If you are Christian, your task is to look like Christ first and foremost, knowing that he is Lord of history, and that to follow him is to follow the one who is the first and the last. And if you don’t yet know him, maybe the cracks in the theory of progress will send you for another look at the man who who holds the key to all things.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.