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The right side of history

| Monday, November 8, 2021

Politicians love to talk about the “right” and “wrong side of history.” It is quite powerful imagery, after all, and is a strong invocation of moral authority. But boiled down to its simplest form, the phrase effectively says, “The future is on my side. In 50 or even 20 years, all will utterly reject your position. Mine shall live on. Yours shall die.”

On its face, then, this phrase is quite absurd and silly, namely because people don’t know the future. Those in the 1800s who thought utopia was soon at hand were proved to be wrong by the unspeakable atrocities and wars of the next century. Those who thought the collapse of the Soviet Union would bring about the “End of History” and the eternal triumph of democracy would be laughed out of the room in two to three decades. Those who thought about the future in 2019 could never have imagined where we are in 2021. How can we say with such certainty we’re on the right side of history when we don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow? I assure you every great power the world has ever seen — Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, Britain — all thought their government, their military, their ideology would win the future. Only a few buildings, painting, and sepulchers remain. The sands of time have swept it all away, like in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Any earthly kingdom or nation (or person) that declares itself to be the determiner or driving force of history makes the same foolish claim as Ozymandias. We get the benefit of time to see the arrogance of those before us and its result. We fail to see in ourselves that same pride, that same desire to put ourselves on the throne, that same desire to deify ourselves in our own minds and before those around us.

But we must ask ourselves another question: why should we care if we are on the right or wrong side of history, even if we could know what things would look like decades and centuries down the road? Say the taunt is true: your cause will not win the day. It may even be seen as backward and repugnant in not too long. This frightens us. We imagine walking a road alone, maybe with one or two steadfast friends, but left in obscurity and ridiculed. That’s the opposite of what we want. We want people to say how great and smart and kind we are. As I said before, the natural man craves worship of himself (our thoughts when we hear our boots clicking along a stone floor as we walk is enough to condemn us here). Every now and then we realize that we would rather be liked than truthful. So the thought of future historians writing us off and rejecting us is the most unacceptable of all things.

This is again where we so often get into trouble. We see the historians of the future as the decisive judges of our lives, those who have the final say about us and our legacy. But they don’t. Nor does any man of the future. For they will be men just like ourselves, different with regards to technology and culture, yes, but having the same human nature. We hold up the future of civilization as a measuring stick only because, as C.S. Lewis points out, “[w]e have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly towards perfection, something that ‘progresses’ or ‘evolves.’” It’s true that there have been great advances in things like freedom and democracy, but we should understand that these things do nothing to combat the real issue: the human heart. It has not changed, and therefore we are no closer to achieving utopia than at any point in history. Since the heart from which our actions flow has not changed, man continues to deal with the same exact problems that have been around since the Fall. Violence, anger, bitterness, pride, rivalries, hatred, lust, envy, greed, foul language, apathy. Read the Sermon on the Mount and ask yourself, “Am I not just like the audience hearing Jesus’ message two thousand years ago? Was it not, then, also addressed to me — and indeed all men everywhere and at every time?” If we don’t understand that the problem lies within human hearts — ours most certainly included — we will drive ourselves into a mad perplexity trying to understand why we can’t just “move past all this.” We cannot climb the mountain. We cannot even make the first step.

It is simply foolish, then, to imagine that the worth and value of our lives is decided by future men. Historians should make judgments, of course, as they do today when discussing the past, but their judgments are valid only in so much as they conform to those of the true Writer of history. It is with His opinion we should be concerned. His is the only one that matters. Up until this point, our focus has been concentrated on man: what will men say about other men. But it is not man who is sovereign over history but God. He will make the definitive and perfect judgment on all of us personally. He alone decides who is on the right and wrong side of history, not simply because He is all-powerful but because He is also the Source of goodness itself and it cannot be understood apart from Him. God reigns forever and over all. His enemies, all of them, will be placed under His feet. And He will dwell with His people forever in the New Jerusalem. We can be sure, then, that His will shall be done, and it is always right and will never be frustrated. And we can be sure that “[e]veryone who believes in Him will not be brought to shame” (Romans 10:11; cf. Isaiah 28:16). But those who oppose Him will be. “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life” (John 3:36). These are the true right and wrong sides of history, and the only with which we should be concerned.

Andrew Sveda is a junior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science with a supplementary major in theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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