History is written by the victors. This is a truism, who else is left alive to write it?
But here’s the thing, there is such a thing as a Christian view of history. The Bible has a lot of say about history and how to read it, including two detailed commentaries on Israel’s later history in the books of Kings and Chronicles. We are supposed to read history to see the works of God, or to put it another way:
History is written by the Victor.
There’s a cheesy youth group description that History is His Story, and the He is of course God. This, but unironically. History is the story of God before it is the story of humanity, the “He” is God rather than proverbial Man.
And, Jesus stands unquestionably as the Victor of history. The only Man to beat death, the only Man to live incorruptibly, the firstborn from the dead, our rightful king in every sense imaginable. He has won. History is both his story and the story he chooses to tell us.
“The Right Side of History”
The right side of history is by definition the side that Jesus lines up on. Most historians would tell you that the ever popular phrase is a nonsense, history doesn’t have sides and doesn’t tend in a direction. I say: untrue. History has clearly defined sides and it is tending to an end, the new creation. Anyone suggesting so from outside of the Christian tradition stole it from us, whether they realise it or not.
It’s a religious statement, a claim to an eschatology.
History assessed morally
History can be assessed morally but must be done so from the standpoint of Jesus. We are given tools to do this in the Bible. Good leaders are godly leaders and lead the people to follow God in form, and much following God in form will lead to an increased following of God in heart too. You might scratch your head and say that this sounds like a mandate for Christendom. Yes. Constantine gets a bad rap.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time churches were seats of wisdom and learning, their leaders were reckoned with the world over as those to listen to. Did some of those churches misuse that power, of course, power can corrupt. The cultural power that in the height of Christendom was held by churches now rests in technological monopolies and we will not regain it within our lifetimes. But, the rechristianisation of the West will lead to cultural power in the hands of the church, not as an end but as a pleasant corollary.
It sounds like a fairy tale, sat in the late modern West. Or perhaps even a nightmare of Foucauldian proportions. It’s a long way from where we find ourselves.
Christendom returns after revival that sticks, and that sticks for decades. Christendom isn’t, in and of itself, an end worth fighting for—though it was better than many of its detractors allow—but long-lasting revival that leads to broadly Christian cultures that are infused with the gospel for centuries very much is.
Assessing our own age
When assessing our own age, we have to look at it with new eyes. The way I would arrange a society isn’t what we’re living through, but neither does that make it right for the church to impose that shape on society. History ebbs and flows, we seem to be living in a downward ebb. When the turnabout comes and our nations are revived is not information I have available to me, but reading history makes it clear that will happen. Why would the Victor write it any other way? The important questions are whether that’s decades or centuries away, and how we should then live in the meantime.
We can fall into the myth of progress and assume that our age is better than what’s gone before: that’s no truer than harking back to a bygone era would be. The Church’s grip on our nations seems to ebb and flow. We see this even in the Bible, as the family of Jacob grow to great cultural power in Egypt, and within 500 years were enslaved. Or as the kingdom grew from scrappy exiles to the dominant regional power under David and Solomon, to again fall into the Babylonian exile. There’s an ebb and flow.
The Bible often gives us theological reasons for this—the Babylonian exile was a result of the people’s hardheartedness and refusal to keep the sabbath year and the Jubilee (God gave the land the number of sabbatical years it needed and then the people returned). But there’s no reason given for the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt except the wickedness of the Pharaohs. They came a long way from the Pharaoh who begged for Jacob’s blessing (Genesis 47).
We can read history the same way using the tools that the Bible gives us, though I would urge extreme caution in developing the reasons why particular events have happened. I would also urge leaving the most contemporary events alone—they are too recent for us to accurately read the book of history.
Sadly, we live in an age that is historically numb. We think the 1990s were the past and so already engage in nostalgia for them. This makes a sense of scope and scale hard to gain. We’re told that the arc of history bends towards justice, made famous by Martin Luther King’s use of the phrase. We imagine that our moment is the realisation of this. So did most the people before us. We’ve got more wrong than we would care to admit—would that we knew where it all was.
Looking at where the church is now it looks like we’ve got difficult and lean years ahead of us, in ‘the West’ at least. We might even suppose that this is what it will be like until the end. I think Jesus suggests otherwise. In Matthew 13 he tells some parables about the kingdom. In the Wheat and the Tares (13.24-30) we see that the wicked and righteous will always coexist. He then clarifies this with the Mustard Seed (13.31-32) where the smallest seed grows to the biggest tree in the garden. The kingdom will start small but grow and grow. Finally, he compares the kingdom to ‘leaven’ which only requires a small amount to gradually leaven a whole lump of dough. The kingdom will affect the world around it, and others will join.
The arc of history does bend towards justice: the justice of God, and mercifully the arc of history also bends towards the gospel. I’ve read the end of the book and Jesus wins.