Racism is bad and wrong. We’ll be taking that for granted in this post, so I won’t try to convince you.
I do want to bring attention to the fact that I don’t have to convince you. No one is going to reach out to me and say “hey, this piece was alright, but you’re wrong about racism being bad, so it’s all a waste.” Even racists don’t call themselves racists, instead opting for terms like “alt-right,” or racial “loyalists.”
And yet, there are still racists, and the news cycle is still filled with stories of instances of ignorant hatred. In the week before I write this, a vandal graffitied NBA star LeBron James’ property gate with the n-word, a not-so-clever racist conspicuously left a noose at the African-American Museum in Washington D.C., and finally, a white supremacist with a violent criminal history stabbed and killed two men who stood up to him when he aggressively berated two African-American teenage women.
For the last several years, there’s been a relatively formulaic response of outrage to acts of ignorance and hatred such as these:
“It’s 20__, why is this still happening?”
And we give something away about ourselves every time we ask that question. On a fundamental level, we think the world is getting better. We think we’re getting better.
We’re saying “it’s 2017 and the world isn’t supposed to be bad anymore.” The Christian has even more reason not to say it, he’s saying “it’s 2017, the world isn’t supposed to still be fallen.”
Putting a Name On It
This is actually something that academics have studied and put a name on: it’s called the Whig Theory of History. According to the almighty Wikipedia, Whig history is “is an approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment.” Honestly, that sounds pretty cool. It’d be awesome if they’re right, because then we wouldn’t have to do anything. Improvement is inevitable, after all.
C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” to describe the view (which he once held) “that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” To assume that things are bad because they are old is to consequently assume that things are good because they are new.
As I see it, there’s an intellectual point at stake and a theological point at stake. The second is more important, because there’s no IQ test for heaven.
The Intellectual Point
In short, chronological snobbery is lazy. Instead of choosing a method and evaluating different time periods, or facets of time periods, we assume that the thing which rules now, with which we are most comfortable, is the best. For all of our society’s supposed love of progress, this makes the status quo unquestionable (even a status quo of progress ought to be questioned).
The problem is not just that we are often wrong, the problem is that we miss out on good things from our society’s past. We study history only to avoid repeating mistakes, never to find gifts. No wonder everyone hates studying history now, who likes talking about mistakes?
And so our society lives in a bubble. There’s plenty of talk about how social media enables us to live in echo chambers of people with the same opinions as ours, but little talk about our collective bubble.
We love self-help, but we shun the wealth of medieval insights on self-betterment and spiritual disciplines. We love democracy, but know nothing about the Athenian democracy from which we actually got the word “democracy.” Our society rings with “it is what it is” with seldom a look at the Stoic philosophers who first realized that resigning oneself to the reality that the universe in inconsiderate of us is a wildly helpful method to cope with tragedy.
Sidenote: If you’ve never read stoic philosophy, you really should. The bits that I’ve read have been extremely enlightening and livable. They don’t have it all figured out, but they seem like they were on the right track. Epictetus lays out most of the principles here. Seneca is also worth reading.
The Theological Point
Our chronological snobbery betrays what we think about ourselves, and, accordingly, what we think about God.
In the fourth century AD, there was a Christian heretic named Pelagius, whose heresy – aptly named Pelagianism – is still alive a kicking today, permeating the thinking of moralists and misguided Christians trying to find their way to God. According to Pelagius, human free will enables us too freely choose between good and evil action. This flies directly in the face of theologians like Augustine, who held the doctrine of original sin: that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, we all have a disposition to choose sin, in some way, in every action. The will, according to Augustine, is not determined, but bound to sin. Pelagius was declared a heretic because if humans, by our own power, are able to choose to be good, there is no need for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Chronological snobbery, whig history, and the thinking that cries “it’s 2017, why are people still messed up?!” are, in my view, a version of super-Pelagianism. The idea that humanity will inevitably get, or has gotten, better and better goes beyond what Pelagius was excommunicated for teaching. In this view, we not only are capable of choosing good, but we are bound to good – more and more until we reach some sort of moral singularity and live in a utopian world.
While it’s true that we live in a society less racist than 50 years ago, it’s not only dubious, but dangerous to suggest that our society is getting morally better as a whole. Exhibit A: there are, in today’s world, between 10 million and 27 million human slaves. The majority of these are women and children. For all our human rights progress, the human trafficking industry is worth $32 billion. For reference, Twitter is worth about $12 billion. The problem is not just that we haven’t gotten “better,” but that we can’t.
Want proof? Look to the cross. Humanity is so hopelessly immoral that God became man, subjected himselves to the lowest death humanity could come up with, and suffered the wrath of God that we deserved. Our case was (is) so beyond our abilities that Christ “was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” I don’t know of a better call to humility than the cross.
In this sense, the self-sacrifice of Jesus is terrible news. It takes away any hope we have of saving ourselves. After all, why send Jesus to die if all He’s accomplishing is something we could have done on our own? No, the cross tells us a terrifying truth about ourselves. Autonomy isn’t gonna cut it. When we’re in charge of our eternal destiny, we suffer the wrath of God, or worse: we cause God the Son to suffer the wrath of His own Father. I think this is why such a common first response to really hearing the gospel for the first time is to cry “Woe is me! What have I done?!”
But the cross doesn’t leave us there.
The cross makes us painfully aware of our problem, and immediately gives us the glorious solution. At our point of despair, we are right where God wants us: giving up on ourselves. When we give up on ourselves, we are free to accept the free gift of salvation through Christ.
And this salvation is NOT just another self-improvement plan. Salvation is for addicts (to liquor, porn, shopping, and more!). Salvation is for the poor in spirit. For those at the end of their respective ropes. For the depressed, for the insecure. For the skeptic and for the pharisee. For the person like me who’s tried again and again to live the life they wish they could, falling harder each time.
And salvation is for the whole world. The God who saves us is the same God who declares: “Behold! I am making all things new!” Whose Word declares:
“Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
Honestly, we don’t need history to be the story of us willing ourselves into goodness when this is the alternative. For all our striving, we can’t beat the promise of “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.” Those are inevitable parts of our world, and therefore, of the human plan for betterness. But they aren’t part of God’s plan. I’ll take His plan, please.
It’s 2017 and the world is still a painful place to live. People are still racist. Every 2 minutes, another child is sold into slavery. People are still dying, and people are still killing.
But in 2017, God is still offering a better future. He’s still offering undeserved grace, and glory both unfitting to who we are now, and far beyond what we can imagine or hope for. It’s 2017, and God is still the king.