Recent conversations and commentary have included the intriguing observation that positions taken and decisions made often reflect a desire to be on “the right side of history.”
Coming as it did on the heels of a hotly contested election, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and the tragedy at Newtown, Conn., the inauguration and the discussions it has spawned have brought public attention to a variety of issues.
These include: voting rights, disaster relief, mental health, gun control, along with the ongoing issues of racism, immigration, health care, gender discrimination and marriage equality.
The arguments are intense. The brinkmanship can be amusingly clever, but also astonishingly shameful.
The causes being served are also often quite clear. There is little surprise that “politicos” and other advocates play the tune prescribed by those who pay the piper.
What does surprise and capture public attention is the occasional decision that does not reflect the expectation of an assumed constituency.
For example, when a conservative Supreme Court chief justice votes in substantial support of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or when a very visible conservative governor of a storm-ravaged state chooses no longer to buy into the extremism of his party line.
These are reminders that people can and do decide to go against the stream of expectation.
Such behavior causes pundits to wonder if the person making such decisions is acting out of a concern to be on “the right side of history.”
Maybe it’s hard to separate the motive of doing the right thing and a concern for how history will paint the portrait of one’s actions, but it is an intriguing reminder that our ethical choices do have a future.
A bit of retrospect clarifies such choices: Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Lincoln, Darwin, Martin Luther King Jr. all were on one side of history while their executioners, rejecters, inquisitors and detractors were on the other.
We embrace and claim the legacies of those on one side while rarely if ever recalling in a positive way those on the other.
If we look closely at these examples, we note that the “right side of history” seems to be characterized by a commitment:
â— To discovery and its truths
â— To justice and its inclusive compassion
â— To a vision that sees beyond immediate circumstance
â— To a future of reconciliation, peace and opportunity
By contrast, the “wrong side” of history reflects resistance and obstruction to the above, even to the point of creating ideologies that are aggressively destructive to parts of the human family.
The wrong side of history has its landmarks in those who have cultivated a fear that any change in a culture’s way of thinking will result in a loss of something sacred.
King, whose legacy has been invoked appropriately in recent days, offered the oft-spoken and oft-quoted observation that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
There is a right side to history, it seems; and history itself helps make that clear.
Imagining what our positions on an issue might look like 50 years from now may not be politically expedient in the short term, where fear and uncertainty often rule.
Yet, in the long term, it seems that it is morally responsible to consider the legacy our actions will leave for the generations that will follow.
Many decisions are clarified and helped by the question: 10/20/50 years from now, what choice will I wish I had made?
Maybe this is where ethics and history meet.
The pick-up game of history is always being played. The team any of us plays on is always a choice.
Our children and grandchildren will always remember which choice we made. Which side of history do we want to be on?
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.