History books are full of horror stories. As we look back with perspective, we read embarrassing tales of incompetent and foolish people, fearful and gullible nations, evil and egocentric leaders, entire eras that seem to have been characterized by ignorance, avarice, selfishness, myopia and bigotry.
We can read the histories of eras of excessive inequality, of the wealthy, whose inconceivable fortunes, inherited or earned, made them completely out of touch with any ordinary reality. History books tell of eccentric projects of these monied elites and the tensions their wealth and their disdain for the common folk created within their societies.
We can read the histories of vain leaders, whose insatiable ambitions led them to invent wars, invading neighboring lands, destroying cities, killing the innocent, leaving entire populations of widows and orphans in their maniacal wakes. History books tell of such thoughtless evil, tyrannical pursuits that have killed millions.
We can read the histories of incredible natural disasters, typhoons and volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wildfires, epidemics and plagues. History books tell of villages destroyed, dreams buried, hopes and futures erased, and the stories told make it clear the decisions of leaders with personal motives and aggrandized ambitions so often compounded the unavoidable, multiplying the pain.
It’s all in history books.
We can read of waves of xenophobic fear that swept over whole nations. Movements of immigrating people who were resisted with campaigns of racism and nationalistic misinformation, in shouts and whispers of irrational fear. History books tell of pogroms and deportations, of detention and internment camps, of the inconceivable hatred of one people for another, of the inhumanity too often visited with self-righteous pride onto the backs of the already-oppressed.
We can read of nations, guided by fears and insecurity, misguided by leaders who seized on opportunity, reaching for authoritarian control empowered by the mob mentality of populist frenzy. History books tell of personalities, whose character revolves around spheres of avarice and arrogance, whose vulgarity and indecency are matched only by their lack of compassion and morality — yet whose charisma is irresistible to the fears of multitudes.
It’s all in history books.
Let me admit I have lived many of my years with something of a hopeful naivete. Lulled by the affluent comfort and relative security of my experience as a Southern, white, American male, born in the last year of the Baby Boom, I have lived with a comfortable, innocent sense that we were somehow beyond all of that — the tyrants, abroad and at home, disasters of historic proportion, world-altering events that make history books. I am probably not alone. For many of my generation, the benefit of having chosen our parents so well has come with blinders. The last few years have been a sad awakening.
We’re making history, too.
COVID craziness and climate change denials, the invasion of Ukraine and January 6 insurrection, QAnon conspiracy theories and the authoritarian threat to dismantle the world’s greatest experiment in democracy, religious extremism and Christian nationalism.
Given all we should have learned, we’ll deserve all the criticism that is undoubtedly coming our way.
I’m afraid future history books will not be any more complimentary than prior histories of the sad tyrants and the misguided populism, the authoritarian appeal and the immoral leaders, the racism and religious bigotry, the nationalistic arrogance and the lack of vision and wisdom and integrity. I’m afraid the story will not be kind — and given all we should have learned from history books, all our knowledge of the world, all our advance in medicine and technology, all we should be able to offer to the future — we will not deserve to be given any special treatment. In fact, given all we should have learned, we’ll deserve all the criticism that is undoubtedly coming our way.
We’re making history, too — and if we survive the craziness of the moment (a conclusion that is not yet certain) — future generations will read of us as just the last, sad chapter in the human experiment: They had the means to do so much better, but in the end, they were no different than the rest; they were narrow-minded, arrogant, short-sighted, bent on their own self-destruction.
If this sounds pessimistic, it is. I fear what may be ahead, what history books may have to say of us. But I’m not hopeless — because alongside the histories that are written by the winners, by those who survive to be able to look back, there are others who have dared to write a different history. Some have dared to tell the story, even the epic, world-altering events of history and say, through it all, God was in it.
Don’t call me naïve, one of those “true believers.” God is not “in control” the way some tell it. The story is deeper than that. It’s not divine control, but divine providence. There is no God apart from us, pulling the strings, intervening with “manifest destiny” for the chosen few, but there is God in the very messy midst of it all, the energy in all things, always working for the good (my translation of Romans 8:28).
Amidst all the anxious chaos, the eye-opening revelation that there is nothing different today (we are very much in history, not beyond it), the people of faith always cling to a hopeful tomorrow. Hope beyond hope. In it all, today, tomorrow, forever, God is with us.
We’re making history. Let’s not forget the hope.
Russ Dean serves as co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue. He is author of the new book Finding A New Way.