Living on the wrong side of history

What happens when I have to be a Bad Person?

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

Two kinds of righteousness

Lutheran theology makes the compelling distinction between two kinds of righteousness: There is the righteousness before God, which comes only as a gift through grace. Then there is the righteousness before the neighbor, which is earned by virtuous living.

All my life, I’ve wanted to be a viewed as a Good Person. For a long time I had a pretty clear blueprint for what that meant: Be kind. Be tolerant. Have good manners. Don’t be racist. Don’t be sexist. Don’t bully. Work hard. Be monogamous. (It’s interesting how similar a lot of these virtues are to those yard signs.) Doing these things used to go a long way in being a Good Person.

Over the last five years though, I’ve been feeling increasingly anxious about my place in society. As a religious person, the ethics of scripture always seemed congruous with the cultural roadmap to civil righteousness. Until I found myself on the Wrong side of History with my beliefs about human sexuality. There was a clear line drawn in the sand that the Good People had to cross but my religion held me back. So I held back but silently, getting as close to the line as I could, hanging on to my religion but presenting like I was one of the good people who had stepped over the line.

I think many of us thought that the line would not keep moving but it has. And the orthodox religious in our society (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) find ourselves further and further away from that line. Civil righteousness appears increasingly unattainable. We will not be remembered as Good People.

Around the 2016 election, the threat, which had up to that point been implied, become explicit: “We are the ones who write history: join us or you will be remembered as a racist, a nazi, a phobe. We will make you the villain in our movies. We will trash you in our newspapers. We will repudiate you in our schools. We will make you unemployable. We will banish you to the Wrong Side of History.“ And they’re doing their best to make good on this threat.

As someone who worries about his legacy, this is a potent threat. On the occasion that someone prominent stands up to the cultural regime, the response is terrifying. (Just read any article about JK Rowling these days for an example of the culture engine doing its best to cement her on the wrong side of history.)

The choice is clear: You can be righteousness in society. Or you can be righteous before God.

The compass spins in two directions and you have to pick one to follow.

A letter from Bonheffer: “No Ground Beneath Our Feet”

One book that has been comforting to me over the past few years is Dietrich Bonheffer’s Letters from Prison. Bonheffer was a German Lutheran minister and theologian who was sent to prison after participating in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He was executed months before the war ended. His letters from prison range from theology, recordings of the daily life in prison, to personal correspondence. One of the most striking for me is a letter titled “No Ground Beneath Our Feet”.

In this letter Bonheffer reflects on ten years of Nazi Germany and what became of those who tried to resist:

“The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems.”

He considers the effectiveness of reason, moral sensibility, and conscience in resisting evil and dismisses them as insufficient.

  • The Rational Man: “Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, he realizes at last his futility, retires from the fray, and weakly surrenders to the winning side.”

  • The Moral Man: “like a bull he goes for the red rag instead of the man who carries it, grows weary and succumbs”

  • The Man of Conscience: “In the end he contents himself with a salved instead of a clear conscience, and starts lying to his conscience as a means of avoiding despair. If a man relies exclusively on his conscience he fails to see how a bad conscience is sometimes more wholesome and strong than a deluded one.”

Bonheffer watched each of these pillars fall when hit by the totalitarian ideology of Nazi Germany. We see many of these pillars falling today in the new soft totalitarian ideology that animates our discourse.

Where does this leave us? How will we resist evil, if society won’t tell us what is good, and we can’t rely on reason, morals or conscience. How will we do the right thing? How will we be good, not merely approved?

For Bonheffer the only answer was exclusive allegiance to God.

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.

In an ironic twist, the only way to achieve righteousness towards our neighbor is to reject our neighbor as the final arbiter of righteousness.

Tech brings us judgement at scale

“Oh, come on!” you might think. “Isn’t there a massive difference between a Nazi prison and being called names on the internet?” Absolutely, yes, and given the choice between cancellation and prison, I would choose the former. But, at the risk of catastrophizing, there is a way in which tech has allowed us to scale and accelerate being on the Wrong Side of History that was impossible in Bonheffer’s day.

There are no jails that Twitter can throw you into and YouTube doesn’t have courts that can hand down legal judgements, but they can make one feel the shame of being evil on scale that previous totalitarians couldn’t imagine. Today’s tech can turn the eye of the world on you, if only for a moment, and say with a single Godlike voice: “Gross”.

And that, perhaps, is our unique challenge: to believe that there is a truer voice than the mob; to live under the eye of God and not Twitter; that the final word will not be the historian’s account but the divine decree.

That is the only way to live in freedom and truth.

Being a Bad Person

What this means for me is that I need to come to terms with being a Bad Person. To make my life responsible to God means that I will likely get no pats on the head from society. I may be called all sorts of names. I may lose money. I might have to be content to live on the Wrong Side of History.

I don’t like this. I think a truly just society should reward virtue. But like Bonheffer and St. Paul discovered, societies are rarely just.

Then there is the fear that I may be wrong. What if I’m just a Bad Person before God and Man?

That’s where Christ stands above all religions: “Yes, you are a Bad Person. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

But that’s another word for another day.