How does “history” work? The Lukan author is clearly interested in history and in the answer(s) to this question. The author is careful to date the events in this “orderly account.” The birth of John the Baptist in chapter one is dated to the reign of King Herod “the Great.” The Roman registration in chapter two is pegged to the administration of Quirinius as governor of the province of Syria.
The public ministry of John the Baptist in chapter 3 is dated to the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ imperial rule, the tenure of Pontius Pilate as prefect, Herod Antipas as puppet king of Galilee, Philip and Lysanias overseeing the balance of Jewish lands, and Annas and Caiaphas somehow sharing the office of high priest. We learn that Jesus is about thirty years old at this time, and that his pedigree extends from Joseph to Adam and thus to God.
The Lukan account sticks a fairly firm pin in the ancient timeline, no matter how many complications and inconsistencies the various dates might produce in hindsight. But how does history actually work? Does history run in ever repeating cycles, just as the days and the months and the seasons run through the same paces over and over? Or did it begin with a “golden age,” and it’s been downhill ever since? Or is there a direction, a goal, a purpose, an end to it all at some point?
The ancient Greeks proposed and elaborated the cyclical view of history. Plato thought that human governments devolved from aristocracy through democracy and into tyranny. Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero elaborated on this view. None of them regarded this model as a good thing and theorized how a society might “break” the cycle and sustain the best form of government. There was some difference in opinion about what that “best” form would be.
In the modern world, we have our ideas about cyclical, determined paths for history. Hegel was certain that history was moving toward the perfection of the human spirit as the perfect Idea. The dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis was moving inexorably toward the fulfillment of History (as opposed to “history”). Marx took this dialectic out of the spiritual realm and argued that scientific materialism mandated the triumph of the proletariat and the formation of a workers’ paradise. Of course, we’re still waiting.
The Romans had cyclical sympathies, but they were more taken with the Golden Age view of how history works. The founders of Rome were larger than life and produced glory and greatness. But as the Romans looked at themselves and their contemporary rulers, they could see fallible and frail humans who were anything but heroic. Therefore, history was the story of decline. This decline, however, was not inevitable. Rather, nearly every emperor promised a return to the “Golden Age.” Caesar Augustus declared that he had fulfilled such a promise in the Pax Romana.
Many people these days are living with some sort of “Golden Age” theory of the working of History. Vladimir Putin is quite certain that liberal democracy is an obsolete model that should be replaced with an enlightened autocracy (meaning one with him at the top). Right-wing politicians in the United States and a number of other countries agree with this assessment. In the United States that “Golden Age” also means the supremacy and domination of White Men, a regime which some hope to reassert and sustain with violence, if “necessary.”
I should pause to say that this conversation is framed largely in Western European terms. The question has been asked mostly by European men who have sought to justify their hegemonic colonialization of the world by a theory and/or theology of History. The question is framed in somewhat different ways in the global East and South. But the Lukan account has not had as much traction in those settings. So, the conversation now is admittedly parochial and privileged.
Enlightenment thinkers developed the theory and doctrine of progress. The Roman arrow of history was reversed. The Dark Ages were in the past. History was illuminated by the lamp of Reason, and the result was inevitable “progress.” While Hegel, Marx, and company described cyclical processes within History, the arrow of History as a whole was always “up” toward the fulfillment of human potential. Things were simply designed and destined to get “better.”
That bias toward “progress” is still the default view of history for the majority of people in the West. We know, if we take a moment, that the Enlightenment project came to a crashing halt in the trenches and under the machine guns of World War I. But our expectation of “progress” is dying a slow death. For example, one of the four-alarm emergencies in our American culture is that the next (White) generation may have a lower standard of living than previous generations. That decline takes our understanding of history and pulls the stuffing out of it.
In personal terms, we expect that we can somehow make things better. I think about conversations among White people discussing what to do about systemic and personal racism in this country. These days, it seems that antiracism efforts are not yielding straight-line progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. I hear White people who wilt under that reality. “Give me some hope!” they say. Without that hope, they might collapse into the inaction of despair.
Of course, the expectation of progress and the demand for “hope” are marks of privilege, whether we intend them to be or not. The doctrine of historical “progress” has been an article of faith only for those who have power, position, privilege, and property. This view of history is not one that makes sense for those upon whose bodies and at whose expenses the progress has been structured and accomplished. For people in that social location, progress is not an option. Resilient and patient endurance is the only reasonable response.
How, then, does “History” work? There is no natural, given, inevitable course of human history. There are no predictive “laws” of history which can be discerned and put to use. That is the fullest Enlightenment conceit, that somehow with enough charisma or calculation, we can see past the shrouded mists of the present and get a clear vision of the future. It’s no accident that two major science fiction projects, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, propose ways to commandeer the future. But, in fact, “history” itself is a construction and not a weather front or a differential equation.
The Lukan author is proposing and narrating a theology of history. And it sounds, for all the world, like another proposal for prognostication, prediction, and power. But the Lukan Apocalyptic discourse is not another human theory of how history “works.” Rather, it is a description of how Jesus followers live in a history that doesn’t “work.” It is, as Douglas John Hall puts it in The Cross in Our Context, mission as “living the story” (pages 192ff.).
Hall argues that this mission rests on a theology of faith, not sight; hope, not finality; and love, not power. We pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to discern God’s working in, with, and under the chaos of historical events. As the Church we are a community on the way (perhaps the way to Emmaus!), not an institution that has arrived somewhere. We are live as “hope in action,” not hope for results. And we are called to renounce any and every expression of institutional power, whether in congregations or denominations. Such power leads only to colonization, white supremacy, and the bodies of Native children buried on the grounds of now-defunct White schools.
Hall argues that this Jesus-centered view of history always leads us toward the world God loves. This world needs our witness, no matter how the world might penalize us for calling out falsehood and speaking God’s truth. There will be opportunities to be martyred, both in word and in deed. “We are not allowed to abandon [the reality of the Cross] in favor of some otherworldly consummation,” Hall writes, “some paradisiacal ecstasy, and certainly not by regarding this or that present personal or political estate as though it were nicely compatible with that shalom for which the Christian hope yearns” (page 216).
Yet, that is precisely the theological problem with White Christian Nationalism. More than anything else, White Christian Nationalism is a theology of history. It is a theology of history which declares that the “natural” and inevitable end and fulfillment of history is the ascendance and triumph of “Christian” Whiteness, at least in the system of American exceptionalism. Anything other than this White Christian ascendancy and supremacy is regarded as regression to a dark age (quite literally in terms of skin tone) and an abomination to the god behind this historical process.
A theology of history which demands power for its proponents and adherents always results in triumphalism. Triumphalism is both ideology and idolatry. Truth, beauty, and justice are required by a triumphalist system to conform to the pre-existing tenets of the ideology. And those tenets are constructed for the benefit of the proponents and adherents. The ideology no longer points to a god but rather becomes that god and demands ultimate obedience.
This is the import of Luke 21:8ff. Ideology equips individuals to claim the “I am” of God’s name for themselves and to claim to have their hands on the throttle of the historical process. Those in the thrall of ideology will compete with one another for domination. Truth-sayers will be persecuted and prosecuted. Bigger fish will eat smaller fish, only to be eaten by still bigger fish. People will lose their way (and their lives).
Yet, underneath it all, redemption is happening. This is not an optimistic statement. This is not a promise to the privileged of a happy ending sooner rather than later. Heaven and earth will pass away, of that there is no doubt. But that passing is not the last word of the History to come.
References and Resources
Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.
West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.