As this post is being written and published the 2016 American presidential election is now more than two weeks past, and much to the chagrin of seemingly everyone the drama, division, and discontent that permeated the campaign have not diminished following its conclusion. Supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton remain baffled by the success of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, and members of the pundit class on the political Left and Right alike are similarly confused. News outlets both mainstream and “alternative” continue to discuss the “unprecedented” nature of recent political events, particularly the populist surges that brought about both the “Brexit” vote this past June and now the election of Mr. Trump. From every corner one hears sensationalist proclamations that the present political and cultural conditions are entirely unique in human history. Whatever the reason—the constant clamoring for ratings and “clicks” among news organizations struggling for market share, the inherent nature of the 24-hour news cycle, the public’s general ignorance of history, or a combination of these factors—the continuously overstated message sent by modern media is that humanity is moving into uncharted political and social territory, and new solutions must be devised to meet new challenges.
And then there’s me, not believing a word of it, and not worrying about it all that much. Here are three reasons why.
1. Our circumstances are not historically unique. Sure, we have more technology than human beings living in prior eras, but beyond that even a cursory reading of history will reveal events and personalities that seem eerily familiar. From political demonstrations, slander, and violence, to crooked politicians who use service to the public or to the king as a means of self-enrichment, to populist candidates who soar to electoral victory on the wings of impossible promises, to occasional popular uprisings against rulers and policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, to “wars and rumors of wars,” one finds much in the historical record that could be mistaken for contemporary news reports with only the dates and the names of people and places changed. Moreover, one finds a significant amount of repetition when considering historical accounts from different locations and eras. There are differences in the particulars, but one can experience more than a slight sense of déjà vu when perusing the annals of human history.
Other than some disappointment that humanity’s collective ignorance of history appears to mean that we are indeed doomed to repeat it (again and again), to paraphrase Mr. Santayana, I find in our historical non-uniqueness an odd source of comfort. After all, humanity has endured similar circumstances before and will do so again, assuming that God’s providence in the immediate future continues more or less as it has through the centuries.
2. Human nature remains unchanged. One reason that the present circumstances are not unique is that human nature is still the same. Having now read the Bible through more than fifteen times (and listened through it easily that number again), whenever I come to its various historical narratives I find myself remarking that “these people are us.” (Members of my Friday morning Bible study group have heard me say this repeatedly.) In the Scriptures we find the best and truest explanation of the human condition, that we were made “very good” by a loving and purposeful Creator but fell from that state into one that is corrupted and in need of redemption and restoration. Throughout its pages we read of people who are very much like ourselves, capable of acts of great goodness, generosity, heroism, and faith—just as one would expect the image-bearers of God to be—and yet marred by the effects of the Fall and its resultant tendencies toward selfishness, greed, falsehood, and death. Does this understanding of humanity not explain both the virtues and the vices of individuals, political parties, candidates, and organizations throughout the ideological spectrum, where we see genuine goods being sought on all sides but never without a greater or lesser degree of corruption, confusion, and outright untruth? Does it not likewise explain both for good and ill the various societies and personages that have preceded us?
Of course, this view of humanity’s corrupted original goodness does not make me feel good about our present situation. Our shared nature with those who preceded us simply reassures me, along with a reading of history, that our circumstances are not unique.
3. God is still sovereign. Thus far I have described why I find little that is new in our present circumstances, though in terms that provide little comfort or hope for the future. Where I find hope is in the promises of the Creator and Sustainer of all things. After all, if there really is a God who “[declares] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3), and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), then his good purposes will not be thwarted by the rise of any president, party, king, emperor, or potentate. Human civilization, with all of its goods, evils, and repetitive vicissitudes, is proceeding according to God’s eternal decree and with the glory of God and the good of his people in view. This doesn’t mean that humanity in general should expect centuries of uninterrupted progress, nor should Christians in particular expect continuous comfort and tolerance—quite the opposite, in fact (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12)—much less a future period of geopolitical dominance in some sort of renewed Christendom. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that Christians are permitted to be passive observers of the outworking of God’s purposes; we are called to diligently seek the good of ourselves, our communities, and God’s kingdom more broadly (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). It simply means that the God whose ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) is bringing things along to his promised and intended end, the end for which the experiences of this life both good and bad—perhaps especially bad—prepare his people: to live with, to reign with, and to rest in him forever. Read the end of Revelation, Christians; it describes a very happy ending for us, indeed!
Carl Trueman (b. 1967), one of my very favorite ministers and church historians, once described his view of human history as “we started out good but after the Fall have been more or less bouncing along the bottom” (my paraphrase). I tend to agree with him. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the recent election results, or about Brexit, or about other particulars of our historical situation, I hope you will dismiss the hype about how “unprecedented” these things are as just that: hype. Humanity has seen unpopular rulers and discontented peoples before, and will again until Christ returns. Our fallen human nature essentially dictates that this will be so. We can take perhaps a small measure of comfort in that our forebears have endured similar circumstances, but for the Christian our ultimate hope is in the God whose good purposes are being worked out in even the most dire situations, and who promises to bring about our ultimate good both in this life and in that which is to come.