This is a revised and updated version of a post first published 3/16/14. Given the course of contemporary events, I felt the original post, with some additions, was still timely and relevant.
IF AL QAEDA CRITICIZES YOU AND IRAN OPPOSES YOU, and you can push the continuing terrorism of Hamas right out of the news cycle, you know you must be bad; but this is exactly what has happened to the moving violation of civilization variously labeled ISIS, ISIL, or just Islamic State. Al Qaeda and Iran are, of course, engaging in self-interested turf protection, but I get the feeling that even Muhammad, himself a militarist who believed in conversion by conquest, might be thinking, “You know, this isn’t what I had in mind.” Murder, torture, genocide, rape, beheadings–ISIS gives barbarism a bad name, all in the name of an Islamic Caliphate, the vision of a unified transnational empire of all Muslims. The barbarians of ISIS believe they are doing the will of Allah and fulfilling the historical destiny of Islam, but they only seem to be fulfilling the historical prophecy spoken by the angel of the Lord to Abraham’s maidservant Hagar, about their son Ishmael (by tradition, the progenitor of the Arabs): “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16:12).
AND STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE: Aggressive, authoritarian, nationalistic European leader builds up the prestige of his country by hosting the Olympics. Ordinary observers, Western political leaders, and many previous naysayers are suitably impressed with the show of openness, magnanimity, and modernism. Barely more than one revolution of the news cycle later, the same leader is threatening annexation of portions of the smaller nation next door, because minorities of the larger nation’s ethnicity are supposedly being menaced and harassed within that smaller nation. He sends in his army to “protect” the minorities. Meanwhile, Western leaders exclaim and launch diplomatic initiatives, but have little effect on the unfolding of geopolitical events. Putin, Crimea crisis, 2014? Yes, but also Hitler, Sudeten crisis, 1938.
The parallels are intriguing, though there are also obvious differences. As aggressive and authoritarian as he is, Vladimir Putin is no Hitler. The Crimea crisis in Ukraine has erupted within weeks of the Sochi Olympics. Two years elapsed between the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Hitler’s annexation of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia in 1938. With the Crimea now annexed, Putin continues to support the rebels in eastern Ukraine, after first claiming that Russian troops and armored vehicles crossing the border and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty was an “accident.” Oopski.
Although our Secretary of State, John Kerry, is no Neville Chamberlain, we may yet get the equivalent of the 1938 Munich Agreement, a piece of paper waved in the breeze, and a declaration of “peace for our time.” We have seen such things before. If there is world enough and time we shall see such things again. And again, few will remember.
ONE THING IS CERTAIN: In the postmodern political landscape, events will unfold much more rapidly than ever, aided and abetted not only by nationalistic aggression, but also by digital communication and social media, and the postmodern insistence that all things must be “now” or they are not real—in an indefinite extension of the present moment, where the past is irretrievable and the future inconceivable. By the time you read this, not only will the situation be different, but the erasure of the historical memory of what happened only weeks ago will be well under way.
AND THAT IS WHY this narrative isn’t really about current geopolitical events. Or even about remembering history so as not to repeat it. It is about the question: Is there any meaning at all in human history?
I once read somewhere that in all of recorded history there have been only half a dozen or so years without wars. I have no idea how such a figure was arrived at and it doesn’t matter. We all know something like that must be true. My own life can be outlined by the course of war. I was born the year Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh. This marked the end of French involvement in Vietnam and the beginning of America’s. Three years after my High School graduation, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army. The reunification of Vietnam was accompanied by retributive bloodshed historically obscured only by the insane blood bath called the Killing Fields wrought by the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. My father’s generation was formed by the experience of World War II, his father’s by World War I, which was given the sobriquet at the time, without intended irony, the “war to end all wars”. Korea, Carchemish, Abyssinia, Auschwitz, Armenia, Serbia, Saratoga, Sudan, East Timor, Afghanistan, the October Revolution, Rwanda, Uganda, Alexander the Great, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, Ireland, Lebanon, the Roman Conquests, Genghis Khan, Gettysburg, the Peloponnesian wars, the Indian Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, Biafra, Bangladesh, 1812, the Falklands, remember the Alamo, the Maine, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11, add Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine, and now ISIS. I cannot keep up with the list. Such a catalogue of conflicts, slaughters, and genocides could spread continuously outward in space and backward in time, like endless reflections in a savage hall of mirrors. Bloody strife is the way of the world. Only naiveté or willful ignorance allows us to believe we can alter this course by ourselves, or that progress toward a peaceful, harmonious family of nations is inevitable, or even the least bit possible.
SO IS HUMAN HISTORY AN UNRELIEVED TRAGEDY? A tale told by a violent idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Completely immersed in history, there seems no way out of this terrible vision. Indeed, submerged beneath the manufactured insouciance and joie de vivre of postmodernity there is a terror of history. It’s like we all know the train is hurtling toward some unknown abyss and we cannot stop it. But there’s a terrific party on board, so let’s not be buzzkills. As my younger brother once told me in his exuberant youth, “I just want to have good times while there’s still good times to be had.” More sober, progressive types may still believe that rational minds will prevail and at the last we can guide humanity, fitfully perhaps, but to a saner, safer, kinder future. But we know better; people are crazy. Crazy evil.
WE CANNOT KNOW THE MEANING OF HISTORY FROM WITHIN HISTORY. We cannot tell the end from the beginning, or even from the middle, if that’s where we are. The situation is the same as with a single human life—not till the end of it does a man know the true meaning of his own life. My own life has been quite ordinary, an average mix of happiness and sorrow, with some small accomplishments that provide a thread of meaning and fulfillment. I think of myself as a reasonably moral and compassionate person. I want to believe that the needs and hurts of others matter to me. And so I imagine some of you also think. But we do not know the end of our own stories. Things could go horribly wrong, we could always break bad. Or we could become saints. We never know. We cannot know where we are headed, either as individuals or as the human race. We can no more find ultimate meaning in our personal history than in collective human history. Not by ourselves, anyway. And if that’s all there were to it, all things would indeed be nothing but chaos and flux, in which we thrash about violently, hurting and being hurt, without direction and without end in sight.
“GOD ENTERED THE HUMAN SPHERE AND REVEALED TO MEN THE ORIGIN AND GOAL OF THE HUMAN DRAMA,” wrote British theologian and apologist, John Warwick Montgomer. The author of the story that is human history wants us to know—while we are right in the midst of living this history—what the theme, and the beginning, middle, and ending of the drama are. Historian Kenneth Latourette tells us, “The course of history is God’s search for man.” Where are you?, God calls to Adam (Genesis 3:9) and so he calls to all of us. The apostle Paul told the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, as he would tell philosophers of history today, that God has marked out our “appointed times in history” so that we “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). From God’s side human history is a search and rescue operation. And the vehicle of that rescue is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ brought the end of history into the midst of history, the last days into our days.
From our side the misuse of our freedom brings continual chaos, violence, and evil into the flow of history. As long as this present age endures there will be more Ukraines and Islamic States, Czechoslovakias, and Syrias, and Iraqs, and Putins and Hitlers, and Koreas and Kim Jong-uns. But now we know that the cross and resurrection of Christ interpret history. Violence and evil have been judged and will ultimately be subdued and silenced. There will be a new history as there will be a new creation, and there are tokens and symbols of that New Reality in the midst of the old, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “There are thus facets of the eternal in the flux of time.” So we can sing the old hymn and know that it is true and real: