Over the ages, we may not have progressed far towards perfection as individuals but gradually, in fits and starts, our societies have moved towards a respect for human rights that acknowledges the value of each individual. We may not have found the perfect governance model but we can all agree that imperfect democracy is superior to dictatorship, even benign dictatorship. In religion, we have not discovered “The Universal Truth” but we do agree to respect and tolerate the many different and competing versions of it. We have accepted that no ethnic group or race is inherently superior or inferior to any other and although slavery and human trafficking still exist, they are illegal and are no longer acceptable practices. These gains for humanity have not been achieved without conflict and there are frequent backward steps but the historical trend is clear.
Change is always scary and individual freedom with its accompanying responsibilities can be daunting and yet the human spirit rejects the safety of the gilded cage for the dangers and satisfaction of soaring freedom. On the whole, young people find it easier to adapt to change than their elders and more readily chaff against traditional rules that have no rational basis. As with everything else, there is a need to balance the wisdom that comes with experience with the daring and courage that is the hallmark of youth. In the same way, we must balance the rights of individuals against the good of society as a whole. The greatest contention is generated when we set or reset the pivot points for these balancing acts and often those in authority, including religious leaders, place themselves firmly on the wrong side of history.
From the Inquisition of the Middle Ages to modern attempts to introduce theocracy, most religions are intolerant of those who do not share their particular brand of faith. All too often theocratic concerns become confused with political issues and we see different varieties of sectarian strife in places as far apart as Ireland and Iraq.
In the fight to abolish Slavery, some individual Christian leaders bravely stood for human rights but the Church authorities generally supported the status quo and placed themselves on the wrong side of history. Some, such as the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, maintained almost to the end that apartheid was ordained by God. Although black churches were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the United States, the white political establishment including mainstream white churches and religious leaders were similarly slow to support this human rights initiative and many actively encouraged those opposed to the civil rights movement and found themselves on the wrong side of history.
Today, we are facing a new frontier of human rights. We are called upon to recognize that human rights should extend to every individual regardless of their sexual orientation. Once again, the mainstream Churches have taken up a position on the wrong side of history. Individual church leaders may recognize that they have a moral duty to uphold the dignity of all human beings and encourage tolerance and human rights for all but the majority are leading a populist lynch mob encouraging stigma and discrimination. They may be able to slow down the flow of the tide but, like King Canute of historical fame, they cannot stop the tide from coming in.
One could argue that those fighting against stigma and discrimination should simply wait until history catches up but history can be remarkably slow and many want to see results within their own lifetime. Meanwhile, the dinosaurs are gathering on the wrong side of history waiting for extinction to deal with their ideas. The Guardian