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Jesus: Reactionary or Revolutionary?

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During the recent Feast of the Nativity (aka, Christmas), various Christian pastors and writers presented Jesus, the Incarnate God, as (among other things) a “downwardly mobile” migrant, whose single, teenaged, pregnant mother (God’s baby mama?), persecuted at home in Judea, sought refuge in Egypt, a land, in contrast with the evil United States, which warmly welcomed our poor, refugee family. None of this is new. Liberal Protestants have enjoyed this exegetical adultery for over a century. It makes sense that Progressive/Woke Protestants, the hellenizers of the evangelical world, motivated by the same assimilationist sentiments as Liberal Protestants, would employ similar tactics. They have given us Jesus, the Revolutionary, Jesus, the Proletarian, Jesus, the Social Worker, Jesus the Situational Ethicist, even Jesus, the reformed racist – truly, a man for all occasions. In fairness, some theologically conservative evangelicals have given us Jesus, the Egoist, or Jesus the Capitalist. But Jesus the Revolutionary has been a perennial favorite, especially for anti-racist (or, as I prefer, differently-racist) activists such as Ibram Kendi, whose, parents, following the late James Cone, taught him that to be a Christian is to be in revolution.

Jesus is a revolutionary, the argument generally goes, because he sought to overthrow the existing social order. A revolutionary is a person who advocates for, and participates in, a fundamental transformation of the social order, a change from one constitution to another. Some would argue that a revolution might also involve a modification of an existing constitution, but this can be done by means of some amendment process operating within, and consistent with, the existing order, such a process being virtually painless. This would mean reform, not revolution, which is a minor point, because when we follow Jesus’ teachings about the Law, beginning right away with the Sermon on the Mount, it is very clear that he is not seeking to overthrow the existing order. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s? Do all that the Pharisees tell you (but not as they do)? This is not revolutionary thinking, as revolutions usually go, anyway. He almost seems to affirm the social order.

A reactionary, on the other hand, is a person who favors a return to some previous, original social order. His reaction is against a state of affairs he regards as decadent, a departure from the sound moral principles of the past. As a reactionary, he favors policies intended to restore the status quo ante. For this reason, reactionary activism, in the context of the left-right political spectrum, is a tradition in right-wing politics. But this is not mere conservativism, which seeks to preserve a status quo or as close an approximation as possible. A reactionary stands in opposition to both liberals and conservatives, who both have departed from the truth. The liberals wish to move in the direction they call forward; and the right wish simply to halt this further “forward” motion. The reactionary is not interested in either of those goals. For him, true progress entails going in a direction both liberals and conservatives regard as backwards. True, like the revolutionary, his goal is to overturn the present social order, but because he regards the present order as dissolute, his purpose in doing so is to restore an older order. As we see him in the gospel record, Jesus is not pointing forward; he is pointing backward.

It often escapes notice that the Sermon on the Mount cannot properly be understood apart from an understanding of the Law. Ignorant of this, many see in the Sermon the revolution Progressives believe Jesus incited. They seem to believe he is contrasting the substance of the Sermon with the content of the Law. In true revolutionary spirit, the theme of this sermon must be, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers – these things, they apparently believe, are not taught in the Law.

Progressive are, of course, mistaken. These things are taught in the Law, otherwise neither the Sermon nor anything else Jesus taught could have served as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees. They are not, for example, poor in spirit. Someone poor in spirit would not pray as the Pharisee in Luke 18.11, “I thank you, God, that I am not like…this tax collector.” Honestly, a Pharisee should have learned all he needed to know about poverty of spirit from studying the sacrificial system in Leviticus, the very first book he would have mastered! By the letter of the Law, one simply shows up to the tabernacle with his offering; but meditation on the Law and reflection upon one’s own heart, as the first Psalm enjoins, shows him the sinfulness of his heart, the poverty of his righteousness. No one presenting his offering, whose heart had been touched by the Law, would thank God that he was not like a tax collector, or anyone else. He would know better.

This observation accords well with one of Jesus’s frequent accusations against the scribes and Pharisees: that they set aside the Law for the sake of their traditions. For example, when questioned about why his disciples didn’t wash their hands when they ate, Jesus accused them of breaking the commandment to honor father and mother (Matthew 15.1-9; Mark 7.1-13). If one must claim anyone as some sort of revolutionary, the scribes and Pharisees are better candidates. The scribes and Pharisees were the ones who overthrew the system contained in the Law of Moses, by substituting the “traditions of the elders” for the Law and the Prophets. Time and time again, this was Jesus’s accusation, which makes sense considering what he has to say about his person and his work. The Law and the Prophets, not the traditions of the elders, testify to him. He is not the Messiah proclaimed by the traditions of the elders; he is the Messiah proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets. And because they are dominated by that tradition, though they search the Scriptures, they do not see him there.

The same happens when we try to see Jesus in terms of contemporary political, economic and cultural categories. Woke Jesus, like the Messiah proclaimed by the traditions of the elders, never existed, which is why we find ourselves wondering if woke Christians still believe in the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, why we balk when we hear them say that justice is the gospel, and why we wonder how Woke pastor-theologians like Anthony Bradley, Kyle Howard and others would answer the question, “How am I to be saved?” Because if you want to know what’s wrong with White Evangelicalism, those two are your guys, and they are all too happy to tell you. It’s about eighty percent of what Bradley does, and about one-hundred percent of what Howard does, But if you want to know what the gospel is, you won’t find it in their Twitter feeds.

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But what of my argument that Jesus is properly understood, in his own historical times, as a reactionary? Am I not doing the same thing for which I criticize the Progressives? Yes, but only if I am arguing that Jesus was a reactionary in the same way that contemporary reactionaries are reactionary (or neo-reactionary) such as Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Yarvin), Nick Land, or the reclusive Mark Citadel, among others. No, the only sense in which Jesus was a reactionary is the sense in which he points his contemporaries to the correct understanding of the Law and the Prophets, the understanding that the scribes and Pharisees would have had if not for the translucent interpretive lens provided by the traditions of the elders. Only in that sense was the Lord Jesus Christ, as a teacher of the Law, is a reactionary.

Naturally, given our Christology, there is a weakness in this argument; and it is the same weakness that Progressive arguments possess. The reactionary and the revolutionary, as well as the conservative, all have in common that they are concerned with fixing temporal, societal, problems. Yes, Jesus is reactionary in the sense that he points in a direction both liberals and conservatives would call backwards, away from the traditions of the elders and to the Law and the Prophets; but the Law is not a solution to societal ills (although it might help). The purpose of the Law is not to solve problems, but to testify to Jesus. Jesus is not pointing back to the Law and the Prophets on the hypothesis that, when the status quo ante is recovered and the Law properly applied, all will be well and he can go back to heaven.

So the weakness of all this sort of talk is that it is a form of idolatry, worshiping gods other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And when we exhibit one divine attribute and make that single attribute the object of devotion, especially when we do so for temporal purposes, we are not truly worshiping our God. The same is true for the work and person of the Savior. It is not Jesus the Revolutionary or Jesus the Reactionary who saves us. It is Jesus the Incarnate God who saves us, who “came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1.15).

How does anyone not fear to distract attention from that great work? How does anyone not fear to develop a system of doctrine with no theology of the cross?

Apparently, “woke” covers a multitude of sins.

         

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