A dispute in recent issues of The New York Review of Books provokes an old but ever-new question: Is it possible for authentic followers of Jesus the Anointed of God to be conservatives, or must they by definition be liberals?
The ongoing NYRB disagreement between Professor Corey Robin of Brooklyn College and Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University also makes it possible to ask that question in a slightly different way: Must authentic followers of Jesus be reactionaries or are they called to be revolutionaries?
It takes some translation, to be sure, but how sisters and brothers in the church line up against each other explains a lot about both the religious and political divisions that plague our American democracy.
The argument got started with Professor Lilla’s review Professor Robin’s new book, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Lilla challenged Corey’s account of conservatism as too simplistic: that conservatives, whatever their distinguishing stripe, can in the end be uniformly understood as reactionaries against leftist movements for change, and that this usually means that conservatives also accept and even support hierarchies (in whatever sphere) and, therefore, embrace inequalities—because both the hierarchies and the inequalities serve the common good.
Instead, Lilla proposes a distinction between the conservative/liberal dichotomy and a reactionary/revolutionary division.
The first dichotomy (conservative/liberal) is a disagreement, Lilla argues, about human nature—that is, whether human society is prior to and essential for the human individual (the classic conservative position) or if human individuals have priority over and are essentially free to change human society (the classic liberal position).
The second dichotomy (reactionary/revolutionary) is a debate about human history, with revolutionaries claiming that old, established, and, yes, evil orders must be overthrown for the sake of human liberation, equality, and solidarity, while the reactionaries hold fast to the notion that fallen individuals and their society must reclaim either some ideal past or some new “Golden Age.”
Interestingly, accordingly to Lilla, both the reactionary and the revolutionary posit some decisive kind of apocalyptic event that will trigger the change they believe must occur.
In response, Robin contends that his argument is much more subtle than Lilla’s critique, and Lilla counters that unless the distinction between human nature (the conservative/liberal terms of their debate) and human history (the reactionary/revolutionary basis) is respected there can only be continuing confusion.
Given these different ways of understanding both the past and our contemporary situation, where does today’s Christian find his or her standing among them?
Take the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark—the first Gospel—as a test case.
The Gospel opens with the story of John the Baptist outside of society in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which would appear to set the terms of the debate on the basis of human nature rather than human history: John assumes society itself is corrupt but individuals can repent and have their sins forgiven so they can live a righteous life even in that corrupt society. In this sense, John the Baptist is clearly a liberal, not a conservative, since it is the individual that has priority rather than society, and it is the forgiven individual that may have the means to make some difference in society.
Insofar as Jesus comes to John for John’s kind of baptism, Jesus too is a liberal, commissioned by God to be the beloved agent of God’s cause.
And that liberalism continues as Jesus is next tempted individually in the wilderness.
One can, in fact, read the rest of the first chapter in this mode of liberalism: the calling of the first disciples, the casting out of unclean spirits, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law as well as the sick and demon-possessed who came to him, his time of prayer in the deserted place.
The final story in the first chapter sustains this same liberal orientation: a leper comes to Jesus begging that, by an act of free will, Jesus break both the religious and societal codes that apply to relations with lepers and heal him. Jesus makes explicit that he is setting aside the religious and societal rules by choosing to touch and thereby cleanse the leper. Then Jesus sends the healed person away with a set of rules: first, an old set of rules that direct the leper to show himself to the priest as testimony to the healing and to his legitimate claim for reentry into society; but also the new rule that the cleansed leper not tell anyone of his healing by Jesus.
Yet, in typical liberal fashion, the cleansed leper breaks Jesus’ new rule and goes out to proclaim freely what has happened to him, resulting in people coming to Jesus in multitudes and Jesus not being able to enter a town openly.
It would seem, then, that the first chapter of the first Gospel exhibits a clear case of liberalism, with the accompanying conclusion that disciples of Jesus ought to be liberals.
Except for one small problem: right near the middle of the chapter, after reporting that John the Baptist had been arrested, the text quotes Jesus as saying at the very beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”
That’s not a claim about human nature; it’s a claim about human history.
If that’s the case, then the whole story in that first chapter of Mark needs to be seen as revolving not around a liberal/conservative dichotomy bur rather a reactionary/revolutionary one—even one with the necessary apocalypticism at its core.
Christian liberals, it is probably true, might want to firm up their identification with Jesus by claiming that he was a revolutionary, not a reactionary—proclaiming a new realm in which the individual has priority over society and social norms.
But that doesn’t conform at all to what is reported in Mark and the other Synoptic Gospels.
Jesus did not proclaim himself as the divine but rather as the agent of God who is coming near to human individuals and human societies in order to create a divine society in which a radically different set of norms and rules will apply to all.
This is not a divine society in which, in the usual liberal fashion, individuals are free to make their own choices, but instead one in which free individuals choose to give themselves up to the terms that God is putting in place.
It is a society of mutuality—of inclusive mutual care. It is a community, that is, of love—an inclusive beloved community.
Can Christians, then, be conservatives today? Not a chance.
But neither can they be revolutionaries.
The call of those who choose to be disciples of the Anointed One of God, strangely enough, is to be liberal reactionaries.