Ideas Carry the World
The Brendan Eich episode is the latest in our ongoing cultural conversation about belief, power and freedom in a pluralistic context. The world is filled with competing ideas on just about everything, and those ideas create, destroy, build up, and tear down.
At this years Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College Richard Foster noted that “words carry ideas, and ideas carry the world.” This should come as no surprised to someone familiar with the Bible and what it has to say about words.
The liberal view is that in the free exchange of ideas the better ideas will triumph. “You don’t beat an idea by beating a person, you beat an idea by beating an idea.” What we need to do is to allow the debate to progress naturally, don’t silence anyone or anything because in the end the truth will win out. Debates don’t cease because they are repressed, they simply become pointless as the merit of the better idea becomes self-evident to all, or nearly all. Need we debate flat vs. spherical earth once more?
The progressive view is that we as a community actually achieve something and we call that progress. Once we have achieved it, or have at least have a secure enough majority to that power has consolidated that power should be used to secure the progress so that the next progress can be pursued. White supremacy has been beaten, keep the bigots off the radio waves and call anyone who says a racist thing on their hate speech.
You beat an idea by making it shameful, or illegal, or just too relationally expensive to speak or to hold. Later, we imagine, people will read about it in history books and comment “oh how naive and uneducated those poor people where who were so unfortunate as to be born in the past…”
The Ground of Optimism?
Both views (liberal and progressive) assume fairly optimistic things about the world’s future and our ability to move forward. In one view bad ideas are “beaten” because a majority of people have clear enough minds and honest enough hearts to recognize the superior idea over their individual and tribal economies of self-interest so that “right” ideas triumph over the “wrong”.
In the other somehow progress actually works so that later ideas ARE the better ones and those who wield power do so with just the right amount of wisdom to suppress ideas instead of simply fueling endless cycles of revolution based on differences.
I’ve got my doubts on both counts. We’ve seen many bad and evil ideas triumph over good ones. Communities have competing economies of power and influence that bias populations towards or against ideas.
The “progressive” perspective also assumes that later is better. Couldn’t this view be used to legitimate previous idea “winners”? Ideas don’t simply flow one way in history. Ideas come in and out of fashion. Prohibition was considered a triumph in its day, enough to pass a constitutional amendment in the US, today it was seen as a bad idea. This is how history works.
One of the amazing things about our cultural moment is that on one hand we have an implicit optimistic posture about our capacity to improve the culture and that things mostly, only get better, while at the same time seeming to maintain a longer term pessimistic imagination about the future. Why do we imagine with every turn of cultural change make progress towards a greater, happier society while at the same time imagining our future is threatened by global environmental degradation or the robot apocalypse?
The Roman Way
How do we know we’re making any progress at all and not simply wasting our time? Ours is not the first culture war nor the first struggle nor the first empire to imagine it has the world figured out.
The Romans conquered “the world” and saw it as “the Latin man’s burden” to spread “the Roman way” around the world. I love the scene in The Life of Brian where the Jewish rebels begin complaining about “what did the Romans ever do for us”.
Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?PFJ Member: Brought peace?Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP!
Do we consider the Roman civilization has being the pinnacle of human accomplishment?
Change Inspires Resistance
The Romans obviously “won” the world at the expense of hundreds of other ethnic groups and civilizations. Some perhaps were welcomed their new benevolent overlords while other groups, like the Jews resented and resisted not only the formal occupation and taxation but especially the cultural influences that they saw as threatening their cultural identity. The Jews themselves were not together on what to think of Roman “advancements” brought to their country.
For those of us who live in the imperial United States of America it is difficult to imagine a people group who were for the most part dominated by foreign powers for over 500 years but in the process managed to actually maintain a sense of cultural and religious identity and cohesion.
James Davison Hunter describes this dynamic in our own culture war.
The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.
In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury-real or perceived-leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentinnent, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.
James Davison Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Kindle Locations 1443-1457). Kindle Edition.
Their Own Optimism
Part of what was remarkable about the Jewish people was their determined belief that at some point their imprisonment by ever wave of imperial might would cease and a savior would arise to not only triumph over their enemies but in fact would himself subjugate the world and establish an everlasting throne.
Many Bible readers today, hunting for tidbits of inspiration to help them have their “best day yet” blithely pass over the assertions of even a major prophet like Isaiah in a very famous in the Old Testament.
Isaiah 11:1–9 (NET)
1A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from his roots.
2The Lord’s spirit will rest on him— a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom, a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans, a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord.
3He will take delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay.
4He will treat the poor fairly, and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and order the wicked to be executed.
5Justice will be like a belt around his waist, integrity will be like a belt around his hips.
6A wolf will reside with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a young goat; an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along.
7A cow and a bear will graze together, their young will lie down together. A lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
8A baby will play over the hole of a snake; over the nest of a serpent an infant will put his hand.
9They will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain. For there will be universal submission to the Lord’s sovereignty, just as the waters completely cover the sea.
The Jewish people lived both under foreign empires and with this level of expectation for five centuries!
Jesus’ Angular Relationship with Messianic Expectations
One of the most important yet difficult nuances one must master to read the stories of Jesus as found in the gospels is his relationship with his contemporary and popular expectations of the messianic role. Messianic expectations had been partially primed and set by the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks over a hundred years before and many other messianic revolutionaries would emerge both before and after Jesus. Satan himself invited Jesus to fulfill these expectations before the people.
Jesus walked a fine line, both often quietly and subtly acknowledging his identity as Messiah while also trying to manage those expectations. Jesus knew that once he would encourage the people’s pent up longing for the kind of Messiah they believed in that political eventualities would quickly unfold. Palm Sunday is the day the Jesus lights the fuse on the nation’s messianic powder keg.
The Gospel of Matthew reveals this within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Matthew 21:1–11 (NET)
1 Now when they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 telling them, “Go to the village ahead of you. Right away you will find a donkey tied there, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you are to say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 5 “Tell the people of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you, unassuming and seated on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”
6 So the disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those following kept shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Hosanna in the highest!”
10 As he entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Fully Inflamed Culture War
We saw last week that in Jesus’ very intentional path of letting Lazarus die and then raising him again that this left both the religious and the political authorities very few options other than to kill Jesus. Jesus’ entering Jerusalem in the fashion just keeps putting it all in their face. The idea that Jesus is forcing them to confront is his assertion that he is the ruler of the world, come from heaven to this world with divine power to claim what is his. The Romans will come late to this culture war game because they have not been closely tracking the implications of Jesus’ words and actions but the Jewish religious and political authorities are not in any way confused.
If you read various modern commentators on Jesus’ life they express a great deal of skepticism about Jesus in ways, that according to the gospel accounts, contemporaries of Jesus could not afford. We doubt that Jesus raised Lazarus because people four days dead aren’t raised to life. We doubt that Jesus did these miracles or even asserted that he was pre-existent-divinity-creator-of-the-world-come-from-heaven. Read Bart Ehrman’s latest book and the response book.
Our skepticism protects us from the blunt force of the assertions of and about Jesus by the four canonical gospels because if these things are true then we have something to consider. This idea threatens humanity’s lordship over our world just like Jesus’ actions threatened the ruling power of his world. We have an enduring demand to be the top person or at least species over the planet and we will suppress or resist anything that attempts to undermine this.
The Only Thing They All Could Agree Upon Was that Jesus Must be Silenced
While may are skeptical especially about these supernatural assertions about Jesus few, including Ehrman doubt the basic outline of the story itself which must be contended with. In the context of a culture war where you have determined and entrenched adversaries, how could Jesus threaten all of them at the same time sufficiently to help these enemies achieve agreement upon the need for his death? By all accounts of all of the parties the Romans, the group who had the most power and the least knowledge of Jesus were the most reluctant to go along with his execution.
The religious aristocracy who had long enjoyed their position of privilege in the status quo didn’t want Jesus threatening the fragile peace of the city. They feared if Jesus rallied up enough people the Romans would clamp down and take away their power. This would of course happen in 70AD anyway.
The Pharisees represented the soft, cultural resistance to Roman occupation. Why would they want Jesus dead? They saw him as a threat to their power and their agenda. He was religiously observant like they were but refused to comply with the rules they promoted like hand washing, Sabbath observance, and shunning those who failed to comply with their strict observances. In John 9 we see them opposing Jesus after he heals a man born blind on the Sabbath.
Only on the matter of silencing Jesus could Romans, aristocrats and their religiously conservative enemies agree.
The Great Reversal
The dramatic truth about Palm Sunday is how Jesus seems to completely pay into the role of messianic revolutionary only to completely let down that path by the end of the week. If Jesus had the power to raise a man from the dead, if Jesus had the power to still a storm, if Jesus had the power to multiply loaves and fishes then he could make men dead by his thoughts or words, start a storm to stop reinforcing local Roman armies and multiply not only food but gold and treasure to buy a list of allies and secure his political fortunes.
Even if you can’t buy Jesus’ supernatural abilities the events of his last week before his execution were equally counter-productive if his goals were to bring down the aristocracy, the Romans and the conservative religious party of the Pharisees. He could have allowed his disciples to resist in the garden or at least let them be martyrs on his behalf. He could have given Pilate a pretext for releasing him with a beating and then slipped back to his power base in the Galilee. He could have done numerous things, but the actions and words he takes seem to many to be committing suicide by crucifixion.
Fulfilling Isaiah, Just Not In the Way Everyone Thought
Lets play with the idea that Jesus using miraculous power or storm making, money multiplying, death dealing takes over Jerusalem and together with his followers marches to Rome. Jesus as lots of X-Men rolled up into one.
Let’s imagine Jesus doesn’t stop there but as someone even greater than Alexander the Great, marches on to subdue the tribes of Northern Europe. From there he moves on to India, China, even to the Americans visiting the capital cities of the empires of the world, taking power, installing his disciples on these thrones of power, giving all of them his rules like “turn the other cheek” and “love one another” and “be the servant of all”.
Well you of course begin to see the problem. All of these wonderful words would have about the same credibility as “Work Makes Free” on the gate to a concentration camp. If Isaiah is going to be fulfilled this king needs to be a different kind of king than any other king that has ever been. The universe needs to be remade for such a king to be received and the human heart needs to be transformed. Jesus does both.
The Liberality of God
In Luke’s telling of the story the Pharisees want Jesus to shush his disciples. Jesus explains to them that if the people don’t give him is proper welcome into the city even the stones would sing his praise. He is the kind of the world coming into his royal city only to be executed by the tenants of the vineyard.
Why didn’t Jesus just silence his opposition? Why didn’t he just kill them? Why doesn’t God just wade in and stop the bad people and bless the good? I regularly hear the tolerance of God for evil as a reason to assert that God is dead, or imaginary, or doesn’t care or is evil. The irony of course is that we resent God’s liberality towards our enemies but enjoy his liberality towards our rebellions and indulgences for our own welfare and the ones we love. We assert that we are right, know the truth, are full of love and righteousness and that our enemies are evil. We are the judges of the world and we resent that God might have a different opinion. Who then is tolerant?
God through Jesus seeks a longer term, more complete undoing of our rebellion and the age of decay. God understands how deeply we are bound by our bad ideas that it in fact takes more than a better idea to unseat the ones we love. The Christian story says it takes nothing less than the death of the son of God himself for us to have a new start with God and with each other.
The Isaiah passage imagines a love of God and neighbor and God’s creation in freedom, not coercion. Jesus brings peace by his blood on the cross, and brings the renewal and restoration of the glory of the cosmos by his resurrected body. The path that Jesus must take takes us completely by surprise.
Liberal or Progressive?
In the Christian story both themes are found but in different ways.
Jesus invites us to be as liberal as the father.
Matthew 5:43–48 (NET)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? 48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus also invites us into the optimistic future of the world we see in Isaiah 11, but the path to this future is not as the world, including Jesus contemporary friends and enemies imagine. Jesus does not use power as we would or we assume he should. His liberality and progressivism are not so much in tension as in harmony and the difference between them is how and for what he uses power.
Your Well-being At My Expense
Jesus then uses his power not to dominate his enemies but to love them. Progress comes with power used for the flourishing of others. This is never an easy path, always a costly path and seldom a clear and simple path. Jesus will seemingly functionally surrender to his enemies who jeer and enjoy his humiliation, torture and death on the cross. No one in the world could imagine what good could come of this? With him died the messianic hopes of all who imagined him using power to crush his adversaries.
Many will look at Jesus and say “It’s a wonderful story of love and self-sacrifice but it is eventually futile. It’s a nice idea but it will never work.”
His disciples asserted that it in fact did work and that by virtue of his submission and sacrifice he in fact rules the world.
Philippians 2:5–11 (NET)
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
A Roman Catholic blogger after Eich’s resignation threw out the following challenge: “A Gay CEO with Balls Needs to Hire Eich and Halt This Crap” She doubts it will happen, but it might.
Even this piece itself illustrates how we appropriate liberality and subtly use it with our power laden agendas. Might such a statement help bring some peace to our culture wars? Perhaps. If it is done, however, as yet another salvo in our verbal wars doesn’t it simply inflame them further?
Misery-Deliverance-Gratitude offers a better way.
You probably don’t have the power to “win” the culture war you are worried about. While the civil rights movement greatly improved the lives of African Americans did it banish bigotry and racial discrimination? The Civil War freed the slaves but it freed many of them to starve and simply changed the shape of race based bondage in the American South.
This kind of zero-sum game where one side uses power to destroy the other just moves the battle fields around.
Jesus invites us to see the world this way. You can’t beat your enemies, never mind the age of decay.
Jesus, on the cross wins the core victory and by his Spirit this victory continues to shape history. The shape of the cross, however, marks the manner by which the victory normally comes. It comes not so much by power over our adversaries, but by love underneath.
In the end whatever we can do, like a gay CEO hiring Brendan Eich, to keep it from becoming yet another power salvo in our culture war must be done out of gratitude. The good we do we need to do not to triumph over our enemy, not to establish or demonstrate our righteousness, but out of gratitude for the victory that has already been achieved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. If done in this way it actually becomes part of the age to come, part of the celebration of Jesus’ reflection of the Father’s liberality.
How Will You Live On Your Culture War Battlefield?