Jesus was no “radical.”
To this claim of mine, several thoughtful responses have been in the coming. My friend and writer, the always perceptive Ilana Mercer, lead the charge (you can see some of this exchange here: http://barelyablog.com/?p=52564). Jesus was indeed a “radical,” Mercer asserted. He was also a man of “genius” and “courage” whose qualities place Him squarely within an extensive, rich prophetic tradition. Most of Ilana’s fans who contributed to this discussion, by and large, shared her judgment.
Originally, the contention against which I argued is the prevailing consensus among contemporary Biblical scholars that Jesus—the “Historical” Jesus—was a “radical,” “rebel,” or “revolutionary.” In the hands of these “political-theologians,” as Burke referred to the radicals and revolutionaries inFrance, these terms are loaded with specific connotations.
The vast majority of those who claim to have excavated from the accretions of Christian theological embellishment a Jesus who sought to subvert “the structures of power” of his society have substituted for the Christ of traditional Christian faith a Jesus made in the image of their own leftist politics. Against this move, I claimed that Jesus was not a radical social egalitarian who never made any claims to divinity. And He did not aspire to usher in a utopian age in which the old system of power and property would be razed.
In short, it was always cosmic justice—not social justice—with which Jesus was first and foremost concerned.
This, in turn, is but another way of saying that unless we read Him in the theological terms in which He described Himself, He will forever elude us.
Some people accused me of constructing a Jesus of my own, a Jesus who I could conscript into the service of “right-wing” or conservative politics. They couldn’t be more mistaken: my whole point is not that Jesus wasn’t a first century political radical; my point is that He wasn’t political at all—at least not in our sense of that term.
It is, of course, correct that the distinction between politics and theology or religion to which we have grown accustomed was nonexistent in Jesus’ culture. Yet this is all the more reason to resist the impulse to anachronistically characterize Him in the political terms that define our world.
A political radical is the sort of figure for whom conservatives in the tradition of Burke have utter contempt. Inasmuch as he suffers from the character defects of impatience and intemperance, the radical is vicious. These vices in turn lead him to advocate tirelessly on behalf of revolutionary change, change that consists, not of reform, but of destruction. The radical desires nothing less than to “fundamentally transform” the institutional arrangements of his society.
Jesus, in stark contrast, looked not to “abolish the [Mosaic] law, but to fulfill it.” Having mastered the language of His Jewish tradition, He sought to draw the attention of both his contemporaries and opponents to the fact that it was pregnant with a plethora of possibilities of which they were forgetful. This is particularly illuminating for present purposes: Jesus, unlike the radical, did not disdain the past. Quite the contrary: He constantly drew on His people’s rich and richly diverse history in order to connect their past with their present and their future.
In reality, even the most immoderate of radicals is as incapable of emancipating himself from the cultural traditions in which he has been reared as he is incapable of liberating himself from his first language. But the radical likes to believe otherwise.
The Black Nationalist is one telling illustration of this self-delusional conceit. He judges America and the whole Western world to be incorrigibly “racist” to the core, fundamentally beyond the possibility of redemption—as long as the current “system” stands. The so-called “gender feminist” is another example: the gender feminist thinks that Western civilization is so ridden with “patriarchy” and “sexism” that nothing less than a systemic and systematic dismantling of its institutions is called for if women are ever to gain “equality” with men.
I could continue ad infinitum adding to this list of examples of radical thought. It would be a superfluous exercise, however, because the radical is a well known character to all of us.
What should be equally clear, by now, is that, as I said initially, Jesus was no radical.