Last week, one ofAmerica’s most notorious rats departed from the Earth. Perhaps with the exception of that of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, there was no other snitch with whose name Americans were more familiar than that of “Henry Hill.”
Unlike Gravano—who, being the right-hand henchman of the now deceased mafia star, John Gotti, achieved a place of distinction in the annals of organized thugdom—Hill was never more than a low-ranking mob “associate.” But although during his life in organized crime the latter never achieved either the power or the recognition attained by the former, Hollywoodassured Hill a post-mob existence ridden with the awe that he failed to elicit from other vermin.
Martin Scorcese’s film Good Fellas catapulted Hill into the national limelight. He became a sought after guest for a number of tabloid television programs and a frequent quest on Howard Stern’s radio show. In the years immediately prior to his death, he even authored a cook book.
Had Hill genuinely repented of his past transgressions; had he exploited his newly found popularity to wage a campaign against the underworld of which he had once been a member; had he tirelessly spoken out against the moral and aesthetic shallowness that informs Hollywood’s efforts to romanticize the wastes of sperm in whose image he spent much of his life shaping his own identity—then he would have been a worthy candidate for forgiveness.
But Hill, like Gravano and the legions of other rats that turned state witnesses for no other reason than to save their own asses, failed abysmally to make amends with God and the society that they undercut at every turn.
The same narcissism that animated Hill’s conduct while in the mob accounts for his decision to cooperate with the authorities in sending his friends to prison for the remainder of their natural existences. It is also this narcissism that explains the crass opportunism that Hill exhibited during his post-mob days.
The Godly and the good are obliged to renounce evil. They have no option but to call it out for what it is regardless of where it rears its hideous head. Men like Hill—gangsters and criminals—we must be willing to recognize for the specimens of villainy that they are. At the same time, we should be just as willing—just as eager—to draw attention to the exemplars of virtue in our midst.
One such exemplar is Guardian Angel founder and radio talk show host Curtis Sliwa.
For over thirty years, Sliwa has helped untold numbers of people from across the country and throughout the planet combat crime in their communities by organizing themselves into citizen patrol squads. He has not only been remarkably successful; in start contrast to the Henry Hills of the world, Sliwa has used his fame for the purpose of identifying—and stopping—the wicked amongst us.
The man is as courageous as his campaign against evil doers is indefatigable.
During the summer of 1992, in response to the relentless criticism that Sliwa would heap upon the organized criminal network of his nativeNew York City, and the Gambino family particularly, Gottis father and son arranged to have him beaten by several men with baseball bats.
Sliwa took the beating. But he also returned promptly to his job on the radio where he returned fire with a vengeance.
A few months later, the Gottis struck again. This time, though, they went in for the kill.
One night Sliwa hailed a cab. Unbeknownst to him, the driver was a hit man. At nearly point-blank range, he shot Sliwa five times. During the mayhem, the latter managed to wiggle his way out of the passenger’s window as the car was moving.
Sliwa not only survived this attempt on his life. The very next day, from his hospital bed, Sliwa was back on the airwaves going at the Gottis with everything he had.
Years later, when Junior Gotti was on trial for all manner of criminal wrongdoing, including attempted murder vis-à-vis Sliwa, the crime buster reassured the media and his listeners of his plan to “get in his [Gotti’s] face” as much as possible.
The fight against evil requires not only that we repudiate the treacherous. It requires as well that we affirm the heroic.
Sadly, we should not expectHollywoodto follow this lead anytime soon. Hundreds of more films will be made lionizing rats and other parasites before anyone will dare to propose, let alone produce, a big budget film depicting the exploits of real men like Curtis Sliwa.
Many distinguished, even brilliant thinkers, both past and present, have championed the doctrine of “natural rights” (more commonly referred to nowadays as “human rights).” Without doubt, largely thanks to its enshrinement in America’s Declaration of Independence, it remains our public political philosophy.
According to the creed, all human beings, simply by virtue of their humanity, possess the very same “rights.” While these “rights” have been variously described, traditionally they have been held to consist of claims to such basic goods as life, liberty, property, and maybe “the pursuit of happiness.”
Since these “rights” are “natural” or “human,” they transcend all individuating circumstances. “Rights” owe nothing to culture, say, or history—an idea at one time conveyed through the fictive concept of “the state of nature.” The latter refers to life prior to the formation of political society.
Although rights theorists disagreed with one another over what life was supposedly like in it, they all agreed that it was for the sake of relieving themselves of the unqualified character of human conduct in the state of nature that individuals leave it and join together to form a state.
That is, according to the classical rights theorists, the state comes into being as a means of qualifying conduct. Two of the most salient characteristics of a state are, first, an office in which all authority is thought to reside and, secondly, a mechanism of power attached to this authority.
A common authority—one to which all members of the state are bound—is responsible for both establishing the terms in which the conduct of citizens is to be qualified as well as enforcing these terms. It is for the sake of fulfilling these functions that individuals give rise to government.
This is crucial, for even by the lights of the great rights theorists their own theories cannot be sustained. There is no incompatibility between the idea of “natural rights” and the idea of life beyond the state of nature. However, there is indeed radical incompatibility between the idea that the state exists for the sake of protecting “natural rights” and the nature of political life.
To put it more simply, natural rights are unqualified in character. Yet it is precisely for the purpose of qualifying this unqualified situation—the state of nature—that the state was brought into being. Life under government is the antithesis of life in a state of nature, in other words, because in the former, citizens’ conduct is conditioned by laws. In the latter, without a common authority (or, what amounts to the same thing, a commonly recognized authority), there is no law.
The laws under which we live in political society are duties, first and foremost. Rights can be read from them, for sure, but it is important to grasp that every individual’s right to such-and-such is simply the duty of each and every other person not to interfere with their exercise of it. And even then, these “rights” are not “natural” or “human.” Rather, they are culturally-specific acquisitions that derive their meaning from the complex of duties within which they are found. (This explains why neither in the Constitution, the common law, nor legislative law is there to be discerned any references to the abstraction of “natural rights.”)
There may very well be “natural rights.” Yet talk of them, while rhetorically effective, is philosophically problematic and politically useless.
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.
Recently, while discussing topics in the philosophy of religion during my introductory course in philosophy, a student claimed that Jesus was “a rebel.” Although this judgment of hers is not without some truth, it is decidedly false in the sense in which I am sure she intended for it to be taken.
The idea that Jesus was a rebel or radical is certainly an improvement over the “meek and mild” Jesus of the popular imagination. The latter is a neutered Jesus, a Jesus that functions as a blank screen upon which anyone and everyone can project his theological, moral, and political idiosyncrasies. The former, in contrast, is a being with passion and conviction. Also, this reading of Jesus at least has some grounding in the Biblical text.
Still, in the sense in which it is commonly used, the sense in which my student used it, the image of Jesus as rebel is as much of a fiction as is that of Jesus meek and mild.
Many contemporary New Testament scholars have labored hard to promote this depiction of Jesus as a radical or rebel. While I lack their professional expertise, as a Christian, I can confidently reject their reading of the Scriptures.
The problem with the words “rebel” and “radical” lies in their connotations. More often than not, they are explicitly political. And even when they aren’t explicitly political, they are implicitly as much, for they suggest a figure whose critical eye is forever set upon a culture.
Those scholars and laypersons who are fond of referring to Jesus as “a rebel” or “radical” know this. This is why they do it.
By casting Jesus as a “radical,” those students of the Bible whose sympathies lie with the politics of the left—i.e. most of those who characterize Jesus as a “radical”—hope to link Him with their own ideological causes and commitments. For example, Jesus, they say, was a champion of “social justice.” Those who do not consciously subscribe to leftist politics, on the other hand, have their own reasons for seeing Jesus as a “radical”: they want their Christianity—and, thus, their Christ—to have political relevance.
In any case, if we insist on viewing Jesus as a rebel, then we must be clear as to what He was and was not rebelling against.
Jesus was not an “anti-imperialist” rebelling against imperial Rome. Nor was He an “egalitarian” interested in “deconstructing” those “social structures” designed to perpetuate “asymmetries” of “power” between “the haves” and “the have nots.” Jesus was not in the least concerned with dismantling “patriarchy” or “classism.”
If Jesus was a rebel, it was against sin or evil that he railed.
To put this point another way, any portrait of Jesus that isn’t theological is not a portrait of Jesus.
Only in light of Jesus’ cosmic vocation do both the Gospels as well as the rise of Christianity become intelligible.
Jesus did indeed want to change the world—but one heart at a time. For utopian political schemes of the sort that were all too common during His day—and ours—Jesus had no use. Not only did He repudiate those who envisioned the Messiah as a figure who would wrest all power away from Rome and restore Israel to some idyllic condition. Jesus said remarkably little about Rome at all, and what He did say wasn’t remotely subversive, or even angry.
Recall that when Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, He did not first demand of Him that the soldier relinquish his duties. He praised the centurion for his faith. He criticized neither the centurion nor the Roman Empire of which he was an agent.
In fact, unlike—radically unlike—those contemporary leftist activists who style themselves inheritors of a prophetic tradition of advocating on behalf of the oppressed and subjugated, Jesus was not infrequently as harsh with His most devoted disciples as He was His enemies within the Jewish ruling class. But I suppose that this is the point: Jesus had disciples; today’s activists have constituents.
Jesus never would have permitted—never did permit—His disciples to invoke their poverty or their condition of living under Roman occupation (or the occupation of any foreign power) as justification for impiety—much less the sorts of egregious conduct that many of today’s “poor” engage in and for which they are excused by their self-appointed champions.
No, Jesus was no radical or rebel. He was not a visionary or champion of “social justice.” He wasn’t interested in dissolving all class distinctions and ushering in a property-less Eden on Earth.
Jesus was the Son of God. He was interested first and foremost in prevailing over sin and evil, through violence, yes, but the violence that He would permit to be inflicted upon Himself.
Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said. He became one of us so that He could redeem humanity and transform us into the adopted sons and daughters of God the Father.
No other understanding of Jesus is adequate.