The Conservative, the Liberal, the One in the Middle

A tumultuous 2016 draws to a close. An uncertain 2017 lies ahead. Time to consider where we’ve been and where we may be going from the vantage point of the three who have defined this political year – radical conservative Donald Trump, the old liberal Bernie Sanders, and the one in the middle – the defeated presumptive front-runner Hillary Clinton.

And introduce three who define the religio-poltico shape of a much earlier era that still resonates today – conservative James brother to Jesus  of Nazareth, liberal Saul of Tarsus, and the war-horse in the middle – St. Peter of Capernaum.

What’s the Comparison?

Comparing three characters of biblical proportion with the trio that have dominated the political headlines of the last couple of years may seem a bit odd – perhaps forced. Bear with me and consider:

  • Of the leaders of the early Christian movement, Jesus’ brother James was a Johnny come lately. James criticizes his brother’s earthly ministry, yet somehow mysteriously ascends to leadership of the Jerusalem church as carefully alluded to by Luke the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. As later recounted by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, James climbed his way into but was then murdered by the establishment aristocracy. Mr. Trump similarly came out of nowhere to overturn the establishment of his party and the political correctness of the two coasts. A wealthy and privileged New Yorker, he yet remains an outsider scrapping his way to anointing as leader of the yet dominant nation on the globe. One difference: James fell to his antagonists while Donald (so far) has prevailed.
  • Yes, Paul was the liberal of his era – breaking the new found Christian movement free of its Jewish moorings. With a message that appealed to a Roman world hungry for authentic rather than tired and ineffectual spirituality. And like his modern counterpart Bernie Sanders, Paul pulled no punches – even advocating that those troublesome followers of James and Peter castrate themselves. The difference is that Paul’s message of a universal Christianity prevailed while Bernie’s socialist crusade has foundered – at least for now.
  • Then we have the front-runners who choked before getting to the finish line – tripping over flaws too big to ignore. As Jesus’ lead disciple, we know about Peter’s impetuous behavior – such as cutting off the ear of an officer come to arrest Jesus. There may have been worse – witness the demise of Ananias and Sapphira at the hands of Peter as the first leader of the post-resurrection church. In the fourth century, church leader John Chrysostom was forced to deny rumors that Peter may have had an active hand at least one of these deaths. While Hillary Clinton may not seem to be so openly brash, think throwing dishes at Bill Clinton over Monica and other trailer trash . Think Whitewater, conducting national business on a personal server, or maybe Vince Foster. Unending, whispered and not-so-whispered rumors.

Definitions

Before going further, it’s time to define the terms of engagement. Webster’s dictionary offers the following definitions for the terms liberal and conservative:

  • Liberal – “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways …”
  • Conservative – “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society …”

In short, the conservative is ever glancing in the rear-view mirror; the liberal looks and acts forward. 

So, What are the Take-Aways?

At first blush, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the determination of whether the conservative, liberal or one in the middle will prevail. Fate seems so fickle, blown about by the moods of the moment combined with the quirks of the respective lead personalities:

  • The reactionary movement of the Donald has carried the day today – although the much earlier conservatism of James lost out despite the familial connection with the anointed one – the Savior.
  • The liberalizing and liberating New Testament theology of Saul (renamed Paul) prevailed because it played to the interests of the Roman populace for a more believable deity than the shopworn gods of the Greeks and Romans. Two millennia later, Bernie’s socialist ideals would play well to millennials feeling betrayed by their elders – but not enough to carry the day (at least not yet).
  • The losers then and now were the middle of the road types – a Peter who vacillated between adhering to Judaism versus opening to Gentiles and a Hillary who has wavered on issues ranging from global trade to support and then opposition to the Iraq war.
  • In ascendant periods, middle of the road types represent continuity combined with the aura of all boats rising together. Think Peter as lead disciple during Jesus’ ministry continuing forward for awhile as leader of the pack once his master had departed the earthly scene. In the U.S., think Eisenhower as the victorious WWII general leading a homogeneous nation during the period of American ascendancy in the 1950s. Or consider Hillary’s precursor in husband Bill as the New Democrat in the wake of the post-Soviet 1990s.

But in uncertain and troubled times, the mood swings to more extreme options. The only question is whether the populist conservative or liberal plays better to the temper of our times. For Christianity, liberality won out because it played to a much larger market – the whole Roman empire, not just one isolated province. In 2016, the reactionary (but not fully traditional) conservative solution won out because the populace found itself betrayed by the patronizing liberalism of two Obama administrations. As many working class Americans and millennials have perceived. the emperor is wearing no clothes.

In the End, Liberalism Wins

Does the example of Paul or that of Mr. Trump better represent likely long-term outcomes? For all of the arrogance and independent of any theological truth, the Pauls of this world always win out in the end. Inclusion beats parochial self-interest. Serving the common good is better politics than propping up the cultural and economic elites. And despite twists and turns along the way, the world of today is better than that of renaissance Europe,the Greco-Roman empires or even earlier civilizations whether on the scale of the Egyptians or nomadic tribes from Africa to the Americas.

For better or worse, there are two reasons why liberals inevitably beat out their more conservative counterparts:

  • The first reason is empirical. Despite jarring cyclical swings between liberality and retrenchment, the long-term march is upward – toward the ever-beckoning city on a hill. The world is a better place to live today than at any time in recorded human history. And so long as we survive our own suicidal tendencies, life 100 years from now will be even better than today.
  • The second reason is spiritual. The divine embodies the discordant mix of mercy and judgment. Individually and culturally, we are responsible for our actions. But in the end, mercy trumps judgment. And as Jesus would say: “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

If this view is correct, President-elect Trump’s victory may be short-lived. For us conservatives, now is the time for some thorough house-cleaning. Whether or not Mr. Trump is the man for the job remains to be seen.

Without fail, liberalism will live to again carry the day. This will happen when liberals regroup to again embrace rather than patronize the needs, the preferences, the aspirations of all humanity – not just the imperatives of like minded elites.

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Brexit, Jesus & the American Presidency

Well, the Brits have done it. A catastrophic defeat for arrogant capitalism run amok. A victory for the mediocrity of parochial socialism on the peasants’ march through western civilization.

A time to grieve for what is being lost – and for the world ahead. So, what would Jesus say?

Jesus’ Response to Grief

Prior to his crucifixion, there are three rather instructive instances that the New Testament records of Jesus’ response to overwhelming grief:

  • At the death of his friend Lazarus when “Jesus wept” – not because his friend was no longer living but rather because family and friends could not conceive there was a stronger power at hand with the capacity to overcome catastrophe, even death.
  • Despondency over the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem – with Jesus again weeping as he laments over God’s city as a place that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” Jesus longs to gather the children of the city together, “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Jesus peers just 40 years into the future, a time when “your house is left to you desolate” – the legacy of insurrection against Rome as imperial power and of interminable squabbling within the indigenous Jewish community. 
  • In a garden where Jesus begs Father God for a path other than death by crucifixion – sweating blood even as he prays that his supreme commander would “take this cup away from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.”

A Brexit Connection?

So, what causes Jesus to grieve? Three things: lack of community vision, in-fighting that precludes thoughtful solutions, and commitment to stay the course.

Why did Brits choose to leave the EU? No more tolerance for a common good extending beyond the borders of the isle, in-attentiveness of the ruling elite to the exigencies of everyday life, and frustration strong enough to cast aside 40+ years of trying to make the marriage work.

American Application

As the apparent standard bearers of their respective parties, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton (also non-conceding Bernie Sanders) seem likewise ready to raise the drawbridge and walk from the global community. To withdraw from an America known as the “shining city on a hill” into a survivalist fortress of the fittest. From a country that would take your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to “throw the rascals out.” From a planet where all boats rise together to “beggar thy neighbor.”

We will all be poorer, more self-centered, and broken as a result. And the sad thing is, there is no leadership left to articulate the vision of a better future yet within our grasp – but only as we prove ourselves individually and collectively willing to reach for each other.

Within the lifetime of many who traveled with Gods’ designated representative on earth. Rome razed Jerusalem to the ground. Would Father or Son lift a finger to save those who did themselves in with their own arrogance, hubris, and festering hatreds?

No way! For as Jesus would say: “Physician, heal thyself.”

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Jesus & New York Values

Ted Cruz lit the fuse back in January when he criticized the “New York values” of his campaign adversary Donald Trump. Since then, everyone who is anyone has piled on – exposing the widening chasm between urban versus suburban, exurban and rural perspectives on America.

Despite protestations, all of our candidates evidence traces of this American urban/rural dichotomy:

  • The son of a Cuban immigrant, Ted Cruz was raised a Texan but left for the elite meritocracies of Princeton and Harvard; wife Heidi has worked for JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs – all New York based Wall Street firms.
  • Born in Queens, counterpart Donald Trump epitomizes the wealthy New Yorker, stepping out for just two years to get educated at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Finance.
  • Like the Donald, Bernie Sanders was born a New Yorker, raised in Brooklyn, then ventured to Chicago and Israel before settling in Burlington, the largest city in the otherwise rural state of Vermont.
  • Hilary Clinton was born in Chicago, grew up in suburban Park Ridge Illinois, escaped for the more rarified worlds of Wellesley and Yale, went to Washington DC and then further south to Arkansas before returning to Washington and ultimately to New York as U.S. Senator from her newly adopted state.
  • The outsider of the group, John Kasich was born and raised near Pittsburgh, graduated from Ohio State University – but did burnish his “inside the beltway” credentials with 18 years in Congress including six years as House Budget Committee chair, before a private sector stint with Lehman Brothers and then currently as governor of Ohio.governorship.

With the departure of the man termed by The Donald as “lyin’ Ted Cruz” followed by dark horse Kasich, it appears that New York values trump all. Which specific New York values prevail – the in-your-face brashness of Trump, the socialism of The Bern, or the Wall Street coziness of Hilary – all remain to be seen.

Jesus & New York Values

Strange as it may seem, we have been here before. The conflict between rural and urban has animated humanity since the earliest days of civilization. And this interplay is nowhere as evident as with one Jesus of Nazareth. The questions posed here are two-fold:

Did Jesus embody rural (Galilean) or urban (Jerusalem) values?

And what message does the experience of 2,000 years past possibly convey today? 

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. The Galileans of Jesus day were the uneducated, poor working classes of Palestine – lorded over by Judeans and Romans alike. And Jesus’ home town was particularly insignificant. As John’s gospel records, one of the earliest disciples Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One whom the prophets foretold—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel responds dismissively with the rhetorical question: “Can anything good come from Nazaraeth?” Like any good Missourian of today, Philip is ready with the simple come-back: “Come and see.”

But let’s retreat back just another century or so in history. With the Maccabees successful revolt against foreign domination, the largely unsettled region of the Galilee was quickly repopulated. Much as  the rural kittbutzim of the 20th century served to secure the viability of the modern Israeli state, so the initiative to rebuild a self-sustaining economy prompted the re-settlement of urban Judeans to the countryside in the century before Christ as a means to make the deserts and marshes of the Galilee bloom again.

The available evidence suggests that, while perhaps disparaged by their urban counterparts, the Galilean settlers were a surprisingly educated, certainly religious, perhaps even sophisticated group. And the evidence is that Jesus knew how to mix it up in both worlds. Consider that:

  • His (step) father Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, next door to Jerusalem; tradition is that the Garden of Gethsemane may have been owned by Jesus’ mother’s family.
  • At the mere age of 12, young Jesus engagedwith the teachers in the Temple – and those who interacted with the boy were “astonished at His understanding and answers.”
  • As an adult, Jesus was equally at home with the poor, the dispossessed and working classes of the Galilean villages as with the elites of the Jewish capital.
  • Even when on trial for his earthly life, he could confound an Idumean king, a Jewish high priest, and a Roman governor.
  • And the gospel writer John (possibly Jesus’ cousin), finds privileged access to the Herodian household even as Jesus finds himself inexorably led toward death by crucifixion – a disciple “known to the high priest” … who went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest as sidekick Peter was forced to remain temporarily outside the door.

The Aftermath

Even as he faced his own untimely demise, Jesus would lament over the fate of his adopted city:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”

The destruction of the urban capital would be delayed beyond Jesus’ earthly sojourn by nearly two generations. But the destruction would come – a remarkable calamity for all. The leaders of the Jewish revolt and final defenders of the City before its destruction in 70 AD were the Zealots from out of the Galilee. While battling the Roman besiegers, within the City walls they were simultaneously executing the religious and political elites – even burning the graineries as added incentive for those still alive to fight for life. Meanwhile, their urban revolutionary counterparts – the Sicarii – fled the city to die via mass suicide at the desert fortress of Masada.

The Last Word

Today, the upper hand remains with the elites of the Big Apple – as disparate as they are. However, history suggests that in the end it is the folks of the hinterland that carry the day. Slow to anger, but with a fury not easily abated when finally aroused.

New York values may carry the day in 2016. But if the underlying frustration and anger of the electorate is not satisfied by this election, watch out! The fuse has been lit; if and when the explosion occurs for marginalized America is still anyone’s guess.

More: A Sampling of Recent Candidate Views on New York Values:

Exchange with Ted Cruz (January  2016):

MARIA BARTIROMO (Fox News): “Senator Cruz, you suggested Mr. Trump, quote, ’embodies New York values.’ Could you explain what you mean by that?”

CRUZ: “You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.”

Donald Trump (sometime long before 2016): “I’ve lived in New York City and Manhattan all my life. So, you know, my views are a little different than if I lived in Iowa — perhaps.”

Bernie Sanders (on the Nightly Show April 2016): “That’s right, it’s me, Bernie ‘Brooklyn Born’ Sanders, and guess what, Ted Cruz? I have New York values. I value a living wage for all Americans. I value a justice system that treats everyone fairly. I value a government which works for all of us, not just Wall Street and powerful special interests. Those are New York values.”

And in the closing remarks from the April 14 debate with the Bern just ahead of the state primary, Hilary Clinton was asking for the support of voters in her adopted state so she can take “New York values to the White House.”

From John Kasich: “I’ll tell you the way I see New York values: It’s excitement, it’s innovation, it’s fun, it’s big-time living.” And then the comparison with Ted Cruz and his views via TV ad: “Ted Cruz divides to get a vote, John Kasich unites to get things done.” (But no matter, both Ted and John are now out of the game).

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To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com.