Shared responsibility, collective action, and intergenerational justice are core Biblical values. Certainly, moral concern for the least among us is as Christian as it gets. It’s strange how even most ‘conservative’ Christians, at least among American white Protestants, have come to embrace hyper-individualism such that they no longer recognize what traditional values look like.
It’s no accident that Black Lives Matter embraces this old time religion, as did the earlier Civil Rights movement. Blacks have higher religiosity rates than even conservative whites and, in a sense, take their religiosity more seriously as applied to their communities. American blacks have for centuries been steeped in the Biblical language of intergenerational justice, on earth as it is in heaven — the Promised Land!
This is one of the many ways that progressivism, liberalism, and leftism are more similar to premodern traditionalism. Conservatives, as reactionaries, are typically more concerned with the nostalgia of revisionist history and invented traditions; more than they are concerned with closely adhering to the actual traditional views and practices of the past. Reactionaries will attack all things leftist, even when they’re Biblically-based.
Still, among American whites who self-identify as conservative Christians, some do understand and so uphold the ancient commandment that the sins of our fathers (and mothers) do fall upon us, we the living generation. This is true of David Platt, “a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C.”
Platt has been preaching, as Jesus did, that we are morally responsible to others. But worse of all, along with pastor Mike Kelsey of the same church, he joined a Christian BLM march. The right-wing members of that church have lodged complaints and even sought state intervention into church affairs. These critics, however, don’t have the Bible on their side; even as they claim sola scriptura as their defense of conservative values. Platt stated:
“A disparity exists. We can’t deny this. These are not opinions—they’re facts. It matters in our country whether one is white or black. Now, we don’t want it to matter, which is why I think we try to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. We think to ourselves, “I don’t hold prejudices toward black or white people, so racism is not my problem.” But this is where we need to see that racialization is our problem. It’s all of our problem. We subtly, almost unknowingly, contribute to it.”
We are responsible because we’ve inherited the privileges and oppressions, the benefits and harms. All of it is built into our social order and our institutions, including our churches, not to mention unconsciously internalized within our psyches and behavior (sins burned into our souls). We should act to make right what was done wrong simply because it is in our power to do so. And, if one is a Christian, one should also do it because God has commanded one to do it. The moral arc may eventually bend toward justice, one way or another, but we can align ourselves with moral righteousness and divine law or oppose it.
Of course, this can be understood in purely secular terms, as many of us do on the political left. But it is true that most Americans on the political left also were raised as Christians and still identify as Christians. It remains a largely Christian society all across the political spectrum. There might be a reason most younger Christians prefer the ‘progressive’ label. Maybe Christianity is finally returning to its Biblical roots.
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This is an ongoing line of thought in this blog. There is something odd about the reactionary mind, particularly in its ability to co-opt anything (along with its ability to dismiss anything, so as to eliminate and erase what is inconvenient). That appears to be a defining feature of reaction. It’s not defined in and of itself but by what it opposes and excludes. And this antagonistic impulse defines everything about the reactionary mind.
This creates much confusion. The reactionary isn’t exactly or simplistically ideological in the conventional sense, although definitely ideological in the Althusserian leftist sense. The only core idea underlying it all is a demand for division and that always includes some form of rigid and entrenched hierarchy, either as already existing or as an aspiration (Corey Robin writes about this). It’s opposition to traditionalism is on this level for it has historically sought to replace traditional social order.
Yet conservatism, as a reactionary phenomenon, requires the legitimacy stolen from traditionalism. It does this by usurping the role of traditionalism, like fairies stealing human children by replacing them with fairies, or like a spectral cuckoo bird laying its eggs in the soft nesting material of the mind. So, it’s a form of indoctrination that gets people to internalize an alien and alienating ideology as a socio-cultural identity, to disconnect the dividual from lived somatic experience (related to Morris Berman’s thoughts in Coming to Our Senses).
This is far different from the organic ground-up development of traditionalism over centuries or millennia. Reactionary conservatism, instead, is an immediate response to a sense of existential crisis and societal breakdown. Yet it demands an appearance of continuity, in order to hide its true nature of reaction. This is because, in essence, it’s much more of a product of modernity than it would like to admit (see Karen Armstrong’s argument for fundamentalism as modern and often pseudo-scientific, whereas traditional religion often interpreted scripture less literally; i.e., more symbolically and imaginalistically).
The obfuscation and erasure of the past, of ancient tradition and intergenerational memory, of living organic culture. But, even if this impulse didn’t gain its full reactionary force until the modern age, an early form of it first appeared in the Axial Age (e.g., Plato as proto-reactionary). Much of this has to do with the living word of archaic authorization being replaced by literary scripture. Probably why this shows up in Protestantism to such an extent is because that is the first religion that embraced mass literacy, which of course happened in recent centuries.
Still, there is obviously something more to it than literacy, in spite of its key role. Consider the political left, specifically liberalism. Liberals probably have higher literacy rates than Protestants, along with a greater immersion in the literary experience of higher education and high culture. Yet liberalism, in being less reactionary, can be more accommodating to traditionalism by way of multiculturalism. This is also true in liberalism being able to tolerate conservatism in a way that conservatism can’t offer in return. Within the reactionary mind, there is a totalizing impetus. This is why conservatives typically espouse ideological realism in denying their own ideology is an ideology.
So, a reactionary conservative can never fully acknowledge as real or true that is different from their ideology. That would be involved with why they can’t respect traditionalism on its own terms but must force the idea of ‘traditionalism’ to serve non-traditional agendas and interests. The past can never merely be the past, within the reactionary mind. If a liberal opposes something about the past, they are open about it without quibbling (e.g., slavery). A reactionary-conservative, on the other hand, constantly dances around issues like historical racism. The essential potency of the reactionary mind is contained within what is hidden behind symbolic proxies. Traditionalism often serves this role of empty rhetoric, of scripted and staged culture war.
That said, all of modernity is reactionary to a large extent. One might go so far as to assert that the reactionary or the potential for it is inherent to post-bicameral consciousness, divided as it is against itself. So, yes, liberals too have the potential for becoming reactionary. The difference is that what we call a liberal is simply someone who doesn’t tend toward the reactionary, doesn’t fall into it as easily or strongly, and certainly doesn’t become stuck in it as their default mode. But the longer one remains within the reactionary attitude the more one will express the attributes of the reactionary mind:
Ideological realism, limited (or tightly scripted) moral imagination, restricted/narrow circle of empathy, tribalism (or rather pseudo-tribalism), groupthink, social conservatism (doesn’t necessarily or simplistically apply to economics), bigotry, chauvinism, xenophobia, hyper-patriotism, hyper-individualism, thick boundaries of ego-mind, divisiveness, dualistic thinking, dogmatism, symbolic literalism, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, social Darwinism, elitism, inegalitarianism, stress, fear, anxiety, paranoia, purity-mindedness, etc. And, at the furthest extremes and in the most malignant form, there is the Dark Tetrad that overlaps much with the reactionary: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.
One might note it is easier to get a liberal to become a conservative than the other way around. All that is required is continuous stress. Basically, one might argue, the reactionary is simply the unhealed traumatic scarring of stress overload. And in a highly dysfunctional and anxious society of high inequality, such as the United States, it’s not uncommon for Dr. Jekyll liberals and leftists to become Mr. Hyde conservatives and right-wingers. On a practical level, nearly everyone in the modern world is somewhere on the scale of the reactionary; all the more reason to respond with non-reactionary empathy and compassion.
Sadly. Amidst all the schizogenetic soul sickness, it admittedly is hard for traditionalism to be meaningfully appreciated. So, something like inter-generational justice becomes simply another political battlefield. If an Old Testament prophet or Jesus himself returned from the dead to preach a jeremiad about American moral failure, I’m fairly sure few conservative Christians would hear his words, much less heed them.
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There is one major difficulty in all of this. Reactionaries, by nature, are chameleons. So, they can say or do something that completely contradicts what they’ve said or done before. And, if you try to pin them down, they might shapeshift on you. Just as they sometimes claim to be traditionalists they’ll also claim to be classical liberals, the real or original liberals, but at the same time they’ll assert they are conservatives and only those who agree with them are conservative. They can co-opt anything and everything. Making generalizations about them is fraught from the get-go.
One may make a convincing argument that reactionaries, in general, don’t grasp what traditionalism is all about. But that isn’t to say they won’t pick up pieces of traditionalism as convenient. And no doubt they are great mimics. It might not always be clear when one is dealing with a reactionary, at least not at first. But they eventually give the game away, if you’re paying close enough attention. The contradictions tend to become apparent quite quickly.
As the penultimate expression of schizoid modernity, the reactionary mind tends to operate in a state of unawareness. That is important to keep in mind. It’s not necessarily that those afflicted are necessarily being duplicitous and deceptive but that they genuinely can’t understand themselves or the reality tunnel they are trapped within. This is because their worldview and identity is defined by what they are reacting against, not defined by any principled beliefs and consistent ideas.
Words can take on a loose and shifting sense within the reactionary mind. Most conservatives, as reactionaries, may call themselves ‘traditionalists’ with total conviction and still not grasp what it means. Few modern people have ever had much, if any, experience of a traditional culture. That is because America, even in the colonial era, was never a traditional society. This social order and sociopolitical system is a modern invention of Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries. The traditionalist label simply becomes yet more rhetoric to be lobbed about.
Within this state of confusion, it’s not all that clear what reactionaries do or do not understand. If forced to be honest, most reactionaries on some level probably do get what is inter-generational justice and that it’s an ancient value, specifically within the Abrahamic tradition. But, like so many other moderns, they simultaneously know and don’t know many things. When it is self-serving (in applying to themselves or to those they identify with), they will strongly embrace intergenerational justice.
There are conservatives who still hold a grudge about the perceived injustice of how Southern whites were treated after the Civil War, as part of the Lost Cause mythos. And many reactionaries, mostly on the right but also some on the left, believe that inter-generational justice is a moral rationalization for Zionist Jews oppressing, persecuting, and killing Palestinians (mostly children) while stealing their land — all in the name of settler colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. For claims of such justice, blacks and Palestinians (or other low status groups) need not apply. This is inter-generational justice for me and mine but none for thee. The hypocrisy of it goes over their head.
That is a defining feature of the reactionary mind. Any of us who falls under the sway of this mentality is, for all intents and purposes, a reactionary. None of us is immune. The difference, though, for most of us is that, even if we temporarily go reactionary, we can pull ourselves out of that state and realize that isn’t a state we want to be permanently in. To be a reactionary proper is to lose the capacity to be anything else. It fully becomes one’s sense of self and reality. When that happens, one goes from one reaction to another. Listen to the constant fear-mongering of right-wing media and you’ll get an intuitive sense of what it would feel like to live in that worldview all the time.
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But on the core issues of American racism, Platt is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These “conservatives” have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold.
To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)
Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?”
The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.”
Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture. I’ve referred to it before. In the book of 2 Kings, Josiah “tore his clothes” and “wept” when the high priest found the Book of the Law neglected in the temple. Why? Josiah said, “because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”
Josiah was far from alone. Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.”
The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.
Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all. […]
So how is a Christian to respond? First, let’s go back to scripture and recognize that the obligation to “act justly” is intergenerational. If there is injustice that predates our personal power, it is still our obligation to do what we can to set it right. Second, when you see these racist structures at work, you recognize that you need sociology, history, and economics to help understand not just their reality, but their remedy.
“Sola scriptura” doesn’t tell us how we should zone our communities, district our schools, or protect civil rights. Indeed, there’s an entire Christian doctrine of common grace that teaches us that truth can come from many sources. Even those “conservatives” who resist David Platt likely understand this in their daily lives. Is it the case that we can rely on non-Christian wisdom in, say, military strategy, trade policy, and law enforcement tactics, but when trying to untangle the effects of centuries of racial oppression, the Bible alone will be our guide?
Now for a note about conservatism. I simply don’t grant that the dissenters’ objections to Platt are “conservative.” Right-wing, yes. Conservative? I object. Years ago, my friend Rod Dreher wrote that “the business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.”
I love that framing. Applied to race, it means that when we discern “the world as it is” (complete with understanding the structures that racists built) the policies a conservative might propose will be different than those of a progressive, in part because conservatives often (but not always) have a different view of human nature and human frailty than their friends on the left.
In other words, a conservative might have a different conception of “what works.” Progressive-dominated institutions haven’t cracked the code. Can conservative ideas do any better?