Once upon a time, when Christians were not concerned about getting their hands on the mantle of power in the Roman Senate, they were a radically conservative people. That is, they were “radicals” because they were deeply “conservative”: they were “conservative” in that they sought to conserve basic Christian beliefs and practices, such as the Lordship of Jesus, the claim of the resurrection of the dead, and the public significance of the church as a community that provided an alternative socio-political witness in the world.
They were “radical” in that this sort of conservatism had profound, and often objectionable, social implications: they refused to wage war for Lord Caesar, because Lord Jesus had commanded them to love their enemies. They critiqued the violence of Roman culture and the amphitheater; after all, the resurrection had vindicated the way of suffering love. They decided that the best response to the sexist and patriarchal practice of infanticide—in which baby boys were esteemed of greater worth than baby girls, resulting in the horrific practice of baby girls being left outside, untended, to die of exposure—was to take the babies into their own homes; their conservative conviction about a hospitable God could not permit them to do otherwise. It was their alternative common life—not grasping after imperialist power—which provided a profound mechanism for social change.
Another way to put this is that they embodied an orthodox liberalism. They were “orthodox”—a word which simply means to conform to what is generally accepted as right within a given tradition. That is, they were not playing fast and loose with the theological claims they had inherited. But what had they had inherited was, from another perspective, altogether “liberal”—a word which means a willingness to discard certain traditional values or commitments, or to honor individual freedoms, or to be generous in one’s approach to life.
The early Christians were undoubtedly “liberal” in important senses: after all, the ancient world held certain strict categories of hierarchy, of who was in and who was out. These early Christians were shockingly liberal in refusing to impose such categories and moralisms. Because these Christians had orthodox beliefs about this Jesus who went out and about among rich and poor, among imperialists and revolutionaries, among men and women—and because in the experience of the early church, their Holy Spirit kept breaking down barriers of who was in and out—they sought to do the same. It was an orthodoxy that led to a particular form of liberalism. They were liberal in these ways not in spite of their orthodoxy; they were liberal in these ways because of their orthodoxy.
The New Testament—more particularly, the teaching of the Apostle Paul—had another radical claim. That our enemies are not “flesh and blood.” That is, we must not simplistically think that our enemies are other humans. Instead, the great enemy is the sort of power that serves up alienation, hostility, and contempt. It is the mechanisms of hostility themselves which are the real enemy. The real enemies are not those that the mechanisms of hostility tell us are our enemies.
And yet even if we do get convinced that another person or people-group is our enemy, the orthodox of the tradition insists upon the liberal practice of loving such people, hard as that may be. In fact, we may even find loving such people impossible. We may see that we are powerless to do so.
The recovery world talks a lot about powerlessness, and the need for a power “greater than ourselves.” For those who find explicitly theological language off-putting, it may be helpful to think of the social hostility in which we find ourselves as analogous to our cultural powerlessness: we’re so caught up in identity politics, so caught up in being offended by those we perceive to be on the other side, that we are powerless not to shame them, insult them, put them down. We seem powerless to do otherwise. After all, we are increasingly aware of the mechanisms of artificially intelligent (stupid?) algorithms that serve up to us our preferred stew of daily contempt.
We desperately need a power greater than ourselves, so it seems, to keep from falling further into the pit of such contemptualizing.
So, take this as a plea for such help. And take it as a plea that we re-discover some radical conservatism, or some such orthodox liberalism, for the unmanageability of life as we know it seems to be growing, daily.
Cover image: By Abbey of Kells - Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 a.D. : From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, & Trinity College, Dublin, Metropolitan Museum of Art & Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1977, ISBN 0394428072, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44527
Download a free PDF of How Not To Be A Sectarian by entering your email here: