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Aristopopulism During Holy Week

Author Patrick Deneen gives the keynote at TAC's 15th Anniversary gala in May 2018. (TAC/Elisa Morris)

Notre Dame political philosophy professor Patrick J. Deneen gave a lecture in March titled “Aristopopulism: A Political Proposal for America.” In the talk (available here), Deneen described our current political paradigm as pitting “an increasingly corrupt elite against an increasingly coarse and angry populace.” Both of these, Deneen observed, are “morally adrift and engaged in politics as an assertion of power.”

Deneen’s suggested solution to this is a return to “classical political theory,” which proposed that “only an appropriately mixed regime”—in other words, a society that appreciates inherent goods in both elites and commoners—can “correct and even elevate the shortcomings of an opposing faction.” Such a dynamic demands that both elites and populists be “well-formed,” defined by virtuous desires and actions.

An excerpt from the Gospel of John, read during the Church’s current Lenten season, similarly warns us of what happens when both the people and elites fail to nurture this “aristopopulist” paradigm. The passage finds Jesus teaching at the temple in Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of booths, or tabernacles. Here is the relevant text, from John 7:40-53:

Some in the crowd who heard these words of Jesus said,

“This is truly the Prophet.”

Others said, “This is the Christ.”

But others said, “The Christ will not come from Galilee, will he?

Does not Scripture say that the Christ will be of David’s family

and come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”

So a division occurred in the crowd because of him.

Some of them even wanted to arrest him,

but no one laid hands on him.

So the guards went to the chief priests and Pharisees,

who asked them, “Why did you not bring him?”

The guards answered, “Never before has anyone spoken like this man.”

So the Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived?

Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?

But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.”

Nicodemus, one of their members who had come to him earlier, said to them,

“Does our law condemn a man before it first hears him

and finds out what he is doing?”

They answered and said to him,

“You are not from Galilee also, are you?

Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”

Notice first the deep confusion among the people regarding Jesus’s identity. Some deem him “the prophet,” while others label him the Messiah, or “Christ,” the figure foreseen by Hebrew prophets as the savior of the Jewish people. Some in the crowd are familiar enough with the prophetic writings to know that the Messiah is supposed to be of Davidic lineage, and to have originated in Bethlehem, a small town near Jerusalem. This belief stemmed from the prophet Malachi, who declared, “But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Malachi 5:2). Of course, Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, though he was raised in Nazareth, a Davidic town far to the north, in Galilee.

Here we see an inherent tension in the opinions and murmurings of the crowd. The common man can easily recognize the singularity and power of Jesus of Nazareth. Most men don’t perform miracles or speak with such authority, and certainly not poor, working-class men who grow up in a provincial backwater like Nazareth. Indeed, even the warrior class of Jewish society, the guards, appreciates Jesus’s uniqueness. Yet they lack the knowledge of their culture’s great texts to discern exactly who he is. A prophet? The Messiah? Something else? They have enough familiarity to understand what they are supposed to be looking for in a Messiah, but it is incomplete. Apparently many of them are unaware of Jesus’s background, and perhaps even that Herod the Great had ordered a murderous campaign against children in Bethlehem approximately 30 years prior, which Jesus escaped.

In a well-functioning aristopopulist society, this would be the moment where the Jewish political and religious elite would step in, provide that much needed scholarly and historical context, and guide the confused crowds in appreciating Jesus’s true nature. Instead they fail, motivated by pride, jealousy, and self-preservation. They presume that since they themselves have already made up their minds, the opinion of the masses means nothing. Rather than laud Jesus, they conspire to arrest and kill him. They disdain the crowds, rather than graciously instructing them. And in their arrogance, they actually get the record wrong—at least one prophet, Jonah, did come from Galilee. Among the elites, only Nicodemus seems to perceive Jesus’s remarkable character.

The passage is a case study in what happens when the elites and the masses fail to appreciate one another’s contributions to a complete society, and are unable to bring their respective talents to bear in realizing a common good. In our own era, technocratic elites, sheltered by wealth and privilege, have become increasingly deaf to the cries of the people. They view those in the lower classes as having little value, except perhaps to be manipulated to achieve political leverage. In the case of Jesus, the elites are able to drum up such popular antagonism towards him that they effectively engineer his unjust execution by the Roman authorities. Ironically, the crowd collaborates in murdering one of its very own, another commoner who had been passionately concerned about their plight (c.f. Matthew 5-7, 23; Luke 6, 16).

Patrick Deneen argues that “only a well-formed elite can support a humane condition of the populace, and only a well-formed populace can fruitfully restrain the hubris of a liberal elite and even orient them toward virtue.” If he is right, then we should take careful note of this instructional Bible passage, lest we ourselves crucify those who come to save us.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.

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