We Need Both Jeremiah & Benedict
I’d like to offer a further comment to my remarks last week on Samuel Goldman’s “Jeremiah Option” and my Benedict Option. They are inspired, if that is the word, by the sad occasion of reading a Washington Post article reporting that conservative Christian leaders lament that there are no good Republican presidential candidates to get behind in 2016. Excerpt:
The disconnect between social conservatives and the GOP has become a “chasm,” said Gary Bauer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is now head of the Campaign for Working Families. He pointed to the party’s two most recent presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as examples of candidates who were touted initially as having broad appeal to centrists in the general election but ultimately never inspired evangelicals and lost.
“Values voters have been treated as the stepchildren of the family, while the party has wanted to get on with so-called more electorally popular ideas,” Bauer said. “The Republican base will not tolerate another candidate foisted upon us as a guy who can win.”
Oh, nonsense. Of course it will. Is there anything more predictable than politicized Evangelicals saying that the GOP has mistreated them, and they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Reading that story is almost poignant, in that it depicts folks who don’t grasp how much the world has changed. I don’t mean to put down their concerns; in fact, I share most of them. The thought that electing the right Republican president is going to make a bit of difference in the moral state of the nation is by now almost touching in its utter naivete. Let me be clear: it’s not that Evangelicals are wrong to say the nation’s moral fabric is declining; from a socially and religiously conservative point of view, of course it is. Their error is in thinking that politics can have much of an effect on the core problem.
With that piece, and Goldman’s Jeremiah Option essay on my mind, I spent time over the weekend with the Jeremiah chapter in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s terrific book The Prophets, which was given to me as a gift by the class to whom I spoke in Wisconsin last year. Rabbi Heschel delves deeply into the Book of Jeremiah, who was the doomiest and gloomiest of the Hebrew prophets. He explores in particular the pathos of Jeremiah’s character: a gentle man who was called by God to thunder prophecies of ruin to Israel if they did not turn from their ways, and a man who loved his people deeply, but whose fate it was to draw their hatred for pointing out to them their own infidelity, and the punishment it was bringing down on them.
This is key. Jeremiah sounded to those who didn’t want to hear him like someone who hated Israel, but in fact his vehemence came from loving Israel. I wonder: to what extent does the concern and activism of religious and social conservatives (including myself) come from genuine love of America and Americans, and to what extent does it come from anger and despair? I am sure there is more of the latter than the former, and I am sure that we need to work on that.
More importantly to our purposes here, it is striking how Jeremiah insists that what ails Israel is a moral and spiritual crisis — but Israel’s leaders believe rather that it is a political crisis. Jeremiah shouts from the rooftops that Israel must repent, or judgment will come from God through the Babylonians. In fact, judgment cannot be delayed, Jeremiah says; God will deliver Israel into the hands of the Babylonians as punishment for Israel’s infidelity. The thing for Israel to do, says the prophet, is to believe that God is allowing the Babylonian Empire to rule Israel for His own purposes. The survival of Israel depends on its cooperating with the coming conquerors.
But the Israeli elites believe instead that they can protect themselves through politics and diplomacy. It is a near-fatal error, as the Babylonians break their resistance by destroying the Temple and carrying most of Israel off to captivity in Babylon.
What is the lesson for us today? In his Jeremiah Option essay, Goldman counsels religious conservatives to make their peace with the new world order in “Babylon,” as Jeremiah told captive Israel.
What is God saying? In the first place, he insists that the captives unpack their bags and get comfortable. True, God goes on to promise to redeem the captives in 70 years. But this can be interpreted to mean that none of the exiles then living would ever see their homes again. After all, the span that the Bible allots to a human life is threescore years and 10.
So the captives are to await redemption in God’s time rather than seeking to achieve it by human means. But this does not mean that that they are to keep their distance from Babylonian society until the promised day arrives. On the contrary, God commands them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”
“Peace” could be read as the absence of conflict. But this doesn’t fully express God’s directive. In the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition more broadly, peace refers to flourishing and right order. What God is saying is that the exiles cannot prosper unless their neighbors do as well. For the time they are together, they must enjoy the blessings of peace in common.
Goldman encourages religious conservatives not to be separatists in this new Babylon, but to participate in the broader culture and work for its prosperity. He distinguishes this from the Benedict Option, in my opinion, chiefly in that he has a more optimistic belief that the exiles can avoid assimilation than I do. For more on this, see my post from last week.
We Americans do not today have among us a Prophet Jeremiah to speak to us authoritatively about the will of God in our present circumstance. Nevertheless, it seems even more clear to me today, after thinking and reading over the weekend, that Goldman is substantially correct about the futility of seeking political solutions to problems that aren’t political. I still maintain that the Benedict Option is necessary to provide meaningful places and communities of cultural resistance to Babylon.
What does this mean practically? Here are some sketchy thoughts. I offer them to start a conversation, not end one:
1. Traditional Christians should quit lying to themselves (ourselves) about the possibility that politics can adequately address the core problems we identify in American culture. It’s not that politics are inconsequential, but rather that what can be achieved through politics is limited. It always was, of course, but now it is especially so. To place so much hope for cultural renewal in politics is to make the error of King Jehoiakim, who failed to understand the situation facing Israel for what it was. Heschel says that Jehoiakim was more interested in building palaces than pursuing renewal and righteousness. From Jeremiah 22:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
And his upper rooms by injustice;
Who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing,
And does not give him his wages;
Who says, I will build myself a great house
With spacious upper rooms,
And cults out windows for it,
Paneling it with cedar,
And painting it with vermilion.
Do you think you are a king
Because you compete in cedar?
Do we think we are Christians because God has blessed us with material things and liberty? What use have we made of these blessings? Because we build megachurches, bishops’ palaces, McMansions for our own homes? Is it possible that God is judging us? I ask of all Christians, not just traditional ones? I ask it of myself.
2. If the core of our problems are moral and spiritual, then we must build the institutions and communal structures that will address those problems, and attempt to solve them. No politician, Republican or Democrat, saved anyone’s soul. Again, this is not to say that our religious beliefs do not have political consequences. They do. But it is to say that we have to keep straight in our minds what our goals are, and what the means to reach them are.
3. As a Christian and conservative, I have become interested in voting for the candidate who can most be trusted to work for the maximal protection of religious liberty and an autonomous sphere within which traditionalist Christians (and others) can work to build our own institutions (churches, schools, voluntary associations) that enable us to live out in common our conception of the moral life. This means that I will support a candidate who favors gay marriage rights if I believe that that candidate can be trusted to fight for religious liberty, and if that candidate is the most viable rightward candidate.