Was Christ a revolutionary?

The only way to assimilate Christ to this age of institutionalized rebellion is to claim that He was some sort of rebel Himself.  So we often hear that Jesus was a social critic, an enemy of “unjust social structures”, a partisan of equality against priesthood and of “the spirit” against ritual.  Therefore, hippies and communists are His truest followers.  Of course, the absurdity of this will be apparent to anyone with a passing knowledge of the New Testament.  To mention only a few relevant facts, Jesus is never recorded to have said anything about unjust social structures (as opposed to unjust personal actions); what he did do was create a hierarchical Church and establish its central ritual.

Of course, one could always make up a definition of “revolutionary” in terms of which Christ would be as revolutionary as Castro, but this is a matter of words, not realities.  The reality is that they stood (and stand) in opposite relationship to the social order.  In the traditional cultures that constitute the majority of the human experience, the central reality is the distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Sacred things are the iconic representations of, and channels of communication to, transcendent reality.  Ritual worship, ancestors, marriage vows and the marriage debt, and political authority are sacred.  (I’ve described the quality of being sacred in detail here.)  Profane things are not evil—some of them, such as friendship, money, entertainment, and scientific knowledge, are very good—but one does not face God with the same directness through them.  Traditionally, it is good that the sacred and the profane both exist in their legitimate spheres, for no one could sustain the psychic tension of the sacred realm permanently.  The separation of the two is also good, for it itself symbolizes God’s transcendence, His being “above” the world.  Indeed, a large part of traditional morality consists of avoiding the mixing of sacred and profane, for this is profanation.  So, for example, one should not sell sex or consecrated hosts, not because money is bad, but because it is profane. 

For some, the sacred is cherished for giving social life its center and meaning.  For others, it is resented because of the burdens involved in maintaining its separation from the profane world.  Others reject the idea that the unlimited Being could so localize Himself that some things are sacred and others not.  Thus people are attracted to Gnostic speculations.  Some deny the sacred all together; they claim that the sensible world is evil, or at least entirely incapable of carrying God’s presence.  Others say that everything is sacred, that God is equally revealed in all things, or that God and the world are actually identical.  Theoretically, these beliefs are opposites, but practically and existentially they are the same:  both deny the sacred-profane distinction.  Both flatten the world onto one level.  In either case, one might as well now pay for sex, either because the marriage embrace is as profane as money, or because money is as sacred as sex.  Revolutionaries always attack the religious supports of the social order, because once hierarchy ceases to be sacred, it becomes intolerable.

In the time of Christ, the world had been largely desacralized.  The centuries of class warfare in the city of Rome prove that the Roman social order had largely lost its religious aura.  The family, too, had lost its religious aura, and the emperor Augustus was appalled by the consequent spread of sexual immorality and childlessness.  The provinces had perhaps not progressed so far, but their direction was clear.  Even in Jewish public life, the religious imagination had suffered, as we can see from the alienation of the prophets from the official Temple sacrifices, the inability (on the part of the participants or of the prophets) to see the meaning of these rituals that must have been clear in Moses’ time.  In this setting, what Jesus did not do is attack some existing sacral order, like a revolutionary.  Jesus smashed no idols.  What he accomplished was, rather, the opposite:  the re-consecration of the world.  Christ did not accomplish this re-consecration by claiming, like some New Age guru, that everything is already sacred.  Rather, He did it by being the one sacred thing in a profaned world.  His life, sacrificial death, and resurrection became the center and reference of a new sacral order, so it was quite apt for Him to compare His body to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Through Christ, there arose a new sacral community, the Church, His mystic body, led by the direct descendants of the Apostles.  Through the Church’s sacraments, the main events of a Christian’s life are consecrated by being connected to events in the life of the God-man:  birth/initiation through baptism, coming of age through confirmation, marriage, and death through the anointing of the sick.  In the Eucharist, Christians connect themselves to Christ’s own supreme sacrifice.

The Roman sacral order was eroded by economic changes and imperial expansion.  The Christian sacral order, on the other hand, was destroyed deliberately.  In the eighteenth century, the old forces of concupiscence and universalism gave rise to a new Gnosticism, the Enlightenment, dedicated to the desacralization of the world.  This movement has been tremendously successful, but it’s a purely negative success:  the Enlightenment can destroy meaning, but it can’t create it.  And yet the old light is not yet entirely extinguished.  It may well be that we are the last generation to see it and that all future ages will live in complete spiritual darkness.  If so, our ability to experience God in the world is still a great blessing, for which we should thank our (and the world’s) Redeemer.

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