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Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition

Another world is possible, if not already on its way – for better or worse.  There are humanizing and sustainable alternatives to the way we organize society, and there is a diverse tradition of individuals and movements that do the work to build a better future.  I would characterize this tradition as radical idealism: a stance dedicated to dignity, peace, and the constant struggle against injustice.

As a young person in US public education as well as the Protestant church, I did not consider the possibility of another world: it’s not the purpose of those (or any) institution to suggest alternatives exist.  But I was a critical child, and discovered the tradition of radical idealism through the punk rock scene.  Everything was permitted: from NOFX to Chumbawamba, Noam Chomsky to Emma Goldman, Edward Abbey to Rachel Carson, Leonard Peltier to John (Fire) Lame Deer, Howard Zinn to James Boggs, and from Fred Hampton to Subcomandante Marcos[1].  My education began where the school and church curriculum would not go.

The tradition of radical thinking, writing, organizing, and fighting for a better world – the foundation of radical idealism – is a fringe tradition. I recognized this early on, and made a connection to things I read in the Bible, namely the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was a threat to the power structures during His time and was exiled immediately after birth.  He taught his followers a lifestyle incompatible with greed, individualism, authoritarianism, militarism, and nationalism.  He healed, preached, and educated without a place to lay His head because He knew what awaited Him if He was captured by the authorities.  His Sermon on the Mount wasn’t meant to comfort the listener in turbulent times, but rather establish an ideal: an impossible standard to guide and provide hope for humanity. Like so many radical idealists before and after Him, Jesus was executed by the State.

The contradiction is stark.  If Jesus Christ was radical, what happened to the religion named after Him? Why does the nation that identifies with that religion seem to be the most oppressive and dangerous nation in history?  French professor, Jacques Ellul, in addressing why Christianity gave birth to a culture “completely opposite to what we read in the Bible,” offered an entire book on the “the subversion of Christianity[2].”  Although, in His typical fashion, Jesus explained the disconnect on an individual level when he quoted the Old Testament:

“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”  In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13: 13-15).

Jesus spoke plainly, radically, and idealistically[3].  He challenged His followers to hear His words and not participate in the ways of predatory economics, authoritarian politics, and rampant individualism.  Unfortunately, Christianity allowed the social forces of greed (capitalism) and country (nationalism) to institutionalize the Man and His teachings in order to obtain a seat at the table of power.  When a person’s eyes, ears, and hearts are closed to the love and dignity of all humans, dehumanizing solutions develop in the darkness.

This darkness is palpable in 2018.  The United States of Amnesia, consumed by 24-hour news media and miles of Twitter feeds, has given way to an information age with little substance.  The most powerful office in the country is held by a White Nationalist, and it appears that many Christians in the U.S. support him.  The Democrats can only hope to be a moderating force against overt white supremacy, exploitation, and war as they shift quickly to the center-right of the political spectrum.  The socialists, if not consumed by the Democrats, can barely get a platform in the political arena.  All the while the anarchists battle the fascists, distribute for Food Not Bombs, and provide disaster relief.  The ideology of capitalism and war research is embedded in academic institutions, and will not allow the university a chance to combat a corrupt and oppressive society.  All the while, Noam Chomsky can’t stop reminding us that we face two existential threats: climate change and nuclear annihilation (i.e., the slow burn or the fast track).

Radical idealism is not delusional, but allows the individual a way to conceptualize light in dark times.  It does this by positioning us in the collective struggle for dignity, peace, and justice.  Radical idealists have left a trail of breadcrumbs and books for us to draw strength from including the teachings of Jesus contained in the Gospels.  It is up to us to build a new society in the shell of the old, an ideal society grounded in love, dignity, and lessons learned from the light of radical idealism.

Notes.

[1] Listed are leftist political musicians, USAmerican anarchists, environmentalists, Indigenous resistant fighters, working-class intellectuals, and revolutionary organizers.

[2] The contradiction inherent in radical idealism is the accompanying pessimism resulting from the fact that past attempts at redistributing wealth and power in society have resulted in totalitarian states either through seizing control internally as was the case with the Soviet Union, or waging war against the revolution as was the case in Spain in 1936. Therefore, any lesson from other movements that were corrupted by greed and the pursuit of power are valuable. (Ellul, Jacques. The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.)

[3] This particular reading of this Bible passage was offered to me by Joel Spring quoting Wilhelm Reich quoting Jesus of Nazareth in the phenomenal book, A Primer of Libertarian Education. (Spring, Joel. A Primer of Libertarian Education. Montreal/New York/London, Black Rose Books, 1998.)

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