I have been thinking lately about populism, spurred largely by the “surprise” of Brexit and the “shocking” rise of one Donald Trump. Pundits (a vocation of ill-repute these days) are astonished by both of these sociopolitical phenomena. How can such large swaths of the populace exercise their electoral power to do the inadvisable and the unthinkable? At least that is how the experts, now cast as elites who are out of touch with everyday folk, are represented as thinking.
Dichotomies are dangerous and unrepresentative of reality. But when you offer a YES/NO vote (e.g., leave the EU or Remain) or provide only two political parties as an option (e.g., Republican or Democratic), then dichotomies are what we get. Thus, a social and political climate of polarization in which shades of meaning or nuances of understanding are vaporized in public rhetoric. Elite vs. Populist is one of the emerging dichotomies.
Jesus was neither.
When posed with questions requiring YES/NO answers that enforced polarized thinking and beckoned a dichotomized answer, he replied in terms outside the existing frames of reference.
“So Jesus, is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Yes… or No?”
His response, after eyeing a Roman coin, still makes us scratch our heads. Even so, it strikes the reader as deeply and profoundly true. He forced the dichotomy of a political YES/NO into a contrast between the dichotomies of Caesar and God, a dichotomy that can hardly be a dichotomy since the former fades into meaninglessness when positioned next to the latter.
Jesus was crucified by elites acting in concert with populist demands for his death. He fit in, ultimately, with neither.
Jesus was resistant to populist demands and impulses. In John 6, the crowd seeks to take him by force and make him king. He strategically evades them.
But what really inspires and intrigues me is that Jesus, though resistant to populist anger, had his feet dusted with their village grime. He knew names and addresses. He knew homes and families. When Tory candidates talk about the North East of England (where I live) without ever having scrubbed coal dust off their knuckles and from under their nails, they’ve no credibility.
But Jesus knew hoi polloi, the people. He knew them. And he knows them now.
Perhaps oddly, he also knew many elites. Sure, he had no ambition for rubbing elbows with those positioned at the top of the social and political ladder. He took no delight in the company of Herod, that “fox.” He is refreshingly uninterested in gaining the patronage of Pilate. But he sat at table with Zachaeus. He dined with leading Pharisees.
The scene in Mark 5 shows us how “elite” and “populist” did not exist as categories in his mind. He offered the same attention to a deranged Gentile and an unclean anonymous woman as he did to Jairus, the (named) synagogue ruler with a dying daughter.
Luke shows us that Jesus brings a kingdom that effects reversal and upheaval. The exalted are dethroned and the poor are raised up. But we are also shown that the polarized categories themselves are overturned and uplifted ultimately to be obliterated. A sword will pierce the mighty, but also the heart of Mary, God’s lowly servant.
Jesus is alive and active in society today. His church bears the vocation of lifting his voice, as well as exercising his wise silence.
Yet Christians in the West feel the overwhelming compulsion to operate within the same dichotomies as our neighbors and coworkers. We are cornered, like everyone else, into a cognitive space that knows no response except YES/NO, Leave/Remain, Republican/Democrat, a convenient place for the powerful to place us.
That cognitive corner is a social construct. Jesus refused to think, speak, and operate within its narrow frame. Sometimes he offered mesmerizing replies (“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar, to God the things that are God’s”). Sometimes he quietly left the stage, turning down the mic, evading the petty power moves.
We feel we must have an immediate opinion on everything. Leaving the stage quietly feels like compromise or retreat. That blinking cursor on the empty space on our social media platforms beckons us to enter the (polarized) fray. Yet Jesus was often happy to slip through the midst of the populist anger, with hardly a word…
And when he did speak, it challenged the compressed reference frames, forcing shades of meaning and nuances of understanding into the political discourse.
The voice of the Elite can seem cold and calculating. The voice of the Populist can seem loud and angry. Jesus was neither. How does his voice sound in 2016? How would he remain vocal on stage? And when would he quietly exit stage-right?
I’m not sure. But let’s think about it…