Today, the public sphere is dominated by a parodic inversion of traditional moral precepts. It has become a cliché to argue that modern ideologies secularize religious ideas. The importance of contemporary moralism, however, is that it serves to justify any number of large-scale state-corporate initiatives. Public powers are using apparently moral causes (albeit perverted and manipulated) such as supposed concern for the environment and ‘tolerance’ for different lifestyles, to exert ever more control over society.
We have something analogous to the Apocalypse’s Whore of Babylon (perverted religion, inverted morality), and her consorting with the Beast that emerges from the sea (political power). Our own apostate Jerusalem and Rome.
How then, do we interrupt this dynamic? By not participating in it.
The Great Commission
Were conservatism (or whatever we call it) to shed the language of shrill ridicule, of mere condemnation and accusation, it might find its ranks swell. After all, the young person who is confused about his/her sexuality and gender, for example, isn’t the enemy. He/she is what the enemy has done.
Those who have been led to adopt behaviors at odds with traditional morality, viewing themselves as alienated from their ancestors, religion, and so on, would find themselves embraced, confronted by the possibility of metanoia, conversion: the idea (a hope, at first) that a degraded person, addicted to his vices, wounded in myriad ways, can transform. This is the only path toward cultural renewal.
In contrast, from the moment an idea, an initiative, a movement, is thrown into the fraught, rhetorically snarky arena of the culture war, its defenders begin to forget how to articulate their vision without attacking their opponents; without the language of accusation that activates the listener’s reptilian response, reminding him of what team he’s on.
Soon, a movement becomes mere political branding, stitched into the terrible body of the news cycle, until it shares that cycle’s same sickly bloodstream. Instead of building institutions, civic participation, and communities, it gets its oxygen from media attention.
If it disengages from all that and begins successfully converting those it should hate (and who should hate it), it becomes dangerous.
The media, or some other portion of the establishment, will crack down. In doing so, however, it will both strengthen (for targeted attacks require coordinated action and the projection of power) and expose itself (as some portion of the public will see the demonizing of dissidents as a vulgar display).
At this point, it may happen that other, less moralistic, less ideologically-committed, parts of the establishment, take notice and react. When an establishment (which always consists of several factions) persecutes dissidents, this can serve to demarcate its fault lines.
We are already seeing how the “woke” moralism and social engineering of political elites and corporations produce a reaction from within, in part out of fear that the whole thing is going too far and might cause a backlash.
The kings of the earth have taken advantage of the new morality, the wealth and resources represented by international institutions like the World Economic Forum, and the vast mobilization of funding for “Fourth Industrial Revolution” sectors represented by the UN’s Agenda 2030, together with the ideological presuppositions that justify that funding.
However, they have no interest in the institutional edifice of western postmodernity as a moral system. Chinese President Xi Jinping may want to reap returns on investment in Artificial Intelligence, 5G, Internet of Things, and COVID-19 vaccines, for example, but gender ideology and open borders are not China’s project. We should remember that, in John’s Apocalypse, the Beast and the kings eventually turn against the Whore with whom they fornicated, and rip her apart. (This is similar to how, on another level, the Whore—inverted morality and certain secular ideologies—may instrumentalize the churches, but never really lose their hostility towards organized religion.)
Our job, then, is to allow a rift to appear between power and its ideological justification, our era’s echoes of Beast and Whore, and to make ourselves worthy of what emerges after their fall.
Silence through the Scourging
The refusal to enter into the dialectic of political factions involves a refusal to enter the game of personalities where participants invest their egos and self-image. We may refer to the Sermon on the Mount and, specifically, Christ’s instruction to “turn the other cheek:”
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. (Matthew 5:38-40)
This instruction, so characteristic of the Gospel, appears already in the Hebrew prophets (see Peter Leithart here). Says Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:25-66) (my italics):
The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him … He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach. For the Lord will not cast off forever:But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.
We understand the slap on the cheek as a humiliation, not a life-threatening attack, and so are not concerned with self-defense, but with reputation. It is this reputational good that we are told to cast aside, not our lives or security.
Indeed, while the Christian believes he may be called to sacrifice his life in order to preach the Gospel, he is not asked to offer it up to a random aggressor (after all, Christ recommends we buy swords in Luke 22:36). It is good to turn the other cheek, but the end of this practice is not that men should lose their rights: “To turn aside the right of a man before the face of the most High, To subvert a man in his cause, the Lord approveth not” (Lamentations 3:35-36).
Enduring the proverbial slap on the cheek is not only a sign of passive self-denial, but of active self-offering: the prophet preaches throughout his humiliation. The patient endurance that precedes victory is not mere endurance, but rebellion. It is a period of accusing the corrupt and refusing to participate in their systems. Consider Christ’s violations of Pharisaical regulations or the Mosaic attempt to reduce the workload of Israelites (Exodus 5:1-4). We may also think of the Christian refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and recognize Caesar’s divinity.
The inner attitude cultivated by patient endurance and faithfulness (often in the form of public ministry) is described by Jesus: “In your patience possess ye your souls.” Self-mastery seems to be the principal virtue by which, according to the Bible, a person or community is made worthy of receiving propitious conditions. For this reason, 1 Samuel 8 advises against anointing a king before the conquest of the promised land is complete. Likewise, Christ refuses to judge (a kingly function) and to accept the thrones of the earth (offered by Satan in the wilderness). He is, in fact, a judge and a king, and the Gospel understands the earth to be his inheritance. Yet he abstains from these until after he has endured the cross.
We have here a powerful, pedagogic image.
Pray the Fall
Lamentations has a political context. It occurs on the eve of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, something about to repeat itself in the times of the Gospel, with the destruction wrought by Vespasian and his son Titus in AD 70, predicted by Jesus in the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21). The usual interpretation of the Apocalypse is that the Whore is apostate Jerusalem, who first consorts and is later rejected by the Beast that emerged from the sea, apostate Rome (“apostate” because the Roman Empire, and the prophetic image the Apocalypse connects it with, are not necessarily evil, c.f. Hosea 13, Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7).
According to Jeremiah, this context—that is, the prevalence of oppression and need to “give our cheek to him that smites it”—results from collective sins: “We have transgressed and have rebelled: thou hast not pardoned.” However, patiently bearing reputational abuse will result in heavenly mercy,
Mine eye trickleth down … Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause … I called upon thy name, O Lord, out of the low dungeon … Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee: thou saidst, Fear not … thou hast redeemed my life … Thou hast seen all their vengeance … Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:49-66)
Jeremiah ends by calling down destruction, similarly to Jesus quoting Psalm 69 (John 15:25), implying its coming fulfillment. Apart from the portion quoted in the Gospel, this Psalm reads, “they put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst,” as occurs at the crucifixion, and “may the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap … Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.” (Psalm 69:21-28)
Such alignment of the prophetic and messianic will, with the destruction of corrupting cities (cultural and political orders), is legitimate after an ordeal, a deathly trial, a mortification.
We should remember that Jeremiah makes another Old Testament appearance. Long after his death, the prophet manifested on earth, praying for the Judean nation and giving Judah Maccabee a holy, golden sword with which the rebel leader might fight against Seleucid occupation (2 Maccabees 15:15-25). He who recommended turning the other cheek also supports a righteous rebellion, once the all-out prohibition of religion has taken place together with violent persecution of the faithful. Similarly, Christ’s warning that the faithful should head for the hills, combined with his recommendation that they buy swords, reminds us of 1 Maccabees (2:27-28) with its call for the formation of a community in the wilderness from which to fight and survive tribulation.
Maccabees prefigures the warfare of John’s Apocalypse, following Christ’s willing sacrifice as well as that of the martyrs. In fact, the Olivet discourse (which predicts the destruction of Jerusalem to which the Apocalypse is connected) references Maccabees (speaking of the “abomination of desolation”), and, in both cases, war follows a long period of martyrdom. Further, both conflicts “enlist” the Romans to fight those occupying Jerusalem (the Seleucids and the Whore, respectively). The Beast will fall out with the Whore, and its political body may be converted, just as the Whore is replaced by true religion.
To the Mountains
In prophesying the coming destruction, Jesus uses language that reminds us of what happened to Lot and his family when the latter were led out of Sodom. This allows us to draw certain lessons.
He speaks of how dreadful those days will be for pregnant and nursing mothers, which may parallel the fact that the married members of Lot’s household did not leave the cursed city, for they had too much invested in it and were unsure of what lay outside. More clearly, Christ advises that people leave the city and flee to the mountains (Luke 21:20), just as the angels who rescued Lot advised him to go to take refuge in the mountains (Genesis 19:17).
Leaving Sodom is also related to the exodus from Egypt, since Lot made unleavened bread for the angels who came for him, just as the Israelites were instructed to cook unleavened bread before being led out of Egypt. And indeed, they would also find their way to a mountain (Mount Sinai).
It makes sense, then, that the Apocalypse, expanding on the prophecy of the Olivet discourse, should speak of “dead bodies” that “shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” (Apocalypse 11:8)
We may consider this in relation to the predicament of the post-Christian West and beyond; to the challenges faced by populations living under a political class committed to the enshrining of abortion as a right, participation in an international division of labor that requires millions to toil in abject urban poverty, the psychologically-devastating deconstruction of gender and sexual norms, etc.
What I have written concerning the refusal to participate in certain dialectics is equivalent to an exodus, one requiring that we not be drawn in by the pangs of personal insults or renown. Psychologically speaking, we might understand the condemned city as the sinful ego, complex in its self-justifying architecture. However married, however pregnant, however much we might have prospered in the city (indeed, sometimes, sins like pride make us successful in the world, for a time), we should still choose to leave. Better to flee to the high places (which are often also places of cavernous openings into the deep). The mountains. Better to act from a lofty perspective than that narrow vantage.
But in order to be made worthy of this refuge, surviving the destruction of the city, we must refuse the Whore and the Beast, we must not participate in their dialectic. This means reaching out to them we would condemn, making ourselves a genuine (politically transversal) disrupter, and refusing to be integrated in the game of ego-driven culture war by turning the other cheek.