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“GOD RESERVES THE RIGHT TO INTERVENE”
by ProfDave, ©2020
(Sep. 15, 2020) — What’s a conservative? One of the things I am trying to do is represent a conservative Christian world view. It takes two wings to fly, right and left. If we were all conservatives the wheel would never have been invented. If we were all liberals, the wheel would have had to be reinvented in every generation. Seriously, a conservative tends, just a bit more, to build on the past while a liberal tends, just a bit more, to sweep it all away and start fresh. As an historian, I believe we can learn from the past. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Yet we also need innovative thinking.
As a Christian, I stand on the record of revelation that goes back up to 4,000 years from the eternal God of Heaven who calls Himself “I AM.” That means it is both ancient beyond ancient and yet new this morning. Although I am an historian, I affirm a reality that is beyond history, beyond time.
A conservative is someone who remembers. There certainly are different kinds of conservatives, including nostalgic conservatives, like the old-timers who remember “the good old days” when “all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking and all the children were above average” (Garrison Keillor). Now that I am becoming an old-timer myself, there is that element of being more familiar, competent and comfortable with the past than with the present. For one thing, we knew how to dial a phone. We remember through rosy-colored glasses, too, but that doesn’t mean ‘progress’ has been entirely rosy either. Values have been lost as well as gained in the process of time. Sometimes it is good to remember in order to preserve. It is in remembering that we are human.
Nostalgic conservatives remember. A good friend countered that they forget. The point is well taken. Not only do we forget the inconveniences but also the evils of the ‘bad old days.’ Nostalgic memories are selective, aren’t they?
Pragmatic conservatives remember both the good and the bad in order to use those memories. They consider what has been learned in the past and use it to solve problems in the present. While history doesn’t always repeat itself, it often rhymes. If we know what has worked in the past, we can start with that and try to improve upon it. If we can see the mistakes of the past we can avoid repeating them. Pragmatic conservatives do not waste the experience of others. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.
Pragmatic conservatives are skeptical of innovation for innovation’s sake. If it isn’t broken, they don’t fix it. In this way they sometimes miss out on some really good new ideas. That is what we have pragmatic liberals for.
Romantic conservatives identify with their heritage. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, physical, communal and spiritual. The past is an entailed inheritance. Past, present and future are an organic unity. We are organic parts of each other, of our ancestors and of our descendants. We have an obligation to live out the dreams of our forefathers, the vision of the founders of our country. We have a sacred duty to pass on to our children what we have inherited. We have no right to throw it all away for some new ideology or selfish benefit.
Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution is an historical example of this kind of conservatism. The bloody record of that upheaval, as he saw it unfolding in his day, he compared to the Glorious Revolution of England a century earlier. Revolution brought freedom to England, but bloody chaos and tyranny to France. The French destroyed their past; the English built on theirs. The English revolution was organically built on English traditions and the English past. Constitutions, Burke argued, are discovered, not written out according to ideological theories. He ignored the American Constitution, but you could argue that it nevertheless was written on British and American traditions and experiences – hence its success. The future must be built on the past. History hates sharp corners.
We have identified four basic sorts of conservatives. Nostalgic conservatives remember, pragmatic conservatives use what they remember, romantic conservatives identify with what they remember and I suppose you could say reactionary conservatives struggle to go back to what they remember at all costs. ‘Reactionary’ is not quite the same sort of category, however, but more a matter of degree or even of mental health.
As an historian, I think of another category: Realpolitik. But then, it is probably just a subset of practical conservative. Three towering conservative figures of 19th century Europe were such conservatives: Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, and Benjamin Disraeli. Austrian diplomat Metternich, faced with the impossible task of undoing the French Revolution and restoring the Old Regime, created the Concert of Europe, an international alliance to put down revolution – an entirely new order to restore the old order. Prussian Chancellor Bismarck created the entirely new empire of Germany and a balance of power in Europe to preserve the crown of Prussia against republicans (later Catholics and socialists). English politician and Prime Minister Disraeli built an entirely new modern popular political machine in order to preserve the conservative party under the onslaught of popular suffrage and parliamentary reforms.
What about Christian conservatives? HOLD IT!! There is nothing specifically conservative about being a Christian or specifically Christian about being a conservative. In context, Jesus was clearly a liberal! His feet were firmly planted in the Tanakh – the old covenant – but He instituted a new covenant in His blood. The Christian Bible includes both an Old and a New Testament. We say “the Old is in the New revealed, the New is in the Old concealed.” But Jesus was not crucified for being conservative.
Outside of my Christianity, I am conservative by temperament as a romantic, by profession as an historian, and pragmatically by reason. Inside Christianity, as a Jesus follower, I am bound to what God revealed in His Word, 2,000 to 4.000 years ago, and to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” I am part of an organic whole, a body, that goes back to the day of Pentecost. While God reserves the right to “create a new thing,” (and He may very well be about just that in this pandemic) I am deeply suspicious of new teachings and new interpretations – mine or anyone else’s. And any idea or act that conflicts with the Bible is DOA in my mind. That’s what a conservative Christian is.
Christianity is really beyond conservative or liberal. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. The Triune God exists outside of time and space. He is by definition eternal. He doesn’t change His mind, He doesn’t evolve and He doesn’t get new ideas. He doesn’t need to – He already has all ideas. The future? He is already there. We believe He chose to reveal Himself to Moses, the prophets and the apostles. The Self He revealed in Genesis is the same He revealed in Revelation. The disclosure itself is historical, but the Being revealed is eternal. We must not confuse epistemology (our knowledge) with ontology (the Being Himself). This much is very, very conservative.
But – and this is the scary part – God reserves the right to intervene in space and time. His character is unchangeable, His revelation is forever true, but He is not a tame lion. He likes to do things differently every time. He has broken into our world before in Jesus of Nazareth and took temple Judaism by surprise. Now we can see how it was all foretold in the Old Testament before, but that proves that He can break into our smug, controlled, religious institutions and do something totally new to us – crazy liberal.
He has conservatives like me here to make sure it is really Him and not some other human or demonic movement. It may be surprisingly different from the way we have always done things, but we will know it is Him because it will be consistent with His Word and His character, and supernaturally powered by His Holy Spirit.
Probably I shouldn’t put Christian and Conservative in the same title. Or at least I should always include the conjunction ‘and.’ They are really two different things. Christians come in both liberal and conservative, so far as politics, economics and just about everything else is concerned. It is part of my faith to take “it is written’ and ‘right and wrong’ very seriously and conservatively, but other matters are not so sacred.
No matter which way Aunt Mabel always votes, Christianity is not bolted down to any one political party. Jesus did not belong to the Zealots or the Herodians in the first century, nor the GOP or the Democrats in the 21st. Israel started out as a theocracy, with a prophet or a judge as prime minister. Then it became a monarchy with careful separation of state and temple, but God directing both through prophets. Some people believed the USA should work like that.
The first century knew monarchy, dictatorship (the Emperor) and oligarchy. What the Greeks called democracy was really the oligarchy of a narrow elite citizenship. Government “of the people by the people for the people” hadn’t been invented yet. Christians were to honor and submit to whatever authority was providentially placed over them. Christianity raised the ideals of human dignity, equality and freedom of conscience. That is how democracy, as we know it, came to be a western invention – not Confucian, not Hindu, not Islamic. Hmmmh.
Actually, investment capitalism is not found in the Torah. It was basically written for an agrarian society, yet both capitalism and communism are products of the Christian West. Interesting. From the eighth commandment onwards the Law of Moses upholds inheritance and private property, but drill down and you find that private property isn’t exactly private: it belongs to God. You and I are stewards of the earth and of the abilities God has given us. The land – the means of production – is a sacred inheritance from God. If you sell it, it comes back to you in the year of Jubilee. Work is sacred from the Garden onwards. Wealth is given to you to share with your family and with the poor.
You expect me to argue that the Christian right is right, right? Well, it isn’t that simple. Jesus followers dare not worship wealth, nor squander it in conspicuous consumption, nor horde it. Christians are expected to use wealth constructively to benefit others. If we have the economic freedom to reinvest wealth in making more wealth, in a regulatory environment that is not confiscatory, capitalism takes off as it did in England in the 18th century and America in the 19th and 20th. If we abdicate that freedom to central planning and control we have socialism – theoretically good, but marred in practice by atheism and human corruption. Who is responsible for caring for our descendants? Who is responsible for caring for the poor and handicapped? The church? Private initiative? Or the state?
We have tried to make the point that Jesus-followers are not committed to any particular political party or even economic system. It would be nice if both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were committed to Christian principles and the economics of stewardship. Nostalgic conservatives may think both parties used to be so dedicated, but do not count on either being so today. We should all be independent values voters, but it is a good idea to register as one or the other party in order to influence nominations. The devil is in the nominations!
Conservatives remember that capitalism produced the prosperity we see today. Liberals look to the state to redistribute wealth to those in need. Conservatives remember that the GOP was the party of Lincoln, emancipation and civil rights. Liberals remind us that was in the 19th century and ask for new solutions today. Jesus-followers are looking for spiritual and moral reconstruction whether built on the past or the new. All our hope is in Jesus.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.”