I love a good rebellion. I suspect most of us do. We root for the underdog. We love and applaud the jester who tweaks His Royal Stupidity’s nose. We side with Groucho when he shows the pompous senator up for a fool. A capacity to see the rightness in these things is a measure of our health and humor.
Going further, we can see this particular grain etched into deeper places within. The tickle of laughter at Groucho touches in us a nerve of valor and heroism as well. We are moved by the courage of the black children who walked past the angry crowds to their first day of class in an all-white school. We feel something stir inside (and I speak as a committed Catholic) at Martin Luther’s words: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” We are attracted to the resolve of the American colonists who pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” in their struggle to establish independence. We stand with the Kurd, the Salvadoran peasant, the student at Tiananmen Square and the nine-year-old girl in the sweat shop against a system which eats, not blesses, human beings. Here again, we find that we are rebels at heart.
Rebels at heart. It really does go that deep. Something in the world is way out of whack and it’s always the little guy who foots the bill. An Indian proverb says, “When elephants fight it is the grass which suffers.” The Big Shots, Top People and Pharaohs conduct their campaigns, build their empires and fight their wars. But they always do it with someone else’s sons and daughters. That’s why we like the story of the Exodus: God yanks the carpet of grass out from under the elephants’ feet. Jumbo winds up with a trunkful of gravel while the grass gets spread out on a nice sod farm well-stocked with sprinklers and earthworms.
It’s also why we like the prophets. They are furious about things, but if you’re going to be furious these are surely the right things. “For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke my word,” cries Amos, “Because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). The prophets speak, not only for God, but for every sick-and-tired Jack and Jill who ever got fed up with people stealing land from Indians, or killing babies for a buck, or robbing the treasury to create enough ammo to destroy the earth 20 times instead of merely 10. The prophets were accomplished rebels.
Even Jesus Himself strikes this nerve in us. Unlike the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of greeting card fame, the real Jesus was a continual boil on the neck of the entrenched, the power broker and the sallow, thin-lipped rulemonger. He used distinctly unmild language, referring to the religious/political jet set of the day as “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23). He behaved in unmannerly and indecorous ways, taking a crowbar to the cash machine in the temple courts and giving the bum’s rush to the seedy hucksters who sold “Amazing Miracle Lambs (Your Key to Dynamic Anointed Prayer)” at exorbitant rates to the unlettered pilgrims who had come to seek the Living God. “Woe to you who are rich,” He thundered, apparently unaware that wealth was a sure sign of divine approval. “Blessed are you poor,” He said, evidently unconscious of the way He lowered His credibility with the media by associating with the fifth wheels, the punks, the high school dropouts, the bozos, and the losers. Rebels, it seems, can sometimes be the very best citizens of both heaven and earth.
Yet, if we are honest, we must also admit that they can just as often be the very worst. For rebellion, like death, is a two-edged sword. It can lead to heaven or hell. The rebel may revolt against powers and principalities for the sake of the Lamb, but he may just as easily make war against the Lamb for the sake of self-empowerment or revolutionary consciousness or the glory of the Fatherland. When this happens and rebellion (for whatever reason) becomes an end in itself, it sours. When it becomes a god it becomes a devil. For rebellion is meant to be medicine, not food. If we become addicted to it, it causes truth cancer.
A cancerous truth is a truth gone berserk. It is a truth used to destroy truth, and ultimately, to destroy people. Cancerous truth is like a fragment of broken mirror; able to both reflect light and inflict wounds. People with truth cancer seize upon some aspect of the whole of God’s truth and form the fixed notion that This and nothing else matters. For the sake of a single truth they will tell a thousand lies, even to themselves. For the sake of Humanity, they will kill their neighbor. For the sake of some ideology about gender, class, race, or religion, Humanity itself is threatened with abortion, economic slavery, starvation, and nuclear devastation.
Thus, once upon a time certain Christians seized upon the classical Judeo-Christian belief in the omnipotence of God in order to denigrate the reality of human choice. According to their logic, the Omnipotent God intends some of us for heaven and some for hell and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. If you’re in, you’re in; if not, tough luck. In other words, the truth that God has free will was used as a weapon against the truth that He has given us free will. The result of this change in theology was, as always, not just a squabble among egghead theologians but a real change in real people and the real ways they thought and acted. Arrogant people believed themselves among the Indelibly Saved and became more arrogant still. Weak and self-doubting people were crushed under the certainty of their own damnation. Some, like the English poet William Cowper, ended their tormented lives by suicide.
So why mention a dead theological dispute? After all, double eternal predestination (as the doctrine is known) is not exactly on everyone’s lips these days. Granted. But truth cancer has a long pedigree and a greater tendency to mutate than the common cold virus. In particular, the truth cancer of one generation tends to mutate into its opposite in succeeding generations. Thus the predestinarians who came to this continent to pursue their duty to an Almighty God are decidedly passé. We their descendants now talk incessantly, not of God’s sovereign choice, but of ours as the be all and end all of existence. Indeed, for an increasingly wide segment of our culture, there is no Judge with Whom we must reckon. “Freedom of choice” (which is one aspect of conscience, which in turn is one aspect of human dignity, which in turn is rooted in the whole exalted status of human beings as creatures made in the image of God) has for the moment metastasized into the one sacred and undeniable incantation. Ironically, any attempt to assert that the Author of our much vaunted freedom may disagree with our choices is labeled moral fascism. As I say, truth cancer mutates.
This curious tendency to mutate may be seen in many realms. For example, the classical Judeo-Christian belief is that God, and not the “elements of this world” (i.e. stars, comets, crystals, “forces” and such like), governs things (Col. 2:8-10). At one time, superstitious trust in crystals and lucky rabbit’s feet was condemned as a failure of faith in Him Who governed all and ordered all things for the good of His children. At length, however, this old Judeo-Christian belief in a universe governed by order rather than random and indecipherable forces developed truth cancer. It became the fashion to reject superstition on the grounds that the “laws of Nature” better explained reality. No more belief in spirits as the cause of combustion. No more nonsense about comets as omens of ill fortune. The truth of these things, it was felt, is wholly explained in terms of mechanics and chemistry. We could leave superstition behind and walk in the sunshine of Reason. But as the cancer progressed, “superstition” began to describe any belief in the supernatural, including a supernatural God. In other words, the truth of a universe operating according to discoverable laws was picked up as a stick to beat belief in the Legislator of those laws. Nature, including human nature, became radically desacralized. Mountains such as Sinai, Zion and Carmel ceased to be holy places and began to be mineral deposits. Bread and wine became organic compounds and ceased to be the elements of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Animals became meat resources and biological mechanisms of unusual complexity. And human beings came to be regarded by certain theoreticians more as things than as persons.
Such a faith in science and the material universe was a great inspiration to many a 19th Century philosopher. Homo Sapiens, it was felt by these future-minded men and women, could be explained, controlled and made happy and prosperous by some other means than God. Picking up this drumbeat of scientific materialism, early 20th Century eugenicists fixed upon the truth that humans have certain scientifically measurable physical and racial characteristics. On the other hand, they noted, “being made in the image of God” is not a scientifically measurable characteristic. Therefore, they concluded, it is the “scientific fact” and not some hazy religious sentiment which defines what is human. Happiness, it was believed, is rooted in biochemistry and economics, not in absurd myths about Creation, original sin, fallenness and redemption. Hence, felt the eugenicist, Science (the capital is essential) should be brought to bear in order to eliminate “undesirable traits” from the human race and free future generations from the leavening effects of the unseemly genetic admixtures which were the real source of our problems. Thus it was that Christians and others who resisted “Science” and preferred to help the poor rather than “eliminate their stocks” could be chastised by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, as “benign imbeciles, who encourage the defective and diseased elements of humanity in their reckless and irresponsible swarming and spawning.” Pitting “reason” against the archaic Judeo-Christian imperative to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, she argued that organized charity was the “surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” Such notions were once seen as the last word in a hard-headed science whose clear rays would dispel the religious mumbo-jumbo of the past. They are now seen to have been the first word of the Nazi Holocaust.
And so the various truth cancers have spread to our own day, because more than any other age ours has deliberately separated the urge to rebel from the revelation of Christ. As G.K. Chesterton writes, “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” The result is a bewildering succession of rebellion against rebellion against rebellion, all seizing upon some few aspects of truth to denigrate and destroy not only other cancerous truths, but also any semblance of sanity and balance. For as C.S. Lewis notes in the Pilgrim’s Regress, “Opposite evils, far from balancing, aggravate each other.”
This is how it happens that we now find ourselves in the crossfire of the current battle between the reckless polluter and the radical environmentalist. Our century has witnessed the old materialist view (which saw desacralized Nature as a mere set of passive, manipulable, disposable resources) bear fruit in the rapacious environmental exploiter (whose truth cancer is a mutation of the stewardship of Nature God entrusted into our hands (Gen. 1:28-30)). Yet though the earth rapist, with his drift nets and his daily annihilation of rain forests, still has enormous power, he is increasingly locked in struggle with a new form of truth cancer which seeks to protect Nature, not by asserting God’s dominion, but by denying our essential human dignity. The old conventional wisdom sanctioned limitless grabbing. The new conventional wisdom increasingly insists that humans are no more important than the Grey whale.
Such a denial of human dignity can sometimes produce a confusing welter of strange results. An example of this may be seen in the recent popularity of the “Gaia Hypothesis” in some of the “deep ecology” sectors of the environmentalist movement. In reaction to the materialist exploiter, the Gaia Hypothesis seeks to denigrate the primacy of humanity over Nature. To do so, it stresses the intimate interdependence of living things and conceives of the earth as a giant superorganism which is evolving an intelligence to which we owe solemn obedience. Accordingly, we are no better than the rest of Nature since we are all merely a part of one gigantic living thing. Any claim of human superiority (as when I believe my four-year-old more valuable than the Doberman biting him) is “speciesism”. Thus, Nature ceases to be a sister groaning with us for redemption and a fellow creature for whom we are responsible (as Christianity teaches) and instead becomes our Eternal Mother.
The result of this attempt at ultimate egalitarianism is curious. For reaction to the materialist’s desacralization of nature also gives oomph to another truth mutation in the form of a loose but growing congeries of neo-pagan nature worship. Mother Earth becomes our Sacred Mother and we become deified as parts of Her. Thus, an increasing number of pop gurus begin to take seriously the ancient pagan gods and goddesses and urge us to realize our oneness with them (a cancerous development of the truth of human beings as the image of God). We are exhorted to look, not to a transcendent Creator, but to ourselves as divine beings melded with a divine Mother Earth. This trend toward self-appointed divinity is aided by the fact that the religious truth cancers of the past (e.g. the notion that the Almighty was in our back pocket because we had once glimpsed His backside) have now mutated into the opposite belief that there is no ultimate truth and that all “moral value” (as truth is now called) is therefore created by us. The truth of God as transcendent Judge and Lawgiver is now attacked with the truth-gilded lie that pantheistic “Spirit” is immanent (and therefore utterly identical with us). The words of the old spiritual are revised to read: “We’ve got the whole world in our hands.”
The upshot of all this has a certain quality of black humor. A truth cancer aimed at striking down humanity’s biblical task of subduing the earth and taking dominion over it to the glory of God (Gen 1:28) ends by exalting us beyond all reason and sanity. We become gods and goddesses creating our personal truth of the moment. Yet our personal truth of the moment is that our unborn gods and goddesses are non-human “fetal material” more suitable for harvesting than the tuna. The Transcendent God is denied by both the old materialist and the new worshipper of Gaia. This is how it happens that, on the one hand, the United States can deny its responsibility for the earth by producing tons of nuclear waste with a half-life of 240,000 years while, on the other hand, certain animal rights activists can see no essential difference between the slaughter of someone’s child in a Milwaukee apartment and the butchering of cattle.
Truth cancer, then, is deadly because it contains enough truth to elude our immune system while it attacks healthy truth tissue. As Uncle Screwtape acutely describes the diabolic wisdom, “We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under… Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”
This “wisdom” goes a long way toward explaining the quandary the Christian can often find himself or herself in with respect to the various ideological fads that continually sweep modernity like monsoons. With irritating uniformity, Christian teaching insists that the two greatest commandments are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” Everything else, however important, is subordinate to this (Matthew 22:34-40). Thus when the United States uses “security” as a truth cancer to justify its willingness to acquire military firepower on a scale unimaginable to the most brazen Caesars, Christians like Dorothy Day take strong exception. And they get lambasted for their troubles as “America Bashers”. Yet the fact remains that our nuclear arsenal–any nuclear arsenal–is a grave affront to God. From a Gospel perspective (as opposed to a realpolitik one) it constitutes the willingness both to commit mass murder and the actual sin of robbing our brothers and sisters to make that murder possible. Likewise, when the garden variety liberal advocates the right to kill unborn children on a scale far greater than all the pogroms and exterminations our century has already seen, the Christian must speak out. And be labeled a “fundamentalist fanatic”.
The interesting thing demonstrated by all this is that, for all our love of rebellion, many moderns (including Christians) find the rebelliousness of Christ extremely shocking. Indeed, many people lose their sense of balance when they first meet it. Some, who have imbibed the vague “meek and mild” picture of Jesus, feel as though the whole possibility of His deity is somehow rendered absurd by the cleansing of the temple. God, they feel, could never lose his cool like that. Rather, He is permitted only to wander about saying wise and inscrutable things in perfect serenity (though in extreme moments He may be allowed to wring His hands and weep in pity for our woeful plight). The bottom line for such people is the demand that God should never act with the furious love that any normal person would show for their own child in the face of danger.
On the other hand, some respond to the discovery of Jesus the Rebel as though it baptized every reactionary impulse to blow their way. A neo-Marxist reads the cleansing of the temple as a kind of religious imprimatur for class warfare. Many leftist theologians were enraptured with the Sandinistas and seemed to feel that the Millennium was about to dawn until a repressive Vatican rudely pointed out that Jesus and Marx did not see eye to eye. Conversely, certain right-wing “dominion theologians” read the Gospel as a license to engage in guerrilla warfare with the liberal establishment, bust secular humanist chops and seize theocratic power in the name of the Prince of Peace.
And somewhere in the middle, the rest of us Christians just want the whole question to go away. Rebellion, we feel, is just not nice. After all, the Gospel counsels submission. Submission to God and submission to earthly authorities. “Let everyone obey the authorities that are over him,” we plead, “for there is no authority except from God, and all authority that exists is established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2). We just want to be good people and not get caught up in someone’s power grab. We do not want to be the next victim of truth cancer. Best to just let sleeping dogs lie. We feel that we are playing with fire even to consider the topic of rebellion.
And so we are. “I have come to set the earth on fire,” says Jesus, “and how I wish it were already blazing” (Luke 12:49). Indeed, we are not merely to play with fire, we are to be baptized in it. We are called to “be not conformed to this world,” to be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and to call others to join the movement as well. Yet to do so will necessarily put us in conflict with the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). In other words, fidelity to Jesus will, at some level, force us to be rebels precisely because of our submission to God. To adopt a safe, passive “Sunday Christianity” that accepts the status quo and never makes waves is to betray the Gospel. It flies in the face of the parable of the unjust judge and makes a mockery of the parable of the talents, wherein Our Lord counsels, not mild resignation to the status quo, but audacity and moxie. For all the dangers of truth cancer, we evidently cannot escape all hazard by opting for Maalox when the Christian tradition is serving strong meat. As C.S. Lewis says, “If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.”
By this time you may be drumming your fingers and muttering, “What is this babbler trying to say? First he praises rebellion as a natural and even godly thing, then he waves us away from it, now he seems to be urging it upon us again. What gives?” Simply this: that rebellion is a complex affair, and we had better walk all the way around it, look under the hood and kick the tires before we sink our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor into it. Yet at the same time, we must recognize that in the world as it now exists rebellion will be, at some level, a natural and inevitable part of life and therefore something which we must learn (paradoxically) to submit to Jesus Christ.
That is the odd and true meaning of the old virtue known as “temperance.” In its most robust form (before it withered into connoting mere mildness and disdain for demon rum) it might be defined as the ability to juggle the many passionate truths of the Gospel, loving them all fiercely without denaturing any. For Jesus calls us to balance, not mix or trim, true justice, true mercy and true love so that we may be more extreme than the most virulent radical ever dreamed. Thus, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer can stand utterly opposed to everything the radical Hitler represents, yet willingly risk (and ultimately lose) his life for love of a country which has prostituted itself body and soul to Nazism. Thus, the prophets can scream bloody murder over Jerusalem’s sins and yet wail over her destruction. Thus, the Lamb of God can be slain by and for us, the rebels who nailed Him to the cross.
And that, lang syne, brings us back to love–love of God and love of neighbor, including the neighbor against whom it is entirely right to rebel. For it is these two loves, taken together in their proper order and overarching all other loves which truth cancer always fails to confront. “Taken together in their proper order” I say because, separated and pitted against one another, the love of God and neighbor are the most virulent forms of truth cancer in the world. This is what we see in the Mideast, where the love of God tramples the love of neighbor. This is also what we see in the secular West, where the love of neighbor increasingly eclipses the love of God (and in so doing ceases to be the love of neighbor). Yet if the love of God and the love of neighbor are not pitted against one another, if they are indeed taken together in their proper order, they are ultimately stronger than every death that truth cancer can inflict.
This then is the mystery of Christ crucified and risen: the redemption of rebellion. He Who is Truth and holds the keys of death did not kill liars to defend truth. Indeed, He did not even, from a realpolitik standpoint, kill lies or win any significant ideological battles. To be sure, He left his enemies speechless in debate and defeated all their ingenious philosophical shadows with His blazing daylight. But in the end, all the lies sprang up after He had knocked them down. All the malignant enemies, with their attempts to twist His words, with their insinuations and double standards and half-truths, they all got their way. When Jesus had said and done all He could do and say, Judas nonetheless went out. And it was night.
So all the worst fears of every heart that ever fought a losing battle for a sacred truth were realized in the Garden of Gethsemane. Not least among the many temptations which assailed Jesus that night was the temptation to rebel, as our whole sad and exhausted race has always rebelled, against His destroyers and the God Who permitted the destruction. But He did not. Instead, He rebelled against rebellion itself, renouncing both the sword of St. Peter and of St. Michael, and saying the final Yes both to the love of God and of His murderers. Impossibly, he chose to alloy His death with the words “Thy will, not mine, be done” and “Forgive them, Father.” Thus, in this supreme act of revolt, He wrenched rebellion from the hands of the evil one and, by His resurrection and ascension, made it His own forever.
By His death and resurrection then, Jesus has broken the life cycle of truth cancer. By Christ’s unique revolt against the prince of this world, God has redeemed rebellion. He has taken our best feistiness for truth out of the realm of warring diagrams, concepts and ideologies and integrated it into the living and glorified marrow of His Son. Henceforth, any sacred principle, no matter how precious, which is not in living union with the God Man is doomed to wither and die while any neglected truth, no matter how reviled, cannot but flourish and bear fruit as it feeds on the life of the Vine. So it is that our feistiness, like all our other natural gifts, must die with Christ in order to be glorified and see the truth for which it fights exalted. Say amen to joining in that death and your Cause, though it were dead, yet shall it live. Say no, and your crucial truth will one day be as reviled as the waxen corpse in Lenin’s mausoleum.
And with that, I conclude. I do not, as is customary at the end of such discussions, provide a list of “practical things to do now that we see this.” The reason I do not is that we all know the practical things to do already. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick–all the various corporal and spiritual works of mercy are well known. The million and one crises, challenges, movements and strategies blare at us every day from the tube, the pulpit, and the newspaper inviting us to righteous action and, if we are not careful, to truth cancer. What is not well known in our fragmented age is the Unifying Redeemer “Christ the Head, through whom the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:14-15). In union then with Jesus Christ Who is the Love of God and neighbor, may we all keep cheering for Groucho and slugging for what’s right like the best rebels in the world, and may He in turn present to Himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort–including truth cancer.