Back when I was a church pastor, I gave a sermon that offered an analysis of the strategy used by the conservative alliance of political and religious leaders to get rid of Jesus. He had been stirring up hope and excitement among the rabble, announcing the arrival of a New Reality that would break their yoke of oppression.
For obvious reasons, he had to go.
Conservatives of any persuasion are committed to maintaining the status quo – conserving or safeguarding the inherited values, beliefs, worldview and way of life enjoyed by those who are comfortably getting by. Of course, this is also in the interest of a privileged few in seats of authority and with entitled access to wealth, healthcare, education and good jobs.
Anyone who dares to criticize and challenge the moral legitimacy of such an arrangement is asking for trouble.
Jesus criticized and challenged the politico-religious axis of conversative powers, and he got the trouble he was asking for.
To them, his message of the in-breaking power of a New Reality was nothing short of apocalyptic, in the way it threatened to pull down the idols of empire and orthodoxy. Getting rid of him could not be accomplished by a single aggressive strike, since Jesus had a popular following of some considerable size and they didn’t necessarily want to incite a revolution.
So this is how they did it.
Step One: Dismiss the Message
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The New Reality that Jesus’ proclaimed was just another utopia dreamed up by a disgruntled peasant from the Galilean outback. In a sprawling empire, there’s going to be a few who just can’t seem to accept the way things are and find their place in it. They would rather daydream about an ideal world than learn how to live in the real one.
Step Two: Deride the Messenger
“He is out of his mind.” But Jesus persisted, and this made it necessary to redirect their strategy at him personally. Not only was his message unrealistic, but he was himself a self-styled prophet who wandered the hills and city streets peddling a crazy fantasy. He spoke in parables and paradoxes – riddles just provocative enough to stupify his audience and keep them curious.
He was a cross-eyed clown-magician for the simple-minded.
Step Three: Discredit the Messenger
“Isn’t this the son of a carpenter?” Laughing off Jesus and his pathetic company didn’t have its desired effect, and his following only continued to grow. So instead of painting him as a buffoon, his conservative opponents began to attack his pedigree, as someone whose family tree would not be expected to bring forth a serious leader.
Jesus came from the wrong side of the tracks, the son of someone who didn’t matter.
Step Four: Disparage the Messenger
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” If exposing Jesus’ unremarkable and average background wasn’t enough to undermine the devotion of his followers, then a more aggressive smear campaign was in order. Consistent with his “good news” (gospel) of a New Reality where divisions of race, wealth, power, and morality are transcended by a community of compassion, generosity and goodwill, Jesus spent his time with social outsiders and moral outcasts.
How can anyone with a conscience associate with someone like that?!
Step Five: Destroy the Messenger
“And they began to look for an opportunity to put Jesus away.” In a civil society, before a movement goes too far and upsets the status quo, the steps for shutting someone up and dispersing his or her fan base might be regarded as “coarse and unkind” – but still be allowed to play out in the press, from the pulpit, on the airways, and in social media.
With each step, the water in the kettle gets a little warmer – not enough to trigger the frog’s leap of escape, however – until the temperature reaches a critical point where it’s no longer tolerable but has rendered the frog incapable of doing anything about it.
One of the dichotomies inherent to a liberal democracy is its aspirational commitment to freedom and progress on one side, and on the other a natural tendency, characteristic of all human groups, to fall into routines and become increasingly protective of the status quo.
The true spirit of democracy is for that reason unwelcome in a society which has settled into its traditions and authority structures, to the extent that beliefs and value-judgments once held consciously slip into position in front of the mind as pre-judgments (aka prejudices), determining how its members perceive and respond to the world around them.
All of this came back to me over the past four years, as I observed how candidate and then president Trump regards his democratic opponents – the true proponents of democracy in America. Included in this company are both Democrats and Republicans (as well as other minor parties) who are committed to the process of creating a system of governance dedicated to the advancement of individual freedom, civic responsibility, servant leadership, and equal representation under the law.
Those who speak on behalf of these democratic principles are typically handled by Trump using the same five-step process outlined above, just as the politico-religious conservative alliance dealt with Jesus in his day.
It’s proven to be the most effective method of dictators for luring otherwise sane and decent folk under a spell, where they are finally willing to abandon their interest in freedom for the despot’s promise to protect them from “disasters” which are sure to come with the changes of progress.
Moving our focus from the lessons of history to what’s transpiring right now in our own country, we can see how Trump has been pulling large numbers of professional Republicans and American citizens under a kind of spell. Like that frog in the kettle, we have followed him step-by-step through the program, with each additional step seeming to be not such a gross departure from what we’ve already been willing to concede, casually accept, and quietly ignore.
Finding ourselves nodding in agreement with his character smears and name-calling, we might next be content to look away as one more candle in our less-free democracy is snuffed out.