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No, Mr. Dowd: Jesus was not an exemplar of modern wokeness

Loving a neighbor may mean opposing his self-destructive desires

Mathew Dowd speaks at the the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Ark., in 2009. Associated Press/Photo by Danny Johnston (File)

No, Mr. Dowd: Jesus was not an exemplar of modern wokeness
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According to the Bible, love is one of God’s defining attributes. This is so basic to biblical Christianity that believers sing this truth, preach this truth, teach our children this truth. But a multitude of problems ensue when we ground our understanding of love in some matrix outside biblical theology. An anecdotal survey of our culture—including much of its Christian element—suggests that love has been increasingly rendered therapeutic, sanitized, and purged of anything we find uncomfortable.

While sitting in church on a recent Sunday, Matthew Dowd, a Democrat candidate for Texas lieutenant governor, had an epiphany. “If Jesus were here today,” it occurred to him, “he would be accused of being woke.” Dowd shared his inspirational thought in a tweet, adding: “How about we just say it is human decency to treat all people with respect and dignity.” A short while later, in response to the backlash, Dowd complained that Christians “on the way right” get “nasty and cruel” when other Christians “speak out with a different message based on the loving way of Jesus.” This linkage of “woke” to “Christ-like love” and “human decency” betrays deep confusion about both decency and love.

A pair of caveats are in order. First, we need to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about “woke.” A tour of the dictionaries reminds us that words evolve. “Woke” has narrowed in definition from a jazz-era idiom describing anyone who was “well-informed and up-to-date” to a current signifier of someone specifically “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” Let’s be clear that it shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that Jesus—and all his followers—ought to be alert to discrimination and injustice. Second, it’s true that some Christians can be both nasty and cruel to those with whom they disagree. It’s a downside to being human, even if such behavior is even more reprehensible when committed by Christians. The Christ-follower must mortify every temptation toward cruelty and nastiness.

But here the problems begin. First, the contemporary definition above is generous to the point of mendacity. At the very least, “woke” should be defined as “alert to perceived discrimination and injustice”—for false allegations of injustice abound. More importantly, experience teaches us that the practical reality of “woke” is much less benign than its dictionary definition. To be woke signifies the angry, noisy, and unrelenting calling out—both off and online—of any who question or oppose the radical left’s volatile beliefs about racism, white privilege, homosexuality, transgenderism, the environment, or any of its other ideological projects. The woke don’t engage the opposition. They claim the right to discriminate in order to fight discrimination, cancel opponents, push them out of social and professional circles, and crush dissent. It is this self-arrogated, bullying intellectual superiority that most Christians stand against when they stand against “woke.”

Secondly, merely standing against woke ideology is sufficient to be labeled cruel and nasty. Never mind that the biblical witness portrays Jesus, prophets, and others who ridicule folly, flip over tables, whip, wage war, and mock false gods as they rail against sin, unbelief, hypocrisy, a lack of charity, the abuse of freedom, or fraudulent representations of the nature of reality. It’s true, as Dowd would likely clamor to contend, that Jesus loved sinners. But it’s also true Jesus did not allow them to indulge in their sin.

The biblical record offers a careful study of a love that understands that doing what is loving sometimes means not letting others do whatever they want. Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to destroy themselves in pursuit of happiness. The pursuit itself isn’t the problem. The fundamental rationale of the moral life is the promotion of happiness. The Greeks called it eudaemonia—or flourishing—and Christ, on the mountainside, called it beatitude. But the pursuit of beatitude requires becoming that for which we were made: sons and daughters of God who reflect his character. To love another human being is to desire that they be shaped increasingly into the likeness of this divine image. Contrary to popular desire, this can only be done in a very limited moral ecology. Having a special hatred, then, for the evils that harm one another’s capacity to be truly happy, the Christian will sometimes champion policies, laws, and social prescriptions that work against our neighbor’s preferences in favor of what we believe to be their real interests.

Whenever possible, we should explain our intentions and demonstrate how our opposition is not arbitrary nor our prescriptions mere fiat. We can acknowledge the hurt our resistance to woke sentiments sometimes causes even as we act with the common good in mind. Despite our efforts, those like Dowd may still slander us as cruel and unloving. We can take some solace in knowing, as even a dentist knows, that helping sometimes inevitably causes pain.

Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.


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