Your typical activist college student nowadays, eager to change the world, will tear through a variety of texts on subjects like Black liberation, feminism and socialist theory. They’ll learn all about the ideologies of historic figures like Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara and Angela Davis.
Yet, in a very deep sense, they’d be much better served by starting with the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, though I am a Catholic, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to convert anybody. Because I’m not. I simply want readers to recognize the brilliance of Christ’s rhetorical approach in his most famous speech.
Let’s set the stage for a moment. It’s first-century Israel. A young, gentle carpenter is preaching throughout the nation, setting off a stir with his radical new interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. He feels the way Jewish leaders are teaching these texts is too legalistic, strict and hard. One day, while sitting on top of a hill in Galilee, this profound figure decides to summarize his thoughts with a few choice words. He will speak on adultery, murder, taking oaths, settling disputes, and divorce.
But perhaps nothing will be remembered more across the ages than his teaching on love:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
For our purposes, Christ is doing something very smart here, which he repeats throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
He offers his criticism of the prevailing status quo, but also describes something even better.
You’ve been taught to love only your neighbor? That’s too easy. No, love everyone, everywhere.
This is the nasty world we live in now. Here’s the beautiful one let’s make together.
That’s the great magic of Christianity. That’s the reason we still remember the words of a poor, peasant carpenter from a backwater in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Jesus wasn’t just complaining about all the things he didn’t like. He offered his followers and all the generations who came after something radically new and perfect.
The problem I have with modern progressives is too often they only do the first part. We are wonderful critics. I genuinely mean that. We have so many thoughtful things to say about the evils of poverty, geopolitics, climate change, and a host of other ills. But where we fall short is vision, in having the capacity to clearly explain what wonderful future should replace our unjust present.
For example, consider the current protests around ending the war in Gaza. I wholeheartedly applaud those taking to the streets in an attempt to stop the bombing of innocent civilians. Their efforts come from a place of deep humanitarian concern.
However, the reason why the conflict is still ongoing is because these activists have not explained what the alternative is to fighting. Israelis don’t like the status quo, either, but they are unwilling to negotiate peace with Hamas, a gang of genocidal terrorists who are committed to murdering their children.
The left is making a very valid criticism. War is terrible, indeed, and hurts many who do not deserve it. But the vast protests have not provided a vision of what a better scenario looks like.
Because for the Jews, letting devils stay in power just miles away from their border is not a tenable option.
If you truly seek peace, you must explain how Israel can agree to a ceasefire and still feel safe. What’s the best, logical case that can be made for that position?
Until this issue is addressed, all the critiques about the current violence won’t change a thing. The bombs will continue to fall.
By contrast, when activists don’t just oppose what’s going on, but also boldly point the way to a better tomorrow, that’s what changes history.
Whether one is delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or a Sermon on Facebook, both elements are needed for success.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.