Quick Hitter: Jesus Has Some Thoughts About Problematic Allies

Richard Beck had an excellent post from Monday about a self-cannibalizing tendency with the Left.  Beck points out that the exclusion tendencies stemming from purity psychology are not somehow limited to conservative people--liberal folks engage in the exact same purity psychology.  In particular, Beck points out that allies--people that agree with parts of a particular progressive agenda--tend to be a focus of attacks, sometimes even above and beyond those who oppose the agenda in total.

It strikes me that Jesus has a parable that is relevant here.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

(Matthew 20:1-16).  This might be the toughest of Jesus's parables.  Everything in our experience inclines us to agree with those who were hired first thing in the morning.  They were there first, they did the most work, they showed the most commitment, they did everything right.  We think that they should be rewarded for their efforts.  But what we are really saying is that they should be awarded above and beyond those who have a spottier work record, who weren't there from the beginning, who didn't do all the right things.  Because, as the landowner points out, it's not really about the early birds getting paid, but about the latecomers not getting paid.

Attacking allies for not exhibiting perfect correctness is a vehicle for those who view themselves as the highest or the best or the first to mark off their identity from the unwashed masses who agree with them on their issues.

Take this example.  One of my U.S. Senators, Rob Portman, announced a couple of years ago that he had changed his mind on gay marriage because his son is gay.  There are two ways to respond to that if you are someone who supports gay marriage.  You can say "look, a prominent, otherwise conservative politician embraces our position.  Great!"  Or you can say, "well, he only did this because of his son.  If he really understood the issue, he wouldn't have needed his son coming out to come to this position."  There is no question that Rob Portman came late to the vineyard, with a spotty work record.  But I think Jesus is trying to tell us that actually doesn't matter.  And if we make it matter, we are doing so in order to establish our own moral superiority over people like Rob Portman.  It's not really about the issue at all--it's about us and our psychological needs.  And Jesus wants us to cut that out.

I think this is a serious, serious blind spot in progressive thought, both political and religious.  If left unchecked, it will begin to eat itself, because there is always someone who got to the vineyard earlier than you, who has a better claim to purity than you do.  It's is a never-ending spiral, just like it's conservative counterpart is a never-ending spiral (which is not surprising, because it's ultimately the same spiral).  The "will to purity," as Beck calls it, will ultimately destroy any institution or movement it is allowed to infect, eliminating any hope of actually effecting change.


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