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Eyes Wide Open, Monastery Walls Around The Heart

As Trump and his enemies clash, Benedict Option Christians must find ways to avoid succumbing to wrathfulness

A reader e-mails:

I came across this New York Times story today. It reminded me of your “Trump, John Lewis and American Dissolution” post, specifically the excerpts you quoted from David Hines’ tweetstorm about political violence in the 70s.

The story is about the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being sucker-punched by a masked left-wing activist on the streets of Washington as he was being interviewed. The DCist website here takes pleasure in different remixes showing the cowardly assault.  (And yes, it was cowardly. I can’t stand what Richard Spencer believes in, but every one of us has the right to stand peaceably on a street corner and talk about our beliefs without having to worry about a thug assaulting us.)

The reader continues:

In Hines’ tweets he talks about how since he and everyone else on his side of the political spectrum is called a Nazi by the left, then that makes him very interested in the physical safety of Nazis. And, lo and behold, not a day after Trump is inaugurated, we have a story in a major national newspaper asking if it is ok to assault people in public for holding an unpopular view. Notwithstanding the one (!) person they quoted disapproving of political violence, the jocular tone of the piece clearly suggests that it is absolutely ok.

Yes. Embedded in the story was this tweet by a former Obama speechwriter:

More from the reader:

This is the part where I say I did not vote for Trump and think the alt-right repulsive, but honestly, watching the increasingly unhinged reactions from the left worry me far more than a fringe racist white power movement. I have grown adults on my Facebook timeline unselfconsciously calling themselves The Resistance. It’s insanity, yet they’re taking themselves completely seriously.

I’m not really sure this has a much to do with Trump either. Oh sure, the left despises him for his lack of character and his policies (such as they are). However, watching what has been happening on college campuses and in our political institutions over the past few years, I can’t help but think the left has been working themselves up to this for a while. They have become so illiberal, so intolerant of their fellow Americans, I think that we would have seen something very similar even if it was Jeb Bush taking the oath of office. They are working themselves up to something ugly. I hesitate to imagine what the reaction is going to be if Trump starts seriously threatening their institutional strongholds like the bureaucracies and the Supreme Court. Just imagine Wisconsin under Scott Walker, but on a national scale.

Next, a friend who is very insightful about politics and history writes:

Something to consider as you develop applications of your book in advance and following it release. I have never seen the Left this unhinged – and that’s saying something. We are seeing violence, calls for assassination, immediate impeachment, claims that the duly elected President is not legitimate, and so on. This is all so far beyond the customary norms of contemporary American political discourse and opposition – as bad as it’s been in recent decades. Something very sinister and ominous is taking place.

I have my theory why this is so, one that goes simply beyond the widely-shared agreement on the awfulness of Trump. If Liberalism is the new religion of the “secularists,” then the election of Trump represents an existential apostasy. If History (with a capital H) has an “arc,” then deviation from its course is a worse threat than global warming. Progress is supposed only to move in one direction, and like a ratchet, can’t go “back.” Politics isn’t politics – it’s movement toward the eschaton.

Conservatives keep wryly noting the absence of similar violence, protests and mass assemblies when Obama was elected and reelected. No-one lit themselves on fire in response to the HHS mandate, no significant boycotts were advanced against businesses that brought Indiana to heel over its RFRA, and there were not massive marches on Washington after Obergefell. At base, I believe because the worldview of most conservatives does not invest the political sphere with the same metaphysical status as that of Progressives, conservatives do not view the political sphere as the ultimate battle ground where History unfolds. Expectations from politics are simply less: some justice, some peace, but mostly the daily grind of enduring the world with all its frailties, imperfections, and temporary injustices.

However, as the progressive opposition to Trump ramps up and we experience the unfolding four years as one of constant emergency and calamity, there is a real danger for Christians especially: that Christians become drawn by default into the terms of debate established by Progressives, advanced by the media, echoed by Hollywood, supported on campuses, and amplified ceaselessly on social media. Social media is going to be a the Internet Age’s equivalent of the seven deadly sins – especially sloth – and Christians would be well-advised not to be drawn into its tempting distractions. We are going to be a nation ever more defined by constant and ceaseless outrage over everything, and whatever one says — no matter if it’s meant for amusement or a passing observation — will be inexorably drawn into the outrage amplification machine.

One of the great challenges, then, will be fostering spaces where silence, moderation, contemplation, conversation, and real friendships might blossom. I can already see developing the disposition so common during the great ideological battles of the mid-20th century: if you are not with us, you are against us. Not to be drawn into this secularized Manicheanism will be one of the great challenges for Christians, and it seems to me the unexpected way that the types of Christian communities envisioned in the Benedict Option will be especially necessary. We may not face the threat that we thought might be coming under a Clinton Presidency, but in many respects at least that prospect had the benefit of making it clearer to us what was to be expected and the forms of resistance that would be needed. The current conflagration will be subtler in its iniquity — more akin to the temptations offered by a Screwtape — and the ability to build spaces outside the Politics of the Eschaton will be especially needful.

This strikes me as both true and very important. I had not quite thought of things that way. To me, the Benedict Option has always been about developing the practices, the relationships, and the institutions that would help small- o orthodox Christians endure in a culture that is both actively and passively hostile to our faith. As the second reader said, it has assumed the nature of the enemy. What it did not imagine was the threat to Christian faith from politics itself. That is, by being drawn into the cycle of perpetual outrage, such that the wrath it provokes devours you.

I don’t know about you, but this is a big temptation for me.  This appeared on Twitter last night:

In response, I tweeted that things like it were “clarifying”. What do they clarify? The nature of the enemy. And, they clarify for me that no matter how bad Trump gets, I will never, ever be on the side of people like this. (It turns out this photo was from a 2014 demonstration, but there were plenty of posters and spoken words from the women’s march this past weekend that were almost as bad. My point still stands.)

Here’s what it also clarifies, in light of my political friend’s words above: the nature of the challenge facing Christians in the wake of a culture capable of this sort of thing. We could find it easy to surrender our principles in the face of terrible things Trump does, because of wrath provoked by our enemies’ malice, and to therefore refuse to criticize or even to judge him, because we don’t want to give his enemies any quarter. I felt that way this weekend after first seeing and hearing what some were saying at the women’s march in Washington. It’s a dangerous state of mind to be in. Plus, if we allow ourselves to be sucked into the cyclone, we could find it easy to allow ourselves to become what so many of those on the left have become: so consumed by hatred — a hatred that they call justice — that they cannot see the humanity of any who oppose them.

Dante understands how this goes and where this goes. I wrote this a couple of years ago about Canto XVI of the Purgatorio:

Tonight we enter the choking, blinding black cloud of Wrath. There Dante meets Marco the Lombard, and asks him what is to blame for the world today having been consumed by evil and chaos. The moral philosophy Marco espouses is at the heart of the Commedia‘s meaning. I have abandoned the Musa translation for the Hollander one here, because it has more grandeur:

First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung

to a groan, and then began: “Brother,

the world is blind and indeed you come from it.

“You who are still alive assign each cause

only to the heavens, as though they drew

all things along upon their necessary paths.

“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,

and there would be no justice when one feels

joy for doing good or misery for evil.”

Marco refers to the medieval habit of blaming moral failures on forces outside of man’s control — symbolized by the heavenly spheres (hence the belief in horoscopes). Marco’s point here is the same as Shakespeare’s: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Men believe that they can’t help themselves, that they are playthings in the hands of forces larger than themselves — but that isn’t true. Marco continues:

“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations,

I don’t say all of them, but even if I did,

you still possess a light to winnow good from evil,

“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain

in its first struggles with the heavens,

then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.”

In less poetic language, Marco concedes that we all have inclinations toward sin, but we can still see good and evil, and have the power, through free will, to resist our sinful inclinations. If we refuse sin the first time, and keep doing so, there’s nothing within our own natures that we cannot overcome. This is what Purgatory is all about: straightening through ascetic labors the crooked paths within us, making ourselves ready for Heaven. Marco goes on to say that if we submit ourselves, in our freedom, to God (“a greater power”), we free ourselves from the forces of fate and instinct. Here’s the clincher:

“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,

in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”

The context here is a discussion that Dante the pilgrim launches with Marco, in which he (Dante) seeks to know why the people of his homeland, are caught up in a perpetual cycle of war and vengeance. Marco tells him it’s because your anger has made you blind. But, says Marco, you are not fated to do this. You have free will, given to you by God. Use it to resist your wrathful impulses. And always know that you are not separate from the world and its fallenness, and that if you want a world of peace and true justice, it starts with reforming your own heart.

Whatever else the Benedict Option sets out to do, it looks like one vital part of its mission will be to train Christians to love our enemies, and to bless those that persecute us. To do so is going to require withdrawing from the cycle of outrage created by Trump and his enemies. It’s going to be hard to do this while not embracing a state of denial about what’s going on all around us. We are going to have to keep our eyes wide open, but also construct monastery walls around our hearts.

UPDATE: Just had a phone conversation with a friend. He said that his Facebook feed is lighting up with Evangelicals saying things like, “F–k liberals.” He said he has never seen conservative Christians embrace that kind of spite and vulgarity, until now. It worries him. It should. Note well that he’s not saying that secular liberals are avoiding this kind of thing, not at all. He’s simply pointing out that he never thought he would see Christians embrace the hatred like they’re now doing.