Were The Christian Martyrs Losers?
Matt in VA is one of my favorite regular commenters here. It’s not that I agree with him always — sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t — but that he’s almost always intelligent, and makes me think. I’m going to post a long response he made in the comments section of another thread, to a criticism I made of him. I said:
This blog’s commenter Matt in VA is not a Christian, is gay, and is on on the Right. He repeatedly denounces me for being soft, and unwilling to engage in violence to defend the Right.
To which he responded:
I can’t be a very good or clear writer if this is the impression you’re getting. Sorry!
My politics are practically a Xerox of Steve Sailer’s. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him advocate violence. I do think he is more perceptive and clear-sighted than anybody else writing about our culture and our politics today and I’d sign up for a philosopher-kingdom of his were it on offer. It’s silly to expect any of the rest of us, or more than one or two of the rest of us, to be that brilliant. But we could at least be brave. We could at least be courageous. That is not asking too much of us.
Do you really get the impression that I expect *you* to be violent? Sorry! Taking tougher *stances* and being harder in what one is willing to *write* — sure. That would please me! For instance, if you do believe that we are entering a new Dark Age, I would think you might — maybe it’s a failure of imagination, maybe it’s just that *I* can’t imagine feeling that way and *not* wanting to fight, not wanting to say, “I will do what I can to not let this kind of world that I foresee come into being”. But fight is of course going to mean different things for different people. Here’s the thing — I think all of us human beings should fight. Including the 90 year old grandmothers. But what *fighting* looks like will be different for different people. Liberals do *fight*. That doesn’t mean they all bust kneecaps! But they take various actions to ensure that their beliefs and values are not pushed out of the public square. That looks different for different people.
I’ve given this example before. But people used to say to their daughters who got pregnant out of wedlock, “Never darken our doors again.” In other words, they used to *enforce* with *consequences* their values. Not (necessarily) with violence, but with consequences. And it was *cruel*! Of course it was cruel. But if you are not willing to enforce what you believe to be true, if you always cede public ground to those who *will* enforce the values that they believe, you cannot be surprised if the world becomes *their* world. Somebody ends up doing the enforcing. And enforcing comes in a lot of forms. Think about orthodox Christian parents with gay children. I’ll willing to bet that 75+% of the time, it’s the children — once grown– who give the ultimatum, “deal with this/accept it or I’ll cut you out of my life,” and the parents fold, because they love their son or daughter and cannot bring themselves to lose him or her. The gay person is more *committed.* This is how a small minority can establish the public-sphere understanding of even something as fundamental as biological sex/gender.
Now– take the movie “Hacksaw Ridge.” The Seventh-Day Adventist said he wouldn’t fight, he would not kill, himself. But he certainly did everything he could to help his fellow soldiers! He didn’t spend the war telling them that what they *really* should be doing was laying down their arms, too, and that violence should *always* be eschewed by Christians so he was going to criticize them all through the battle!
As for the Christian thing… For what it’s worth–perhaps nothing, perhaps less than nothing– I believe Christianity is true. I know I am not orthodox, and I know that orthodoxy is both very important to you personally and very important, objectively speaking. I’m not trying to argue with your description of me or tell you how you must refer to me.
Lastly — since you quoted a Weekly Standard writer — let me point out that the Respectable Conservative Right never, but never, but never criticizes Israel for using violence, and instead all of its pundits immediately jump to defend Israel’s every violent action, whether asked to comment on it or not. And I don’t find the argument “Israel is different, they have it very bad, it’s literally surrounded by hostile nations, it’s nothing like here” when you just wrote a book saying that we are facing a new Dark Age — which sounds pretty damn bad! I don’t believe that the Respectable Conservative Right is anywhere near as pure and Christian-martyry as they claim to be when comparing themselves to Trump. And for goshsakes, what about the Iraq War, which Weekly Standardites did more than almost anyone else to bring about? You know what, I get it. The Respectable Conservative Right scolds and tone-polices because, even though they *support* and *advocate* for massive amounts of violence, they see the actual fighting as beneath them as something for the peons and Middle Americans to do.
In a system like ours where there is no accountability — where the Weekly Standard writers are never, but never held accountable in any way for their Iraq Wars — yes, I don’t know that I see tarring and feathering, or even Judge Lynch, as a terrible travesty of justice. If I’m not to become *fond* of such things — sure, I’m on board, I promise to not get fond of it!
I appreciate the clarification, and I apologize for saying he’s not a Christian. I genuinely though he wasn’t.
Matt’s comment makes me think that I must be doing a poor job of explaining my point of view, though I also believe that there is a genuine difference between us. Let me see if I can better define the similarities and the differences.
I think people like Matt see me as being a conscientious objector in the culture war because I don’t believe that conventional tactics do much good anymore, or at least can’t do for us cultural and religious conservatives what we want them to do. It’s not that I believe in surrendering; it’s that I’m skeptical of what victory on these terms means.
Let’s take a hypothetical example. A local school board is considering imposing a pro-transgender policy on schools. It’s everything that GLAAD would want: trans access to preferred locker rooms, trans participation on preferred sports teams, mandatory use of preferred pronouns, etc. Do I think Christian and culturally conservative parents should fight this? Damn straight! Organize. Show up at the school board meetings. Do your best, even if they hate you.
You might win. But if so, then what? What, exactly, have you achieved on a deeper level?
I wrote recently about a liberal friend who teaches in public high school in a conservative state. She told me that the teenagers in her high school are heavily pro-LGBT, even though their parents are not. She said that the parents have no idea at all what their kids think about these things — and she’s thrilled over it. Her school has no LGBT policies now, and I can imagine, based on our conversation, that if the local school board tried to implement them, there would be at least some parental objection. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this happened, and that parents prevailed.
A victory wouldn’t be meaningless, but it would be superficial, and therefore almost meaningless, because the parents have already lost the moral imaginations of their kids. These kids have been formed not by their parents, nor by their churches, but by popular culture. In a few more years, the prohibition will fall by popular demand, because the conservatives have already lost the battle that counts.
What strategy do I recommend? Fight the battle at the school board, but make sure that you are also fighting the battle in your home and in your churches. By “fighting the battle,” I mean confronting head-on the propaganda from the Sexual Revolution, providing a robust counter-narrative, and living it out. It’s often said in classical Christian education circles that most parents who send their kids to those schools are running away from something bad, as distinct from running towards something good. A Christian friend in a Southern state told me recently that he believes that most parents in his local classical Christian school want their kids not to be liberal more than they want them to be deeply formed as Christians.
Because I believe that many of the most important battles have already been lost, and are unwinnable, I believe that “fighting” has to happen at a deeper level. On the school front, for example, either homeschool or create alternative schools, like classical Christian schools. There simply aren’t enough conservatives to “take back” public schools, even if it were possible. What’s more, creating the structures of an alternative ethos — e.g., a new school — is pointless if there is not also a counterrevolution in the hearts and minds of the kids and the parents who are part of that community.
In The Benedict Option, I mention the daughter of an Evangelical friend who told me that meetings of the parachurch Christian youth group to which she belongs is where the kids who are smoking, drinking, and sleeping with each other go once a week for their dose of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. She didn’t put it exactly that way, obviously, but her point was that there was nothing seriously Christian about the group. That kid spoke of the group as if it were more of a vaccination against taking the faith seriously than any kind of true aid to discipleship. Based on conversations I’ve had with Christian pastors since The Benedict Option came out, I don’t believe that it’s right always to blame the leaders of these groups. Often it’s the parents, who insist that their kids go to these groups to get the Christian formation that they (the parents) are unwilling to give them at home.
Many of these pastors face a difficult dilemma: do they turn these unserious kids away, even though that group may be the only contact they have with the faith, or do they try to accommodate them, even though it means watering down the purpose of the group? One pastor I know said that the serious Christian parents in his church’s youth group were starting to pull their kids out because the kids who were only there because their moms and dads made them come were making the whole thing pointless.
I believe that youth pastors have to start turning away those who are unserious about the faith, and about learning the skills of Christian discipleship. It’s hard to be a serious Christian in this post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, world; young people who want to do so need as much help as adults can give them. Kids need a challenge. The daughter of my friend — the kid who was alienated from her local parachurch Christian group — is the kind of kid who is the future of the church. Conservative Christians who are interested in fighting the culture war, but who aren’t interested in training young people like her in authentic Christian discipleship, aren’t serious. They are being nothing but a chaplaincy to the individualistic, post-Christian social order.
Andy Crouch puts my point into perspective in this post from a year ago. He titled it “A Rough Assessment Of The Two Major Premises Of Rod Dreher’s Book”:
1. Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.
Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 20%
Portion of journalistic coverage of the book devoted to this claim: 90%
Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 98%
Likelihood of this claim being true: 50%
How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 5%
2. Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularized modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.
Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 80%
Portion of journalistic coverage devoted to this claim: 10%
Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 2%
Likelihood of this claim being true: 90%
How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 100%
See, this is why I am skeptical of exhortations, à la Matt in VA, to “fight.” Most conservative Christians have only the vaguest idea what they ought to be fighting for — or where the most important battle lines truly are. You know the kind of people who are doing some of the most significant fighting right now?
The familiar model of conservative Christian culture-war engagement is badly outdated. We lost as surely as the French Army failed to prevent the Germans from taking Paris in 1940. To hear a lot of Christian conservatives talk, the thing to do is to keep strengthening the Maginot Line, even though the Germans are drinking Champagne on Champs-Elysées. The kind of culture-war fighting that matters now is more of a French Resistance model, even though that too is a flawed analogy. I prefer the Benedictine monastery model, adapted to the 21st-century laity: building up countercultural institutions to generate a way of life capable of outlasting the barbarians, and ultimately converting them.
This requires a more radical way of thinking and being in the world. It’s hard to see this, but highly politicized Christian figures like Robert Jeffress are collaborationists (to continue the metaphor). They think of themselves as bold warriors for the faith, but in fact they are unwittingly helping the enemy in all kinds of ways — chiefly, in my view, by totally misleading their people about the true nature of the struggle. The much more common kind of collaborationist is the bishop or pastor who prefers to believe that the status quo is manageable, and that we aren’t in any kind of crisis at all. Do not expect any kind of meaningful leadership from these people. Do not wait on them before you act. It’s not going to happen. Again, the analogy is flawed, but if we’re talking culture war, I’m arguing for Christians embracing the spirit of General de Gaulle, who led the Resistance from exile. An even better analogy would be to embrace the spirit of Poland’s Solidarity, who had no weapons with which to fight the communists, but who built their resistance through the power of faith and social solidarity. The Poles were conquered materially, but they were not conquered in spirit. What did the Poles do to resist from 1979 until the fall of communism? That’s the kind of fighting I’m talking about.
Going back to Matt’s point, I think he is generally right about the power of those who are willing to enforce what they believe to be true. The thing is, I can’t accept, not as a Christian nor as a human being, that if one of my children were to come out as gay, that my faith obligates me to cut them out of my life. I hope I have raised my children to believe, in turn, that if one of them were gay, they would not cut their parents out of their life, even though their parents cannot and will not affirm their homosexuality. If my adult gay child demands that I affirm their homosexuality, or pay the price of them exiling themselves from my life, then I will accept their choice to cut me off, because I cannot and will not affirm as true what I believe to be untrue. The choice of exile, though, will have been my child’s, and not my own.
If the price of “victory” is to sever human relationships, then what kind of victory is that? Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, there really is no other choice. We live in a fallen world. But these ideologues on both the right and the left who rejoice at crushing the wrong-thinkers — they give me chills. They reduce human beings to abstractions. I do not believe that schools should embrace transgenderism, for example, but I also do not believe that kids suffering from that particular delusion should be harassed or hurt. Rather, they should be treated like the children of God that they are. That does not mean that they should get whatever they want. But there is a baseline of human dignity that cannot and must not be denied or erased.
This is why I think that the gay man who sued his friend of a decade, Baronnelle Stutzman, the Washington florist, over her politely declining to arrange flowers for his gay wedding, is something like a monster. That he would crush that gentle soul, and compel this woman who had been kind to him, knowing he was gay, and sold him flowers for years, and befriended him, all because she would not violate her Baptist conscience — I find that sickening. I would also find it sickening if there was a florist in town who wanted to serve a gay couple at their wedding, and Christians tried to destroy her business to make an ideological point. You can say that I have squishy principles, and you might be right. But my general approach is Christian personalism, in the John Paul II style. It’s the only one I see as compatible with my Christian faith. In 1968, Wojtyla wrote:
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical significance and the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical than of the moral order. To this disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the mystery of the person.
My fundamental view is that when we start to pulverize individual humans for the sake of ideological principle, we open the door to great evil. Even when we must take hard stands and enforce them, we should struggle to keep before us at all times that we are dealing not with abstractions, but with human beings.
Matt is correct that power often goes to the audacious. This month has been LGBT Pride Month. I look at all those parades, and I see them as victory marches, but more deeply, I see defeat. Pride is a deadly sin, in all its guises. I see as much idolatry in the Pride marches as I do in Pastor Jeffress’s right-wing nationalist church worship services. I believe that Christians stand to lose their hearts, their minds, and even their souls if they succumb to either. I would rather stand with Baronelle Stutzman than with the triumphant victors of the Pride marches. I would rather stand with the Iraqi Christians who lost everything in large part because of America’s invasion than with Pastor Jeffress’s chest-thumping nationalism. I would rather stand with the Prisoner rather than the Inquisitor.
If in victory, you become like those you defeated, where is the true victory?
Matt, you say that you believe Christianity is true. I accept that. Where, then, does mercy figure into your vision? I can see justice, sort of, but mercy?
I guess this is a way of saying that I have moved, over the course of my Christian life, from total sympathy with the Robert De Niro character in “The Mission” to sympathy (but not total) with the Jeremy Irons character. “The Mission” is one of my all-time favorite movies. The fact that it does not offer a clean-cut moral is one of the reasons it’s so great. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I can point out that the central conflict is between two Jesuit priests in colonial South America. One (De Niro) believes that Christians can legitimately use violence to prevent their enslavement by any means necessary. The other (Irons) believes that martyrdom is the preferable course of action. Which one is right?
Most of my life, that has been a fairly easy question to answer: De Niro. But I have never been able to entirely dismiss the stance the Irons character takes. In the particular circumstances of the film, I would still say that De Niro’s character has a right to do what he does. But I have come over the years to appreciate the higher wisdom, and reason, behind the martyrdom approach. Irons’s character knows that the mission’s congregants have no chance against the greater force of Empire. He advises accepting a martyr’s death, as Christ did, for a higher cause.
Every Christian culture warrior has to face the fact that Our Lord could have called down legions of angels to defend him and defeat his enemies … but he did not. Why not? What was he after? How should that guide us? It seems clear to me that from Matt’s point of view, the martyrs were nothing but losers. That’s one way to look at it. But it’s not an authentically Christian way to look at it.
Not all who refuse to pick up the sword, so to speak, refuse to fight. We Christians have it on good authority that the most important battles are spiritual.