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‘Dunkirk’ As Benedict Option

Within defeat and evacuation lie the seeds of ultimate victory

Here is a tweet this morning from a transgender ACLU lawyer:


It’s a small thing, but it’s the small things that tell a very big story. Notice that a major American hospital has already incorporated the gender ideology narrative into something as mundane as its intake form. This is the new reality. As the conservative Evangelical friend who sent this tweet to me put it, “There’s no going back.”

A Catholic theologian tweeted:


He’s right. Think about how very far we have come, and how very fast. You might believe this is progress — I don’t, obviously — but the fact that we are even having this discussion (about the fact that the US military will pay for your sex change operation — is a sign of the times.

When even Sen. Orrin Hatch, an octogenarian Mormon Republican from Utah, supports allowing transgender soldiers to serve, and criticizes a Republican president for his order reversing the police, that too is a sign. A flashing-red-with-a-siren sign.

If we just elect Republicans, we can turn this thing around! a lot of my fellow conservatives still believe. You’re not going to find many people more socially conservative than Orrin Hatch, my friends. And yet, here we are. It reminds me of a conversation I had in the spring with a Southern friend, a stalwart small-town churchgoer of decades who is about as old as Sen. Hatch. We talked of church things, and he lamented the moral chaos of the world today, and how woefully the church is responding to it. But this Evangelical, who is everybody’s idea of a good-hearted, Jesus-loving pillar of the church, told me he is in favor of same-sex marriage, and looks forward to the day when his own church would perform them. “It’s all about love, son,” he told me.

When you’ve lost that man, you’ve lost.

I’m seeing some conservatives tweeting that the movie Dunkirk is a clarion call to defend beleaguered Western civilization. Maybe it is. I saw the movie last week, and found it excellent. I was thinking after it was over that it could be seen as a metaphor for The Benedict Option.

Religious and social conservatives have been routed. We are penned in on a beach. There is no hope, in our present condition, of fighting back the enemy and reclaiming the ground we’ve lost. Not now. The most important thing we can do is survive, regroup, retrain, and come back to fight another day. If we stay on the beach and think we have a chance of turning back the heavily armed enemy at this point, we’re suicidal.

The Benedict Option says to the church: send your flotilla of small boats, too tiny to be a meaningful target for the enemy, and small enough to get right to the beach, where the defeated and demoralized soldiers are. It says to the soldiers: if you want to live, climb aboard those miniature arks, and get to safer ground.

Yes, what happened to us in this long, complex culture war of these past five decades has been what Winston Churchill, in his post-evacuation speech to Parliament, called the events that led to Dunkirk: “a colossal military disaster” — or, in culture-war terms, a colossal moral disaster, a colossal religious disaster, and a colossal cultural disaster. Churchill said that the evacuation from Dunkirk was a heroic accomplishment, but that Britain must not think of it as a victory.

“Wars are not won by evacuations,” he said. “But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.”

What he meant was that the incredible performance of the Royal Air Force during the Dunkirk evacuation made the Army’s survival possible. Said Churchill, “May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?”

Christians are not called on to fight for “civilization,” but rather the church and the faith upon which our civilization has been built. May it not also be that that cause will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand men and women who understand the stakes, and who commit themselves to being the new and very different St. Benedicts of our time? I believe so.

They could not have long defended the British troops had those troops stayed on the beach. They could better defend them if the troops were back home in Britain, safe (or safer, anyway) from enemy fire, rebuilding their ranks, and training for the long war ahead.

Churchill famously ended his speech like this:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender… .

The men rescued from Dunkirk did not cease to fight when they were back home in Britain. Every single thing they did from the time they stepped back onto British soil until the day they returned to the Continent on D-Day, was part of the fight. This is quite clear when you look at it in military terms. At this low point for the church in the West, this fight for us is primarily within. Our ranks have been decimated from the outside, and from the inside as well. We are not going to win with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We won’t even survive with it. We will only win with the true faith. This spiritual and cultural battle has to start within our own hearts and minds. Had the troops come back to their island home to await the inevitable arrival of the Germans, there would have been no hope. But they did not, and though the Germans bombed British cities in the Blitz, the British were resilient on the home front, kept the planned invasion at bay, and steadily built up their forces — and their spirits — for the battles yet to come.

The war did not stop with the Dunkirk retreat, not at all. But the British could defend their island, which, in Ben Op terms, was like a monastery. Similarly with us, we can better defend our churches, our schools, and our families by concentrating our fragmented forces there. If we don’t first defend them, we have no hope of reclaiming the massive ground we have lost.

That is where the fight is today. This does not mean that we can cease to fight to keep those who would destroy us at bay. We have no choice, just as the RAF had no choice but to engage the enemy over the English Channel to protect the homeland. I see religious liberty lawyers and advocates as the main part of our culture-war RAF. If they succeed, they will defend for us the space in which the rest of us can train, spiritually and otherwise, for the immense task ahead.

If you think the Benedict Option advocates retreating to “monastery Britain,” where we can live peaceably, unbothered by the Germans, you are wrong, and you have always been wrong. We retreat to Britain so we can survive and train and arm ourselves to fight the long war, spiritually and culturally speaking.

The Dunkirk metaphor only goes so far. The British were fighting an actual war, and knew clearly where the battle lines were. It’s not like that with us. This requires discernment. And the British also knew what victory would look like. With the Church, there is no ultimate victory, until the end of time. As Tolkien wrote:

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

Commenting on this remark, the Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

[T]he Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.”

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

According to Christian belief, the decisive victory was won at the Resurrection. In Revelation 4, St. John writes:

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

But in Revelation 5, it looked as if the promise he had been given — to be shown the future — was not going to be fulfilled. The future was written on a scroll, and no one was able to open the scroll. St. John began to cry.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

For Christians who believe, that scroll, which only Jesus Christ can open, foretells a future of global tribulation: war, famine, disease, natural disaster. This is the Apocalypse. The point the elder is making to St. John is that the future belongs to Jesus Christ. Even though terrible things may await us, we must place our hope in the assurance that these things must happen, but that the final victory has already been won. God is the author of history, and the master of this narrative.

We Christians have to find the victory inside this defeat. The entire narrative by which we make sense of our lives culminates in a staggering defeat — the death of God — and in His resurrection. In our own present defeat, we may relearn our radical dependence on God, and how our defeat is owed in large part to our trust in our own powers, and in making false idols — politics, wealth, worldly standing, America, the church — to stand in His place. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has written, “redemption [is to be found] in the depth of crisis and failure.”

In his time — the sixth century — St. Benedict was living through a cultural and social collapse even greater, in most ways, than what we are mired in. His retreat from the city of Rome, and the life his parents sent him there to train for, was not for the sake of reclaiming civilization. It was only for worshiping God in community in a time of immense turmoil and decadence. In Benedict’s defeat was his victory — and ultimately, over the course of centuries, the victory of civilization, which was preserved and spread largely because of the Benedictine monks, as well as the efforts of heroic bishops and priests working in the dark wood of the post-Roman world.

Did the early Benedictines surrender? Or did they continue the fight in other ways — ways that would last?

We don’t know how this war will end in our time, or if it will end in our time. I very much doubt it will. The work of recovery will take centuries. The only things we are assured of are these: 1) that all of history is a long defeat for the Church, and 2) that we are assured of the final victory. We are called neither to abject surrender, nor surrender masquerading as a valiant but impossible “last stand” on the battlefield. Would we consider Noah brave to have held his ground against the rising waters and refused to climb aboard the Ark?

Some of us Christians are called to send out the flotilla of arks to rescue those who want to get off the beach and live to fight another day. Others are called to board those little boats and head for a safer place — to “Britain,” so to speak, to “the monastery,” which is our true home. Some of us are called to defend the borders of the monastery with the skill and courage of RAF fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain.

But in no case may we let ourselves believe that the war is over. The enemy would cross the channel and conquer our monasteries, if we let him. We shall defend our Monastery, whatever the cost may be — and the Church’s 2,000-year history tells us that the cost may well be severe. At this point, that defense requires a retreat, but it’s a strategic one. The British did not surrender at Dunkirk, nor would the Church be surrendering by evacuating land it can no longer hold. Within that defeat lies the seeds of ultimate victory.

I invite Christian readers to go see Dunkirk with this in mind.



UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

Just FYI, Mt. Sinai Hospital did not change its intake forms by choice. This has been mandated by the Federal Office for Civil Rights. Google “Brooklyn Hospital” and “transgender” to see what happens when a hospital inadvertently violates a transgender person’s perceived rights.

My gosh, the reader is correct:

A landmark voluntary settlement agreement between the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and a New York City medical center announced last month has established a new standard for appropriate policies and procedures to ensure privacy and appropriate care of transgender patients.

OCR’s agreement with The Brooklyn Hospital Center (TBHC) was prompted by allegations that it violated an antidiscrimination provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when it assigned “a transgender female who presented as a female at the hospital…to a double occupancy patient room with a male occupant.”

Under the terms of a two-year settlement, TBHC agreed to adopt, and train employees, on new policies and procedures tailored to transgender patients that address everything from admitting and rooming to documenting patients’ “legal and a preferred name” and their “gender and/or transgender status, if the Patient has identified that status and agrees that it should be recorded.” Employees also are to become familiar with terms such as “gender non-conformity” and “sex assigned at birth.”

Another reader, this one a physician, tells me that the Dunkirk analogy is spot-on, and that it drives him crazy to see how many fellow Christian conservatives don’t recognize how thoroughly we have been defeated. He told me that the new, post-Christian — indeed anti-Christian — reality is being written into the bureaucratic structures of our lives. And so few of us notice what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of it all.