“My center is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.” – Ferdinand Foch
In the Roman Empire, when a new Emperor was appointed (or seized power), heralds would fan out on those well-maintained Roman roads and announce it to all the Empire, to all the civilized world. And in the East, where Greek was spoken, this is how they would do it: they would stand up, and they would say: Here is the euangelion, the good news! The world has a new kyrios, a new Lord, Insert Name Here! And since Augustus had been divinized, and subsequent emperors claimed a lineage to Augustus, the new emperor would be called Son of the Divine One.
It is only in this context that we can understand the profound subversiveness–the profound folly–of people like Paul and Peter and Mark and others going around the Mediterranean and announcing the euangelion of a new kyrios, who was the Son of God, a Son of God who had been crucified by duly-appointed Roman authorities, a decree reversed in the most unambiguous terms by the Father, through his bodily Resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The first preachers of the Gospel were not proposing a new religious experience that people might like to join in on, or a new philosophy (although this is in some ways closer to the mark–since Roman religion was utterly devoid of ethical content, ethics were the province of philosophy). They were burning the flag.
Luke’s entire infancy narrative is basically a giant middle finger to Rome. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says in her Magnificat. Who do you think Luke had in mind? The birth of Jesus takes place in the shadow of the Emperor’s census, but Jesus’ birth is consistently described in royal terms. Do you remember that scene in Crocodile Dundee, someone tries to rob the protagonist at knife-point, and he pulls out his machete, and says “You think that’s a knife? That’s a knife.” The birth of the Davidic King is greeted by the “heavenly host” of angels. That’s Luke saying to the Emperor, who controlled the mightiest military in the history of the world, “You think that’s an army? That’s an army.” Luke probably wrote his books in Rome after Nero’s persecutions, and may even have watched Peter and Paul die in Rome.
Because we know how the movie ends, with Constantine saying Rome is worth a Mass, with Julian the Apostate bleeding to death in the desert, with Ambrose barring Theodosius from his cathedral, it’s really hard for us to wrap our heads around how balls-to-the-wall, punk-rock those early Christians were.
Romans make good involuntary evangelists. Just like Pilate’s “Ecce Homo” and “INRI” were more right than he could know, when Pompey entered the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies and found it empty, and declared the Jews “atheists”, he was in a sense more right than he knew: the Jews, like the Christians, not only did not believe in the kind of gods the Pagans believed in, they did not believe in the kind of religion they believed in. Religio in the ancient world was essentially, in the words of the historian Karl Galinksy, “the conduct of social policy by other means”; human life was governed by a kind of commerce between the gods and men, and so was the life of the city. The god or goddesses of the city protected the city because the city gave him or her or them the required sacrifices and cults and obligations. Cultic priesthood and civic offices overlapped to an enormous extent. To reject that kind of obligation was essentially to reject the city itself, and indeed to endanger it by risking the wrath of the gods, it was to be antisocial in the most literal sense of the term. “Atheism” was so reviled not for theological but for fundamentally political reasons. This is why the Romans could be so easily syncretistic and “tolerant” of new cults that did not challenge this fundamental structure, and at the same time ruthlessly persecuted those that did, just as antibodies reflexively attack foreign elements.
I am writing all this to try to get a sense of how reckless those early Christians were.
Check this shit out:
Who will separate us from the love of the Messiah? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus, our Messiah, our King!
Paul is not, or not just, writing about “how you get to Heaven.” He is not making a pietistic point about how despite the persecutions, if you still have faith, you will go to Heaven in the end–just the opposite. He is saying, to the Christians in Rome, that the Romans, the most powerful Empire the world has ever known, will hit us with everything they’ve got, and we will crush them.
Again, it is only because we now know that this is in fact what did happen, that we find it hard to wrap our heads around the sheer lunacy of this statement. “If God is for us, who is against us?”
I bring all this up because many American Catholics trying to navigate our quickly-shifting cultural sands seem to me to be letting themselves be taken by a spirit of fear and defeatism which doesn’t really become the Christian. Cardinal George’s column darkly warning of a new state of dhimmitude for Catholics and orthodox Christians in America went viral in some circles. +George may or may not be empirically correct. But, well, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus, our President, our Commander-in-Chief.
The second biggest “religious” group in America is ex-Catholics. Most baptized Catholics do not attend Mass. Most baptized Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. Most baptized Catholics don’t know and don’t care what the Church teaches. We know those statistics. When I hear them, do you know what I think? Amazing! What a huge mission field!
Woodie Guthrie wrote on his guitar “This machine kills fascists.” We should probably graffiti on the front of St Peter’s, “This machine destroys empires.” According to lore, the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square used to be at the center of the Roman Colisseum where Peter was executed. It may well have been the last thing he saw before he breathed his last. And now it is at the center of the gathering place for pilgrims from all over the world, 1500 years after the end of the (Western) Roman Empire. “Think that’s an army? That’s an army.” The middle finger is still up. Pay attention.
Now, we need to get our shit together. We suck. But the good news is, we never won by our own merits, did we? Where love abounds, the Holy Spirit superabounds.
There is the recurring meme of what’s been called the “Benedict Option.” I have only been interjecting in this debate tangentially because I feared, as would happen, that it would get bogged down in semantic debates. One of the frequent promoters of the Benedict Option, my good friend Rod Dreher, insists that it is not a retreat from the life of the city, but rather a strengthening of community ties between orthodox Christians. Maybe. I’m not sure the distinction is as clear in the heads or especially in the practice of most people calling for or living the “Benedict Option”, and the fact that it so very often gets framed in terms of purity and impurity and protecting purity from impurity (as if Christians were pure!) gives me more reason to doubt.
My problem with both the Benedict Option and those who argue against it is that they presuppose the only thing we know is not true: that the fight has been lost. The fight hasn’t been lost, it’s been won! Jesus is King of the Universe, enthroned at the right hand of the Father!
The Church is Christ’s Army, and if there’s one thing I know about the military arts, it’s that a good offense beats everything else, and that everything turns on who has the initiative.
Guy don’t walk on the lot unless he wants to buy. They’re sitting out there, just waiting to give you their money. Our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord! Humans were made wired for God. The leads are weak?
There is a cosmic battle going on, and the only way to win is to be relentless and to always be on the offensive.
How? Two very simple suggestions:
- Grow in christlikeness. Read Sr Burrows’ To Believe in Jesus. Pray the rosary every day, asking only for the Father to make you more like the Son through the Spirit. Frequent the sacraments. Go to eucharistic adoration once a week. Get frequent confession. Read the Missal. Christlikeness is the first and necessary condition of evangelization. (And the definition of holiness!) Going on Facebook is easy (don’t I know it). Writing blog posts is easy (don’t I know it). Growth in Christlikeness is hard (don’t I know it). Thankfully, we don’t do it, it’s the Spirit that does it in us.
- Serve the poor. First, because Jesus says so. Second, because it’s actually smart. The poor, the down-on-their-luck, those who are rejected and despised of men–they’re the ones who need a Savior most. They’re the ones who are most receptive of a Savior. And (especially these days) there are always plenty of them. Renewal, revival, if there is to be one, will come through them.
There’s always many things you can do. But let’s start with these two, shall we?
All hail Jesus, our King, our President, who has brought down the mighty and exalted the lowly.