The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

“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.

Here’s a joke: two Finnish soldiers in the Finnish-German War have been cut off from their unit and are trying to make their way back in the snow. They come up to a ridge. One of them climbs up to look at what’s on the other side, and walks down somberly. “There’s almost two hundred Germans on the other side!” The other curses: “Drat! It will take days to bury them all!”

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.

 

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  • captcrisis

    Your history is wrong.

    The Romans were tolerant of other religions. This was a wise policy, since their empire was multicultural and any male of any religion could be a citizen (as Paul was). They didn’t stop you from worshipping Mithras, for example, or Osiris. Just as long as you made a pro forma pledge of allegiance to the Emperor. The Christians got into trouble only because they refused to do this. But they certainly were NOT about taking down the Empire. Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. He said to pay your taxes. Paul stressed that civil authorities must be obeyed. He discouraged slave rebellions too.

    After Constantine, the Empire became Christian but didn’t behave better. In fact it behaved worse, introducing true intolerance (killing the pagans and destroying their temples).

    Now as far as the present day, you say Christians are losing heart and failing to take defeat “the empire”. But this empire is controlled by Christians, and has been for centuries. Christians themselves are changing. Is this a good thing? That’s a complicated question. But it’s a different issue.

    • I can’t call Protestants “Christians” anymore.

      • Pea-Tear

        LOL, my favourite kind of Roman Catholic (at least on the internet). Thankfully, Jesus loves us in our beautiful and fractious mess, as he does you in your [how you see your church]. Blessings!

        • Glad you are happy. but I wasn’t talking about the church so much as the government.

          WASPS aren’t Christians. Their use of genocide and rape to reduce the color of the skin of certain races was sick.

        • Donalbain

          Hell, Ted has a VERY idiosyncratic use of language. Best not to expect him to make much sense. Just nod and smile.

  • A good piece Pascal. I have to admit, over the last year or two, I have felt defeated by the culture.

  • PSdan

    An impressively assertive piece which was undone by the strangely passive suggestions at the end.

    Cardinal George’s concern about our First Amendment rights is valid. SSM advocates claim that their cause is a straighforward assertion of marital rights granted in Loving and other cases. But it is also inseparable from a challenge to the ability of Catholic institutions to define their identity on their own terms. Already academic organizations are taking steps to freeze out Christian universities based on the organization’s bylaws prohibiting discrimination; we can expect this to continue and expand. Lawyers don’t care for these slippery slope arguments against SSM as they are logically invalid. Politically and practically, though, they are completely valid. The law and society validates precedents; we have an unavoidable anchoring bias.

    I wonder if Cardinal George understands how he is being undermined by the parishes in his own diocese. Some (many? most?) parishes there have unofficially made their peace with SSM, rather than taking it as a opportunity to assert once again the truth of the church’s teaching on the matter. And I think this is closely linked with the peace they’ve made with feminism, for both feminism and SSM pursue a “radical delegitimation of the family” in the words of Kay Hymowitz (The Black Family: 40 years Of Lies). And by family, I think she means (hetero) fathers. This has been going on since Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his prescient report on the black family in 1965.

    I admit I can’t think of an effective way to be more assertive myself. Speak up? Perhaps as you say some old fashioned courage is required. It’s hard to subject oneself to a two minute hate, though.

  • ” 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.””

    Anybody else wonder how he got that past the metal detectors at the airport?

    Still, an interesting thought, that we need to return to the subversive side of Christianity to defeat an overwhelming foe of relativism.

  • oregon nurse

    In considering what the Cardinal wrote, I am worried just as much about the divide within the Church itself where traditional Catholicism barely recognizes liberal Catholicism as being the same Church.

    Now more recently we are seeing bishop going against bishop. Msgr. Pope publically denouncing Dolan without actually mentioning his name then having to retract his comments (most say due to Wuerl’s insistence). Jenky against Dolan and Dolan against Jenky in a pathetic public power struggle, over a saint no less. The prophecies of the visions at both Fatima (some say) and Akita (for sure) mention this bishop against bishop before a great chastisement.

    “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, and bishops against other bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their Confreres. The Church and altars will be vandalized. The Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord.” Our Lady at Akita.

    I seriously think the Church in the US needs to get it’s own act together first so it can figure out what it’s message is going to be when it goes out to evangelize.

    • Episteme

      I’m always saddened by the false dichotomy between “traditional” and “liberal” in the Church, as if we can’t get over this Manichean streak to always have just two philosophical or theological options. Historically, the Church has always been broader than that, and remains so to this day. Personally, I’m doing everything that Pascal recommends there at the end (although I’m at Adoration daily, not weekly), but I’m in a liminal place of scholastic-conservative Novus Ordo — born honestly of growing up debating religion with orthodox and conservative Jews — that he wouldn’t recognize and too many blog writers lambast as “Neo-Catholic” (I could most quickly compare it to a 21st century take on le ressoursement, given the patristic influences). Nevertheless, I think that there’s a distinction between philosophical and practical plurality (look at how Church Fathers, classic theologians, and major Catholic leaders over time have disagreed on points of praxis) and the infighting-for-purity’s-sake that we see on all sides. Of course, that’s probably why I’m equally a fan of what each of the most recent popes have said on such matters.

  • niknac

    Authentic Catholicism exists always, in every society and every generation. The last place you will find it is in the institutional church. Popes are the true descendant of Augustus, not Peter.

  • Finnish-German War…when was this?

  • Mike

    Very rousing and helpful, thanks!

  • cajaquarius

    Saint Therese the Little Flower, Saint Francis of Assisi, and doubtless many others have a broad spectrum appeal that goes deeper than mere religion. People may hate the Church but there is a deep and powerful truth in the Saints and their lives that is undeniable. As much as I rebel even now as prodigal from the faith of my birth, I still want to measure myself against these people on some deep level.

    If I had been born in the Evangelical faith, I’d have walked away long ago and not looked back. I know because I looked into them when I fell away from the Catholic over the whole being gay thing and found their fruit wanting. Want to preserve the good of the Church? Be a Saint. Or, failing that, at least try your best to be a Saint.

    Where Christ fails the Good Samaritan succeeds.

    • oregon nurse

      “Where Christ fails the Good Samaritan succeeds.”

      huh? Without Christ you’d never have heard of the Good Samaritan. He defined the Good Samaritan but yet you reject him. Makes no sense. I find your fruit wanting.

      • cajaquarius

        When did I say anything about personally rejecting Christ? I find your reading comprehension extremely questionable, especially for someone who I assume passed the NCLEX to get her license. You must be a really lucky guesser.

        In any case, Jesus carries a negative connotation with many people for good reason. Even in our secular society, while many may reject Jesus (mainly due to Cheap Grace Christians), those same people still use the Good Samaritan in common vernacular and the story is well known and easily understood by everyone, regardless of their religiosity.

        • oregon nurse

          :”Where Christ fails…”

          Now maybe you didn’t mean that to convey you personally rejected Christ (though calling him a failure certainly qualifies) but insulting someone for interpreting it that way is uncalled for. I’ve also seen enough of your other postings to know I probably called it right.

          I passed my nursing boards long before there was anything called an NCLEX and we had to answer every question over 2 days worth of testing. Probably before you were even born.

          • cajaquarius

            [I passed my nursing boards long before there was anything called an NCLEX and we had to answer every question over 2 days worth of testing. Probably before you were even born.]

            I see. Growing up you were smacked around by your dad and never had the reasons for the rules explained to you; this caused you to develop a neurological disorder known as Right Wing Authoritarianism (rendering you a Right Wing Authoritarian Follower). It is an unfortunate neurosis that causes the sufferer to hold Us vs Them views concerning “out groups” – in your eyes, gays like myself aren’t merely another kind of person but a terrifying monster seeking to destroy your children and the country. You see me as some atheist or satanist, not because of what I am but because you must hold that view. Gays must all be evil monsters, otherwise your moral foundation and blind obedience to your authoritarian masters will be called into question, causing you internal discord.

            While I may snap at people like you, I recognize that you aren’t merely heartless and evil, you simply suffer from a disorder of the mind that causes you to support evil. I am sorry for what your dad did to you that made you so bitter, scared, and angry. For what it is worth, I and people like myself are working to free your children and their children from living under the weight of your neurosis as you have had to due to the era you grew up in.