Other People’s Heroes

Other People’s Heroes January 19, 2021

Christmas is almost a month behind us, but Christmas is coming. The lessons of that sacred feast, and the revealing of Jesus in the Epiphany are still close, and coming closer. One lesson would be very valuable just now to those who do not how to seek justice while having power. The day after Christmas, the Church wisely decided to celebrate the Feast of the first martyr, Stephen. We are reminded that not everyone was happy about the Good News. Sometimes the only thing to do is to stand for justice regardless of the outcome.

This feast has a carol associated with it that also reminds us of the nature of good Christian governance. Sometimes, after all, if one is kind, sensible, not given to paranoia, one wins. What if the emperor converts or a man finds himself the ruler? This is most dangerous! No kingdom lasts. None are a perfect image of the Kingdom coming, but looking at other nations heroes can help us know how to behave ourselves. After all in this Republic, if we are Americans, we are the ultimate rulers! How should we then live?

Here is the song:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

The carol is based on the legends that grew up around the rule of the Duke of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslaus. According to the Anglican Breviary Duke Wenceslaus ruled justly.

“To the orphaned, the widowed, and the destitute, he was very charitable so that sometimes in the winter he carried firewood to the needy on his own shoulders. He helped oftentimes to bury the poor, he set captives free; and at the dead of night he went many times to the prisons to comfort with money and advice them that were detained therein.”

Whatever the actual history of his life (which from this distance it is hard to ascertain), the important thing to notice is what kind of legends crept around a model Christian ruler. You can know a great deal about a religion based on the myths it wants to tell about its heroes!

First, Christianity has always recognized the equality of all persons before God. Whether the Good Duke actually carried wood for a poor man, it is the sort of thing the Church encouraged rulers to do. Rulers had a different function than their subjects, but they were not better as men.

This assumption is so normal to us as moderns that it is hard to recall how difficult it was for the Church to teach it to the Europeans. The Church herself did not always consistently hold to this doctrine, but never could deny it. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when He took on flesh, did not come as a member of the elite, but to a working class family without political power.

This commonplace fact of Christmas was constantly used to rebuke Christian princes or governors with pretensions to superiority.

Christians can respect the job of ruling, but we do not owe the person of the ruler any more (or less!) dignity than the woodcutter.

Second, the charity of a good monarch was personal. Christians long recognized that a state that attempted to eliminate poverty as official policy was a dangerous expansion of power. Given their experience with Caesar, they were happy to check the power of government and not expand it.

At the same time, the monarch was urged to live simply in his personal life. Statecraft might require a palace, but the ideal monarch would live a rigorous personal life. He would eat simply and dress modestly. The absolute kings living in glorious settings such as the Sun King of France were a degenerate class in a culture losing its Christian moorings.

The Church recognized that the danger of ruling was losing track of how everyone else lived. The command to a good ruler was to serve the poor . . . sometimes literally washing their feet. They were urged to extensive personal charity (building schools and hospitals). Personal charity ennobled both the giver and receiver.

We forget sometimes that the gap between how a good king of the Middle Ages lived and how a free peasant lived was not so great as the difference between the super-rich and the very poor today. Partly this is the result of increased wealth, but it is also a result of a false view of possessions. While nobody should steal from a rich man in order to give to a poor man, the rich man is wrong if he allows his neighbor to suffer. Charity cannot be forced, but it can be commanded.

A king who lived in luxury while his people starved was a wicked ruler.

Third, the great job of a Christian ruler is to do justice. This justice must be impartial to the status of those before his bench. The rich must not get lighter punishment than the poor. Too often in the American legal system injustice occurs because the rich are able to buy better lawyers or deceive juries with high priced experts who lie for cash.

Finally, Christians learned slowly over time how to practice the great truths of the Faith. We always believed all humans were created equal, but practicing it in the fallen world was (and is) hard. Our ancestors made mistakes as do we.

To cite one example, Christianity was born in a world that condoned torture and thought it useful. At first, the majority Christian view was that torture, under some circumstances, was justified in a fallen world. There was always a minority who worried about it, but practical considerations seemed to justify the practice.

However, like the views of Christians on the death penalty, over time the deeper belief that each human contained the image of God began to undermine the practice of torture. Over time most Christian states abandoned it or made it so restricted that in practice it vanished. Experience with modern secular states that used the power of science to torture (like the Soviet Union) confirmed the fact that this was one power the state could not use safely.

(It is ironic that the torture chambers of the late Middle Ages which were emptied by the Church are our image of torture while few think of the scientific torments of Stalinist Russia.)

Fundamentally, the role models for Christian rulers were kind men and not so much warriors. Many sainted rulers were martyrs who failed at war (such as Saint King Edmund). Even Crusaders like Saint Louis were best loved for their buildings and charity and not for their (often unsuccessful) warfare. Good Christian rulers like Duke Wenceslaus were not remembered for their use of torture, but for their chartity!

This made a difference in how Christians viewed the “ideals” for government. We expect personal charity from our rulers and justice in their official capacity. We have come see torture as incompatible with good governance and war as a last resort.

In this time, with great prudence,  let us live peaceably when we can and, if we have power, try to emulate Wenceslaus by some act of personal charity toward the poor or oppressed.

Modified from a post published at the old Torrey Honors Institute blog.

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