…with Fr. Dwight Longenecker about “Warrior” Christians that gets me thinking of a tangent.
I don’t really have a dog in that fight, but it does remind me of something I’ve thought about in the past: namely, the idea of filling pagan forms with Christian content vs. filling Christian forms with pagan content.
One of the many things that anti-Catholic Fundies get wrong about the faith is the notion that if something in Catholic life has some pagan antecedent, that means “Catholics are pagan”. So we are forever treated to pictures of holly at Christmas with the dire warning that Catholics are secretly Druids. Or we hear that the winter solstice celebrations of pagans mean the same thing as those of Catholics. (Funnily enough, nobody ever says that the Feast of St. Matthew (September 21) is proof that venerating Matthew is somehow a pagan equinox celebration.)
And if you ask a Fundamentalist what day of the week it is, nobody calls him a Thor worshipper when he answers “Thursday”.
Why? Because in reality what matters is not the ancient, dead significance of a thing to ancient, dead pagans, but the living Christian content poured into it. As Chesterton remarks, the last thing ancient pagans did was ask for baptism. Whatever a tree meant to a German pagan a thousand years ago, it has long since been filled with Christian content and refers to the Tree of Jesse, the House of David, and the evergreen promise of grace in the birth of Jesus now. Whatever halos may have meant to pagans, they now mean that the Holy Spirit rested on that saint and illumined her soul. The pagan form has been filled with Christian content.
But sometimes the opposite happens. Christian forms get filled with an alien, pagan content. So a friend of mine grew up in a household of Fundamentalists who listened intently to some guy name Col. Bob Thieme. She vividly remembers him insisting that “Christians should be the best killers.” He achieved this dementia by taking the Christian form and, instead of reading the Old Testament in light of the New, subordinated the gospel to the darkest and most brutal texts of the Old Testament.
Something similar is going on when Gun Cult zealots try to turn Luke 22:35-38 into a prot0-Second Amendment. It’s just not. The reality is that Jesus did not teach, “If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, that’s assault. Stand your ground and blow his head off.” Nor did he say, “If someone compels you to go one mile, that’s kidnapping. Blow his head off.” There is, in fact, nothing in the New Testament authorizing the use of violence in self-defense. The Church will later work out such matters in Just War doctrine once the duties of the Christian to the common good merge with the duties of the citizen to the state. But the current mania for vigilante gun nuttery as somehow the True Meaning of Luke 22:35-38 is paganism filling a Christian form.
Which brings me back to the whole Manly Warrior Priest thing. Yes, Paul takes the image of the soldier and fills it with Christian content in Ephesians 6. Now and then–and very rarely–other military imagery gets used by Jesus or the New Testament authors, as when Jesus says he comes to bring not peace, but a sword. But the New Testament is terrifying in its fundamental call to non-violence. Peter, told to put up his sword after his outburst of vigilantism never takes up the sword again. In his letters to the Christian community he never calls them to fight back against Neronian persecution even when they are being used to light Nero’s gardens. His essential counsel is this:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
“If the righteous man is scarcely saved,
where will the impious and sinner appear?”
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator. (1 Pe 4:12–19).
To a community being murdered by vicious persecutors, his only counsel is, essentially, “Be sure to die well.”
Today, toxic masculinity is a million miles from this. And it is everywhere in the Church as well. The Warrior Christian is praised, not for the transformation of literal warfare into the weapons of the Spirit, but for his willingness to get out there and kill. Fr. Wilson Miscamble writes excuses for the murder of civilian populations the Church describes as “a crime against God and man which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” and is the go-to hero for Warrior Christians like the American Catholic and Michael Voris’ Church Militant (which loves to depict Voris with his sword). Without a trace of irony, Church Militant describes the defender of the nuclear mass murder of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “pro-life” and “one of the most vocal defenders of orthodoxy” at Notre Dame. Imagine them saying this about a priest who defended the abortion of hundreds of unborn children. On second thought, you don’t need to, because hundreds of children, born and unborn, were in fact murdered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by bombs that deliberately and indiscriminately targeted civilians.
This and other fetishizations of war can and do lead to the tendency to fill Christian forms with pagan content. Take Fr. Richard Heilman’s “Spiritual Ammo” stuff. St. Paul says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Human beings are not the enemy of the Catholic priest and especially not human beings who believe all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God. Such people are called the “flock”, not the enemy, of the priest.
Fr. Heilman, however, full of the Warrior Priest Spirit, ginned his cult of personality into a really gruesome celebration of the firing of me and Simcha Fisher from the Register. He and his cult of Spiritual Warriors took it for granted that their “spiritual warfare” prayers–directed not against “powers and principalities” but against me and against a faithful Catholic mother of ten children, had been heard by God and that gloating over his entirely flesh and blood enemies was a fit liturgy for him to lead his cult in. It was as pagan and barbaric as it gets, and all the more so since, sinners though his victims are, they remain members in good standing of Holy Church and people trying their best to follow Jesus. He could have been a father to us. Instead, he was an avenging warrior–“Trump’s prayer warrior” as he describes himself.
This is filling Christian forms with pagan content indeed. The spectacle of a priest praying, on behalf of some politician, for the destruction of a faithful daughter of the Church and for the destruction of the children who depend upon her livelihood is about as profound a perversion of the Tradition as you can ask for.
A friend of mine has remarked that one of the surest signs of a kook on the web is this: Do they marinate their web presence with Knight/Paladin/Crusader imagery? I have found that to be a good rule of thumb. Sure, there are rare occasions when I meet Catholics who use the military imagery of Scripture or the Tradition in a way that is actually Christian: filling the imagery with Christian content about the weapons of the Spirit. But, overwhelmingly, what I usually find is that those who talk constantly of “spiritual warfare” and “ammo kits” and “crusades” and “battle with the forces of evil” and so forth mean to use Christian imagery to dress up their desire for the destruction of human beings by means ranging from character assassination to economic warfare to torture to war.
It’s ironic, because I am keenly alive to the reality of real spiritual warfare with the powers of hell. I believe more deeply than I ever have that the demonic is real and that Christians must take up precisely the weapons of the Spirit Paul describes. It’s just that most of the people in conservative Christianity who talk about such matters deeply impress me as knowing the words, not the tune. So many of them, like Fr. Heilman, show by their actions that they are not defending the gospel or the least of these. They are defending a grab at power and making war, not on devils, but on Catholics who fail to be sufficiently Republican. And the more power they get, the more surely the least of these will suffer at their hands as they fight to defend such heinous acts as ripping children from the arms of their parents at the border. Those children are, in their telling of things, the enemy and the Warrior Christian must fight them since Amnesty Equals Abortion in the infamous words of John Zmirak.
War infamously creates fog. When your dominant view of the Faith is one of warfare and you forget that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who made peace by the shedding of his own blood, not of somebody else’s, you become fatally ready, willing, and able to destroy anybody who gets in the way of the Millennium you think, this time for sure, will come.