Since the recent, horrifying reports of Coptic Catholics being slaughtered at worship in Iraq and Egypt each day’s email has brought at least one, and sometimes several, angry and emotional missives—diatribes which generally begin by ruing the day that the post-9/11 George W. Bush declared, “Islam means peace.”
“It does not mean ‘peace,’” they write. “It means ‘surrender,’ and that is what they want; the death of the Jews and the ‘surrender’ of Christians.” Ordinarily these missives prophecy an “end to Western Civilization” unless Islam is somehow eradicated or disarmed, and they end with a call for Christians to become familiar with the Koran in order to do battle in the theological trenches before the “inevitable war” (or “clash of civilizations”) comes upon us.
A pastoral, comparative resistance to Islam is a good notion, but one that is fraught with risk in our politically-correct society, where the meaning of “tolerance” has been successfully shifted from “bearing-with” to “surrendering-unto.” Christians—conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, in particular—are routinely poked with the three-tined trident of labels (“racistsexisthomophobe") any time they insist, in obedience to their religious beliefs, on maintaining mere respectful forbearance of others, rather than blind approval.
It seems to me that beginnings of a stealth New Crusade may be taking root in the minds of some of my Christian correspondents, none of whom, it must be said, found the time to offer me links to the Midnight Mass homily of Pope Benedict XVI at Christmas, where he acknowledged the continued threat to Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere: “It is true that the 'rod of his oppressor' is not yet broken, the boots of warriors continue to tramp and the 'garment rolled in blood' still remains.”
Later in his remarks, the pope said “Anyone who catches a glimpse of God experiences joy, and on this night we see something of his light.”
But the angels’ message on that holy night also spoke of men: “Peace among men with whom he is pleased”. The Latin translation of the angels’ song that we use in the liturgy, taken from Saint Jerome, is slightly different: “peace to men of good will”. The expression “men of good will” has become an important part of the Church’s vocabulary in recent decades.
But of the two which, he continues, is the right translation? Neither, or rather both.
We must read both texts together; only in this way do we truly understand the angels’ song. . . . Both elements belong together: grace and freedom, God’s prior love for us, without which we could not love him, and the response that he awaits from us, the response that he asks for so palpably through the birth of his son. We cannot divide up into independent entities the interplay of grace and freedom, or the interplay of call and response. The two are inseparably woven together. So this part of the angels’ message is both promise and call at the same time.
It has always been the “men of good will,” after all, toward whom “God is pleased.”
But what does “good will” entail? Certainly, it must include educating ourselves about each other; it must include forbearing each other, generously; it must even include being “nice,” which does not mean cowardly or silent. But looking at the other side, the side that demands blind “tolerance,” must “good will” demand surrender of our beliefs, which largely define our selves? And if so, to whom?
Jesus surely didn’t preach that; he didn't preach a crusade either. He taught us to turn the other cheek.
Our instincts tell us that turning the other cheek is stupid, but this is what Christ preached. He did not teach that we were meant to conquer others—be they radical Islamists, or gay activists, or evangelical atheists—but that we were to conquer ourselves, and in so doing, bring others into surrender by our own humble example of submission to his Will.
That, of course, means trust; the toughest nut for all Christians. It is hard to trust him, when we have our world before our eyes, but only once we trust him can be surrender ourselves to him in a way that might change the world.
Christianity is a blood religion, like Judaism, and like Islam. But it's not the spilling of other’s blood that matters. The early martyrs died for their beliefs, but not in an effort to control others. Their trust in Christ, their surrendering to him ending (as they knew it would) in the shedding of their blood, ultimately turned hearts and minds in another direction, toward a horizon marked by the cross.
The only power resides is in the spilling of Christ’s blood, and ours for his sake.
For his sake. Not for ours; not even for our civilization's. The civilization—-and indeed the American Exceptionalism characterized by “baseball, Mom, Chevrolet, and apple pie,” that helped to bring the West to its culmination—is already on the wane. Baseball has been corrupted, motherhood has been redefined, Chevrolet is a shadow of itself; all we may soon be left with is apples we may not eat.
And then, perhaps, comes the New Eden.
Christ’s coming—which we confess in our Creed, but somehow believe we can stave off if we just keep the world in check—will transcend even the glories of Western Civilization. We are creatures in exile from our home; for all we know, Western Civilization may be nothing more than makework, meant to keep us busy until that appointed time. It is a certainty that if Christians try to compel others via crusades or Congressional maneuvers, the civilization will continue to devolve. These are not the ways or means modeled by Christ.
We are fooling ourselves if we believe that anything we do is going to change what was set in motion in Eden, or turn back a narrative thrust of divine origins. In that case, let us get on with the difficult task of conquering ourselves through surrender to Christ alone. Once we have become his, in his measure, he will himself know how to best bestow us upon others.
It is the only possible peace through surrender.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributor to First Things where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Benedict XVI’s homily at Midnight Mass.