Wednesday, July 01, 2020

There is no reason to apologize for Serra or St. Louis

Click on the picture to go to its source.

Mobs of the best-credentialed illiterates in history (having graduated from once-prestigious universities with degrees that don't turn into paying jobs) are running wild in the streets of too many American cities, wreaking vengeance bravely against hunks of rock and molten metal. Little None of it is rational; a lot of it is atavistic rage, fueled by hatred of what America is, what the West is (not was; this isn't about history, not really). The iconoclasts have moved from Confederates to Founding Fathers and now to Catholic saints, including Saints Junipero Serra and Louis IX, King of France. Images of Jesus are on deck.

Why these saints?

Louis's sins are two-fold. First, that in his time, Jews were treated badly, and he went along with it, at least to some degree (many popes and princes of the age pushed back on anti-Jewish measures; I don't know if Louis did).

This is true, although it must be remembered, history (like people, because, people) is complicated. The idea of requiring Jews (or anyone else) to wear special clothing, or even some sort of badge, makes us shudder, as it should. That is because we know (alarm bell: too many people do not know) that in the 20th century, Jews (and others) were compelled to wear badges on the way to being degraded in every possible way, before being murdered. Nothing can adequately convey the horror of it; before this fact, we can only fall silent.

So it is quite right that we recoil; but not only is King Louis not Hitler, there is no way you get from A to B without waging total war against A. There are lots of things to fault the Middle Ages for, including misunderstanding the time value of money, and worse, being nasty to the Jews; but they did not talk about exterminating people. Make of it what you will, but what the Christians of the 12th century wanted from Jews (and everyone else) was that they become Christians and live as such, so as to have maximum chances of heaven. That is not hate.

Louis' second "sin" is no sin at all: that is, he joined in the defense of Christians who were being brutalized in the Levant by invading Muslims. In other words, he went on Crusade. Oh, I know that is supposed to be a terrible thing! No doubt you also opposed the Crusade* launched by the Allies in 1944, led by Eisenhower, to come to the relief of Europe? You think that justice demanded leaving the Germans alone, to continue their benevolent rule? Oh, you think that is an unfair comparison? Tell me why.

Junipero's real sin is that he was European and a Christian; that is, he came to the New World in the wake of others, who explored and, unfortunately, also exploited. Junipero came, however, to bring salvation. In doing so, he was an advocate for the natives of California, and his missions were places both of faith and dignity for them. This coincidence is no coincidence: it was precisely from Junipero's Christianity that his solicitude and respect for the natives -- as imago Dei and brothers -- flowed.

No, the only real sin Junipero's critics care about is that he came in the first place. If only Christopher Columbus had never sailed the ocean blue. If only those wicked Europeans had left the Paradise of the New World alone. And it is indeed a tragedy that European explorers also brought disease and, too often, greed and lust and bigotry. But therein lies the problem: original sin.

But I'm not sure that the thugs who bravely assault statues believe in original sin, which is a frightening thought: just where do they think the impulse to steal and plunder and enslave comes from?

To the extent these sad-sacks think at all, I must conclude they suppose sin is a product of external forces; that if only society and thought can be reorganized somehow -- revolutionized -- then sin will be extirpated. You want to know what that looks like? Examine the record of the iconoclasts' saints: Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot. Although I almost certainly give most of them too much credit. No doubt some minority of the mob knowingly embraces communism, the majority are simply too stupid. Yes, I know that is harsh, but let's get real: there is a kind of education that opens the mind, and there is a kind that closes it. These folks have received the latter, and it is terribly sad, for them and for us.

At any rate, let's be candid: all through human history, migration is a constant. All the people's who live on the islands of the Pacific surely did not originate there, neither did the natives who first saw the sails of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria rising on the horizon. Everyone is from somewhere else; and almost everyone is descended of someone who took it from someone else. I am not justifying conquest; I am simply pointing out that the Europeans did what everybody did. What's more, if you want to evaluate this morally (of which I am in favor), I ask you: where does your morality come from? How do you know what is really right and wrong? How do you justify it?

The Christianity that made Junipero and Louis the people they became does give a basis for right and wrong; what else? If you say, oh, I have nothing to do with that, then where does your morality come from? If you point to the Enlightenment, I have news for you: that was a product of Christianity. And I have further news, which is sobering: as the roots of the Enlightenment in Christianity are forgotten, so now a new generation, that knew not Descartes and Locke and Kierkegaard, have pretty much forgotten the Enlightenment, or worse, are cheerfully consigning it to the flames. So I ask you again: the moral code that assures you of the wrongness of, well, pretty much anything, where does it come from? What secures it?

Here's another thing. Many people do not realize what it means when someone is deemed a "saint."

Let me explain: it does not mean they were perfect. To be a Christian is to believe that such perfection is impossible, without the constant assistance of God's grace. I think our Protestant and Evangelical brethren get mixed up on this -- they firmly believe in grace, yet they seem to miss the point that if grace is real, then doesn't it, at some point, work? In other words: saints. But in any case, too many people, who aren't as familiar with Christianity as they may realize, simply do not know that the heart of the Christian faith is this: we human beings are so damaged, that only God intervening can save us. That's what it's ALL about.

So if you look for flaws in any saint (out of courtesy to Jesus, we will not do so regarding his mother), you will find them. What's more, of course saints were people of their time, meaning they reflected, to some degree, the attitudes and blindspots of their time.

That King Louis was insufficiently aware of, and resistant to, the prejudices and atmospheric sins of his age (note I said "insufficiently"; he was certainly aware -- read his writings) does not alarm me. But the perfectionism of his critics -- and their unawareness of that -- is positively terrifying.

* Yes, Ike actually called the Normandy landings a "crusade." He also used the term as the title of his memoirs.

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