Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.
– Hebrews 4:12-13
As much as I was impressed with the high-tech precision of the Navy SEALS portrayed in Act of Valor—and moved by their sacrifice for our country—generally I am more deeply affected by portrayals of the blunt savagery of older wars. I can marvel at the mathematical elegance of a sniper kill from a mile or more distant, until I recall James Michener’s account of a Polish peasant walking to meet armored and mounted invaders, carrying a length of ash wood he had induced to grow snugly around a few pieces of jagged flint, forming a homemade mace. The time required to grow your own weapon would perhaps be long enough to sufficiently steel yourself to bludgeon an armored man to death, and another, and another. It seems to me that a man who would kill in this way must necessarily have the courage of his convictions. There is no hope of distance or anonymity; he must be willing to look his enemy in the eye and get his hands dirty.
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Three recent experiences inspired this essay. The first was the continuation of a friendly debate regarding the best way to engage and challenge non-believers, in which a friend of mine indicated that the older he gets, the more he feels that polite arguments and sustained discussions are not worth his time. The second was an unexpectedly difficult Lenten struggle to hold my tongue, and the third was this group’s opposition to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate. All three of these experiences have in common the issue of when and how we should engage those who think, feel, or believe differently than we do.
In March, several of us wrote our senators in opposition to the HHS mandate, despite the knowledge that they were unlikely to budge (or even personally review our letters). One of our number went a step further, expertly dismantling the form response sent by Senator Klobuchar’s office and, we hope, forcing someone on her staff at least to think about this fight in a new way. Our brother crafted his own weapon and wielded it with persistence. He got his hands dirty.
I thought briefly about following suit. I had already begun to formulate the idea for this essay, and the question arose: Does it make sense for both of us to bloody ourselves? Is it cowardice to avoid contact? Or foolishness to engage? It makes sense we should strike as the battle requires or duty demands; however, prudence suggests it is a waste to send all of us where one man may strike just as effectively.
Or maybe that’s a cop-out. Maybe I prefer the comforts of my home to the rigors, risk, and disillusion of battle.
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I once heard a soldier suggest, in an unguarded moment, that the best resolution to the conflicts in the Middle East would be to bomb the region back to the Stone Age. While I can sympathize with his emotions, I can’t condone that course of action. Nevertheless, it seems as though certain Catholics and conservatives pine for a similar approach to the current culture war: we should bomb the world back to the Middle Ages to regain Christendom, or at least to the 18th century, to regain the Republic. I heard a caller on the radio recently, responding to a discussion of our “do-nothing” Congress, who said the lack of activity is a good thing; the less they do the better, unless they are undoing. Again, I can sympathize, but the problem with this turn-back-the-clock approach is that, since the Enemy marches with the times, he has the momentum. It’s not insignificant that the Forbidden Fruit came from the Tree of Knowledge: as a society, we continue to rush headlong toward the void, and we cannot unlearn or unknow that which undermines our faith and our culture. We cannot live in reverse; neither can we get ahead of the spinning world—how, then, do we affect the future?
I believe the answer is in conversion. If we are “in the world but not of it,” we are able to resist the pull of so-called progress and to live rightly—here and now—even when the world goes wrong. The same holds true for our friends and family, our neighbors and our adversaries: if they catch hold of the eternal, the temporal loses some of its momentum.
So how do we engage them? As Christian soldiers, our methods matter. We are called to speak the Truth with charity, to balance justice with mercy, to be the hands and feet of Christ, but also His mouth and ears. We are called to love our enemies. Therefore we are not permitted to kill at all, but only to disarm; our targets are the wicked or unreal ideas that deceive and enslave our adversaries, that keep them marching relentlessly forward to certain death. Bound by a code to which our enemies are not subject, our battles may seem unwinnable—but the Letter to the Hebrews presents us with a special weapon, “sharper than any two-edged sword.” As we’ve read in the Acts of the Apostles these past few weeks, the Word of God and the name of Jesus are more powerful than we know.
Political philosopher and Catholic convert Gerhart Niemeyer once wrote of Edmund Burke (and by extension, an emerging hero of mine, Russell Kirk):
Let others speculate, if they wish, on “social causes” which supposedly bring about great transformations of things political without and against the wills of individual men. It is individual men who think, and Burke’s power consisted in his ability to persuade individual minds.*
I believe this is our calling—to engage individuals in intellectual melee, sometimes on our ground, sometimes in theirs; to look them in the eye and get our hands dirty; and whenever possible, to skewer or bludgeon dead ideas to ease their passing. The culture war will not be won by money, votes, or the most articulate or creative protests, though these weapons are important and should be wielded with skill and courage. It will be won by close-combat evangelization and the bloody, relentless work of conversion—the winning of individual hearts, minds, and souls for the Kingdom.
* From “Russell Kirk and Ideology,” published in the Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1994, and reprinted with permission on the Imaginative Conservative blog, April 10, 2012.
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The Practical Tactics of Close-Combat Evangelization
Engage worthy adversaries. People must know where we stand, but beyond that, we can and should pick our battles. Why engage a ghost (like my old nemesis, the Online Stranger) or one who will not stand and fight? We should look instead for the non-believing Nicodemuses of our world—those with sharp minds and searching hearts—and though they may prove to be formidable adversaries, we should trade blows with them gamely. After all, haven’t we all questioned Christ in secret? Aren’t we all converts, grateful to those who challenged us?
Pray for your enemies. He is a peculiar Christian who proclaims the ancient miracles but disregards the impact of prayer in his modern life—yet how many times have I told my more patient, prayerful side, “I can’t just sit here; I have to do something!” We must remember that prayer is powerful, and make a conscious and sincere effort to pray for our adversaries before, while, and after we engage them.
Wield the sword of Truth. “Being Catholic, and in the public square” is not the same as “being Catholic in the public square.” For example, the HHS mandate is, broadly speaking, an issue of religious freedom, but it also specifically violates our Catholic faith, and as Meddlesome has previously suggested, this is a teachable moment. Truth and virtue resound, even in non-believers—so we must express our faith publicly, not only for our own salvation, but also for the sake of others. This includes small actions, like praying in restaurants, and larger efforts, such as cultivating an evangelist’s passion for Scripture, which penetrates “even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow,” and lays reality bare.
Make your ground good. In Cardinal Newman’s 19th century treatise The Idea of a University, he decries the “viewiness” of his day: the tendency of the daily news to inspire in men a love of idle chatter and an abundance of opinion in order to seem intellectual, while their actual knowledge is a mile wide and inch deep. Newman calls for each student to cultivate a habit “of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know.” We must do the same, because a shallow defender of Truth is quickly over his head.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Our goal is not to win arguments or elections, but to bring souls to Christ and, with God’s grace, gain heaven. This battle is fought in God’s good time, not in ours. We must be willing to see it through, to persist, to suffer, even to die. Who are we to say it isn’t worth the effort?