OCTOBER 8, 2020
Persecution? Bring It On
As our readers must know, Amy Coney Barrett, whom President Trump has nominated for a position on the Supreme Court, was a long-time member of a charismatic and ecumenical Christian group called People of Praise. The women in the group are called handmaids, after the world-changing fiat of Mary: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38). At that moment, as genuine Christians believe, the Word through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:2) became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). It is the Incarnation, the turning point and center of human history, and that is why Christians used to consider March 25—nine months before the Nativity of Christ—rather than January 1 as the beginning of the New Year.
As for Mary, the first of handmaids, Roman Catholics such as Judge Barrett believe her to be, next to Christ, the most glorious member of the human race. Her obedience is a power. That is why the pilgrim Dante appeals to her at the end of his sacred poem, to pray that God may grant him the ultimate and beatific vision. Hers are “the eyes beloved of God and honored best,” and not even the most exalted of the angels is nearer to God than she:
Then [her eyes] turned to the eternal Light,
wherein, we trust, no creature else can send
created vision with such perfect sight. (Paradiso 33.40, 43-45)
None of this should be any more remarkable than to say, “Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Christians believe in the resurrection.” But because the feminist Margaret Atwood aimed at evangelical Christians a slanderous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), about religious people in a future dystopia of male domination and no abortion, our great guardians of democracy and all things decent, journalists at such organs as The Washington Post have spoken out in tones of terror about how strange, how bizarre, how misogynistic the People of Praise must be. Why, they even believe that wives should submit themselves unto their husbands, as unto the Lord (Eph. 5:22).
That directive from the Apostle to the Gentiles was not controversial at the time, nor for almost two millennia afterwards. It wasn’t controversial in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, Carthage, and Rome. It would not be controversial in Paris, London, Hamburg, Stockholm, Kiev, Madrid, and Philadelphia. It would not be controversial among any of the countless peoples to whom Christian missionaries brought the Gospel: Zulus, Incas, Guarani, Sioux, Punjabi, Hmong, Maori, and Tlingit. For them, it was like being commanded to have common sense. The new thing was the commandment to the men, that they love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5:25). We are the outliers here. We despise the one commandment and ignore the other.
Some people, a tad nervously, have defended Judge Barrett by saying that “handmaid” does not mean what the enemies think it means. I believe that the defense is mistaken. Certainly, we are dealing with ignorance, as when journalists feel the need to explain, often incorrectly at that, who the Prodigal Son was, or what happened on Pentecost. It gives but a false comfort to consider that the people who govern us, instruct us, and weave the ropes for us to hang ourselves with are ignorant of most of the rest of the western heritage too, so that Percy Shelley is as foreign to them as Simon Peter. It is true that many people hate the foolish cartoon monster they believe the Church to be, so that when we show her to them in her glory, their souls cry out, “Thou hast ravished my heart!” (Sg. 4:9). But it is also true that the very beauty of the Church strikes others with fear and loathing, for she is also, as the same song sings, “terrible as an army with banners” (6:10).
The Lord himself has advised us: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). For the world as the Lord uses the term is fundamentally opposed to the truth and to God, so we should expect no praise from it: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” (15:18). This dislocation, this having no real home here, goes all the way back to our first parents, driven by their own sin from the garden where they belonged; to Enoch the pious, who “walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5:24), to Noah upon the waters, whose ark struck ground on Ararat (8:4), to our father Abraham, who left his father’s house in Haran and lived out his days “a stranger and a sojourner” (23:4), to Moses without a nation, neither Egypt nor Canaan, “a stranger in a strange land” (Ex. 2:22). This homelessness does not make the good Christian morose. Rather, as Chesterton says, “Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world.” Imagine the alternative. Imagine the flatlands of Russia or the noise of New York, world without end. But precisely because the Christian does not expect too much from the world, he is set free to love his home as it ought to be loved, cherishing it the more because he knows that it will not endure forever.
We do not seek the hatred of the world. It comes unbidden. We may well ask why.
The world—political action, money-making, licentiousness, sloth in its guise as busyness—must disappoint. Politics is at best a muddle, and at worst an arena of enmity, where people turn common expectation on its head, and do far worse things in public than they would ever do in private. Money slips through the fingers like water, even before the grave relieves you of it all. License enslaves, dulling both body and soul by the devil’s law of diminishing concessions: the sins grow worse as the pleasure fades. Careers are largely the expense of spirit in a waste of time. The idol is hollow. Does man abandon it, then? Not reliably. He cannot break free, but he directs his disappointment and his hatred toward those who have not bowed before the false god. They are the enemies of mankind. The sweeter their lives are, the more obvious the hope they hold out to those who suffer, the more orderly their families, the more ringing the voices of their children playing in the street, the more will they be hated. Satan knew how lovely Eden was. That was why he wanted to ruin it.
In a few weeks I will be voting against the party that is eager to crush, to pen up, or worse, to deform, every faithful Catholic school, parish, and beneficent society in the country. That is no endorsement of the other party. Nor do I believe that the persecution can be staved off for long. It must come. Says Chesterton:
This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.
Witness, disobedient nuns who take consolation when their own orders fall to dust; witness, apostate priests and bishops who misangelize, and prefer a church-burning Turk to a candle-burning Christian; witness, liberal professors who would rather live in a gulag than let a Catholic speak freely; witness, rioters laying waste to their own cities, and tearing down statues not of imputed oppressors alone but even of benefactors and saints.
The choice for us is not between the world’s hatred and its love. It is between the world’s hatred and its contempt. We may choose to be timid and contemptible, pretending to meet the world on its own terms. We may choose to be courageous, saying no to the world and its lies, but yes, always yes to the truth, in season and out of season, to honor our God and to serve a world that does not desire that service. What that will require, in practical terms, depends in part on the circumstances. Success or failure lies not in our hands, as courageous and wise as we may be.
Persecution? Well then, persecution. Bring it on.
[Photo credit: Claudio Santana]
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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).