Finding a Home

Finding a Home:

It is Easter week. I want to offer two pieces on Christianity and warriors. The first is from Robert Graves, describing both the knights of King Arthur and the world of Sir Thomas Malory. It shows several of the ways in which Western warriors are oddly placed within the sphere of Christendom:

[Arthur] was annointed king by an archbishop and wore a cross on his shield, yet his sponsor was Merlin the Enchanter, begotten on a nun by the Devil himself, and according to Taliesin poems in The Red Book of Hergest, "erudite druids prophesied for Arthur." .... [W]hile the seigneurial class consented to fight for the Cross as an emblem of Western civilization, the ascetic morality preached by Jesus did not appeal to them in the least. Jesus' grave warning that 'he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword' was read as a joyful reassurance to the true knight that if he always observed the code of chivalry, he would die gloriously in battle and be translated to a Celtic Paradise in the twinkling of an eye. Moreover, the Western conception of personal honour could not be reconciled with humility, turning the other cheek, and leaving God to avenge injuries.

The concept of knight-errantry would have made poor sense in Israel. I recall no distressed damsels in the entire Bible, the heroes all being national deliverers, not individuals adventurers. When an ancient Israelite fought in God's name, he fought ruthlessly: thrusting women through the belly with his javelin, dashing the little ones against stones, and smiting non-combatants with the edge of his sword -- churlish behavior for which an Arthurian knight (unless engaged in a blood feud) would have had his spurs lopped off by the hangman. And the Israelite was realistic about yielding to superior force in allowing himself to be led away captive; not so the true knight.

The second is from G. K. Chesterton, who thought that Western warriors belonged very naturally in Christendom -- because, for him, Christianity was big enough to welcome true warriors and also pure pacifists.
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.
Chesterton returns to this theme later in Orthodoxy.
The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did.
Both Chesterton and Graves are correct. There are those men for whom "live by the sword, die by the sword" is more a promise than a threat: and Christianity has room for both. Jesus had room both for Jewish priests who could see that his overturning of the moneychangers was an act of righteousness, for their alleged moral order had become wicked; and even Coifi, which means "Hooded one," could ride to the temple of Freyr and cast a spear into it. If such a one as Coifi can strike a blow for Christianity, then Merlin is just as welcome.

The interesting thing about Christianity is the degree to which it accepts men as they are: the Christian law is not the Ten Commandments, but the Great Commandment: "Love each other as you love yourself; forgive everything." If I am to love a man, I must love him as he is; yet if I am to love him as I love myself, then I may fight with him to the degree that I would fight myself. I may even kill him, if there are things I would rather kill myself than be guilty of having done.

If I can but forgive his soul, I am doing all that is asked in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If I can do that, then we may fight each other as hard as needs be -- and we may even love the chance to strike a blow for what is right, best, just. Even the most wicked man is therefore lovable, insofar as he gives us the greatest opportunity to create good in the world. Even our own capacity for sin is lovable, for the same reason.

This is the meaning of the poem at the sidebar:
How white their steel, how bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave,

Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave.

Yea, I will bless them as they bend and love them where they lie,

When on their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky.

The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose, --

You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes.
In that way there is room in the house for knights as well as friars, for troubadours and Templars, poets and enchanters.

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