Our Allies in the War to Come

missionaries-boxer-rebellion

As the Great Wall of Chinese communism begins to show signs of crumbling into a long overdue dilapidation, a billion people will be readier than they have ever been to hear the Good News of Christ. At the same time they will meet the immense force of the anti-evangelist, the advertiser, the marketer of western lusts and madness. Whatever good ideas the west has had to give have long been given already, or are so bound up with the Christian faith that you cannot have one without the other. That is regardless of what secularists want so pathetically to believe, they with their touching superstitions of universal and steady human progress; as if a quicker internet search engine meant a wiser and more thoughtful man. What the west mainly gives now is pornographic in the broadest sense. Ours is a political economy of whores, by whores, and for whores, bidding fair to wipe all genuinely human cultures off the face of the earth. If you believe I exaggerate, open a high school reader or watch five minutes of television.

God has, however, endowed the Christian evangelist with two tremendously powerful allies. They are nature and culture. Let us look at each in turn. When Cardinal Bernardin proposed his “seamless garment” of social justice, he was right in the seamlessness but wrong in the garment. His garment was stitched together from patches of social policies that were at best to be recommended only for his own place and time. But opposition to baby-murdering is not inherently bound to any specific political program, such as broadening access to food stamps for the poor. I am not saying anything about food stamps. I am saying that, in thinking of things politically and parochially rather than philosophically, Cardinal Bernardin failed to see that abortion flowed seamlessly into other outrages against nature. 
    

It is unnatural for a mother to turn her womb into a killing field. It is also unnatural, a kind of idolatry or blasphemy, for two men or two women to mimic sexual intercourse with one another. It is unnatural, a form of spiritual child abuse every bit as destructive as the physical, to put before the eyes of children the buffet of sexual excitations to which they are introduced by the pornogogues of our schools. It is unnatural willingly to deprive children of a mother or a father. It is unnatural to starve the developing manhood of our boys, or to frustrate or foul the developing womanhood of our girls. No doubt the reader can come up with plenty of his or her own examples of our detestation of nature. These may descend from a Moloch-like grinning at dismembered baby-parts, to things apparently trivial, such as compelling a boy to grope and press a girl on the wrestling mat.

Everything truly natural is a friend: the God-ordained order of the world and of mankind is in concord with the faith. Until a few anthropological seconds ago, man’s imagination was formed in the first instance by his intimate life with parents and kin, hour after hour and day after day, and then by work close to earth and water, plants and animals. One hour trying to furrow a straight line with a stick-plow behind an oxen will cure anybody of sickly utopian dreams—and will clear your head and build your chest and shoulders a lot better than any nothing-making treadmill can.

Then came culture, the fruit of man’s struggle with nature, including his own nature, and his encounter with the divine. Like anything else that man makes, culture is nowhere pure, and is often shot through with dreadful evil. But it is in a way natural to man to cultivate a way of life that transcends the generations in time, and that in being reaches out to God himself. I suggest that the unnatural is to the natural as mass phenomena are to culture—especially the mass phenomena such as they are now. It was one thing, perhaps, when mass-marketed films were made by men and women who knew in their bones what it was like to till the earth, carry a hundred and fifty pounds of gear on a forced march, and fall to their knees with farmers and artisans and day laborers worshiping God. But we now have mass phenomena produced by people with no such salutary roots. They are the products of advertising having become the producers of advertising; brought up on porn, and spewing up porn of their own, ever more inhuman and unnatural.

To show what I mean instead, I offer a typical passage from one of my copies of The Century, 1901. The author, one Cecile Payen, was a member of the American legation in Peking when the Boxer Rebellion broke out. She and other Americans and foreign nationals survived a siege of two months, protected by fifteen-foot walls and only a few dozen “boys,” that is, soldiers, American, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and British, while they were waiting for the siege to be lifted by troops from Tientsin in the north. (An aside: a young American mining engineer, a Quaker who did not himself wield arms, became the hero of Tientsin by his leadership in the defense of the city. His name was Herbert Hoover.)

Here Miss Payen describes in her diary-entry how they spent one evening:

Since the comparative quiet, many of the missionaries, assisted by others, gather around the bell-tower in the evening and sing hymns and songs. Two siege songs, even, have been composed. This singing usually ends with a volley from the Chinese, which sends us all to our places of shelter. Last night the singing was unusually long. After the customary hymns came parts of operas, sung by the Russians, some of whom have beautiful voices; then the French sang the “Marseillaise”; the marines got a little noisy, joining in with some of their own compositions.

I cite the passage because it is so utterly ordinary. It does not strike Miss Payen that there is anything unusual about a large group of people gathering together to sing hymns from memory, or to compose hymns, or to sing parts of various operas, and so forth. Here by contrast is something extraordinary:

Some of the Chinese Christians’ food was shown to me today; it is made in little cakes of millet, black-bean flour, and earth, mixed with the leaves of elm-trees. The sight of this, and the thought that we may soon come to it, fairly made me sick…

Such were the privations that these people were willing to suffer for the faith. It occurs to me that the people of our non-cultural time could neither write nor even conceive those sentences. Nor this:

This is Sunday. Oh, how homesick the very word makes me! Why did I ever come to China? Still, in all the dangers surrounding me, I am astonished at my own coolness. I know nothing will hurt me, and have not the slightest fear, for the Lord watches over me for my dear little mother’s sake. I find it interesting to try to sketch with the bullets flying over my head. Today the stool on which I was sitting was struck, but fortunately the ball was spent, and I was only badly frightened.

No trigger-warnings there, or concern for micro-aggressions. But why would Sunday make anybody homesick now? For noise-riddled football games on television, interrupted by commercials advertising products for men who want a chemical winch?

There’s one thing in Miss Payen’s diary entries that forms a fine bridge between human nature and culture. It is, like so much else in her diary, all the more striking in being matter-of-fact. To put it simply, the men and the women all work very hard, but mostly at different things, the women preparing food, taking care of the children, helping to nurse the wounded, and spending whole days tearing silks and linens to pieces to make more than 1500 sandbags to help at the defense. The men, and this includes older boys, procure food, sneaking in and out of the “fortress” at peril of their lives, butchering horses and dressing the carcasses; they shore up the breaches in the walls, and they place themselves as bulwarks against wave after wave of the aggressive but ill-organized Boxers. Several dozen of these tireless and brave men died, many others were badly wounded, and yet they did protect the women. On the very day the great foreign force from Tientsin arrived, one woman was struck in the leg by a bullet while she was crossing the tennis court, “the first foreign woman to be hurt since the siege began.”

Each sex vied with the other in praise and gratitude and in doing what they could to help the other, not to belittle or replace the other, or get in the way. They were, we might say, like the voices in a choir, singing in harmony. That too is natural for mankind, much better than complaining and blaming and accusing, or pretending that there are no such things as men and women. In this way also culture is our friend: for what sane people anywhere in the world would want to emulate our confusion and the disintegration in our families? What good is that?

It is high time we gave over our foolish assumption that we have nothing to learn from nature or from the discarded wisdom of centuries of Christian culture. Perhaps in learning how to evangelize a venerable civilization such as the Chinese, we might end up evangelizing ourselves.

Editor’s note: The illustration above, which depicts Christian missionaries being massacred in China, was published in the French newspaper Le soleil du dimanche, October 1893.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); and Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015).

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