Snippets from "Let's Fight", June 2022, First Things.
The Christian pursuit of virtue is an unfinished war against vice; indeed, every virtue reflects a vice, because the virtue is acquired only in battle against a lingering vice. We don’t have courage merely in a generic sense. We have courage that has always been at war with our specific, historical cowardice, and as our courage develops, it develops with this cowardice reflected within it. Our courage is aimed at our cowardice. Our war shapes our peace.
Even though the Church’s activities against corruption are themselves unavoidably corrupt, they are not futile. As she reforms, she is made more perfect, and so corruption gives way to sanctity. This is a real movement: The spiral of reform is an ascending spiral. The Church moves in an eschatological ascent, but this does not mean that she moves in a linear, Whiggish progression. Corruption is real and is constantly counteracting reform, constantly threatening to drag the Church back down into the world, and to various degrees succeeding. But even such regressions must be understood as the providential settings for new reforms, for a new calling of the Church out of the world—like Israel out of Egypt—to build new structures of discipline and form new strategies for sanctity. The historian of the Church, then, must have a subtle, patient posture toward the object of his work. He must listen to the Church, hear what she says about what she is doing, allow her both sanctity and corruption in the same movement, see her sin within her more profound dynamic of reform into sanctity.Christianity’s movement, by contrast, comprehends its own negation (corruption). Christianity denies, ultimately, the possibility of a true binary, of a difference that does not operate within a unity. As Augustine explained, the man hanging upside down by his feet experiences pain only because he belongs to a right-side-up cosmos (he is upside-down). Sin is identified for what it is only within a world that is built to undo sin. There is an irony here: Only human beings are capable of sin, and redemption is the movement into ever fuller humanity. As a saint moves deeper into perfection, he is able to identify his sins more perfectly and resist them. Disordered goods become more obvious and more offensive exactly as goods become more properly ordered. The law convicts us even as grace saves us. In the dualistic modern world, such Christianity can be perceived only as the most profound hypocrisy, as logically absurd and morally reprehensible. Christians always talk about peace, and yet they wage war. They praise holiness, and yet they often sin. They call for reform, and yet they are corrupt. Christians, in short, are foolish bigots. This is what the sophisticates of the Roman Empire saw. This is what our elites see.
Conflict, then, is unavoidable. Christianity has the potential to destroy the world that persecutes it through the sacrificial power that wages war always for the weak and never for the strong. If the Church does not destroy this world, it must join it, through a downward spiral of violence without sacrifice and of suffering without power. Within the Christian dynamic, the martyr and the crusader are part of the same story. But within the framework of the modern mind, the Crusades emerge as grotesque at the same rate that martyrdom becomes incomprehensible. Christianity has become just another bit of the world, another religion, another lifestyle, maybe a good one—as Dickson would have it—but probably not.
The Church is corrupt. If the Church stopped being corrupt, that would mean that she had stopped taking risks, stopped venturing out into the world, stopped fighting. This is an unsettling and humbling thought. But the alternative is to make things simple, to accept the absolutes of the world, to accuse with ease and self-righteousness, to deny both the legitimacy of the crusaders and the holiness of the martyrs in favor of moral certitude. It would be a false solution. Instead, let’s fight.