On October 25, 1415 (St. Crispin’s Day), the army of King Henry V of England engaged the army of Charles VI of France at Agincourt, in Northern France. The battle was famously depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Estimates say that as many as 10,000 Frenchmen died, while as few as 112 Englishmen perished (the numbers reported vary somewhat). Henry’s speech before the battle is classic:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Somewhere that morning, unrecorded by Shakespeare, a French farmer awoke and fed his pigs. He milked his cows, said his prayers, and wondered whether winter would be early. He heard about the battle some weeks later and shook his head.
Agincourt was a single battle in a conflict known as the Hundred Years War, a contest between the Plantagenet rulers of England and the House of Valois, the Rulers of France. Our farmer had many counterparts across France and England, who “now a-bed,” managed to miss the excitement and the danger. They went about their business, encumbered by the increased taxes levied by their overlords to support the constant warfare. However the history books tell it, this was not a war between England and France. It was a war between royal houses. Our farmers carried on their lives as well as they could despite the war games of the wealthy.
Battles such as Agincourt make for great drama and entertaining movies. The history books generally move from one such event to another, creating a narrative that makes the world turn on such occasions. It is, of course, much ado about nothing.
The history of the world lies with the farmer and his wife and children, safely in their beds, or sweating in their fields. Those who lay dead on the battlefield might very well have represented the end of their line, remembered by Shakespeare, but erased from the genetic memory of the generations to come. The lore surrounding those who hold “power” in this world, serves only to feed the illusion that such power is the pivot point of history. Many aspects of our modern world have invested this world-view with enormous value.
It is relatively easy to deconstruct the claims of “England versus France” if it can be seen as Plantagenet versus Valois. But our modern world has changed its mythology and declared every man a king. In a democracy, it is everyman’s war, “us versus them.” At its worst, modern democratic warfare targets civilians with impunity. Those asleep in their beds may very well discover that they are unwittingly on the battlefield as the bombs fall around them.
In 1415, there was little difference between a farmer in England and a farmer in France. They were both Catholics, and attended the same Mass in Church. “England” and “France” were words used by Royalty but not yet a primary part of the common man’s life.
The rise of the nation state (something largely coterminous with the Reformation) was also the rise of a “national” consciousness. National Churches (a hallmark of the Reformation) helped reinforce this new self-awareness. Of course, nothing had changed to differentiate farmer from farmer across the Channel. Their lives, though now separated religiously, remained largely indistinguishable.
The myth of national consciousness has never abated. The modern nation is an abstract concept, reinforced by massive propaganda and martial law. We are taught to think in terms that were once foreign to our ancestors. It is also foreign to the Kingdom of God.
Henry V’s speech suggests that the average guy in England, unfortunate enough to have missed the battle, would rue the day. The implication, of course, is that “this battle is important.” It is another way of saying, “I am important.” And this is patently untrue.
The Scriptures describe a different view of history:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are… (1 Cor. 1:27-28)
The narrative of history offered in the Scriptures is not the tale of kings and battles. The most important characters are utterly obscure: a shepherd, a girl, a slave, a fisherman, a carpenter, a vine-dresser. The word of a young girl, just past puberty, is later described by a Church father as the “cause of all things.”
Our culture magnifies the narrative of political, military, and financial power. In the stories it tells us, we imagine ourselves to somehow be participants in their lives. But that is to dwell in the realm of imagination. The truth of the world can be found in the words of that young girl:
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Lk. 1:51-53)
The truth of our existence is in the hands of God, who has great regard for the life of the farmer and his family, and those quietly “a-bed,” while the imaginations of the falsely mighty run their course.
The gospel and the commandments of Christ are written from the perspective of those that “are not,” even while they imagine themselves to be among those that “are.” When the Rich Young Man came to Christ, he was among those who were “powerful.” He had the ability to do much “good.” Christ’s invitation to him was to join the dispossessed. That same invitation is given to all of us. Renouncing the “imagination of our hearts” we are invited to come to our senses.
The world as seen through the eyes of its “managers” (whether they are royals or simply the “body politic” of modern democracies) is a false vision. Such a view-point always fails to see what is truly taking place and wrongly assigns responsibility and respect where it does not belong. The outcome of history is solely in the hands of God. Though our lives consist of a thousand million tiny things, they are the things that matter. Love. Pray. Share your stuff. Be kind. Forgive your enemies. It matters.
The vanity of the those who seek power is never ending and most of us seek power especially to do good elsewhere.
This reminds me of #18 of Fr. Hopko’s Maxims, “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.” Oddly enough my mind has been unpacking that idea quite a bit lately. Thank you Father.
As a military guy, I loved this shift in perspective to your Christocentric viewpoint. The metanoia is now up to me!
Stanley Hauerwas’ Dictum: “As soon as we agree to take charge of the outcome of history, we agree to do violence.”
I would add to that the observation that from that point on, every discussion will ultimately come down to figuring out who should be killed and when. That the devil was a “murderer from the beginning” should be born in mind as we think such a thing through.
I appreciate what you write about farmers in England and France in 1415 having much in common. The newly-elected mayor of Montreal is quoted (yesterday) as saying ,“Francophone, anglophone, allophone – we all have more in common than many people have us believe.” This gives me a little hopeful feeling about our society here ….
Most people want to get on with their lives, raise their kids, go to work and such. The distractions of those with “power” have to constantly be sold to them. Modernity represents the rise of advertising and the art of persuasion. If all of the noise were to shut down for a little while, we might discover we could live without it. Wars have to be sold. Hate is often manufactured. And, of course, these things are done for profit. There must be “problems” and “problems” must be magnified so that we will agree to the violence that will be perpetrated in our name.
Jesus seems to have through the world with virtually no regard for these make-believe powers. When the Romans demanded taxes, he pulled a gold coin out of a fish’s mouth. He scoffed at Pilate’s empty boasts. On the Cross, His only regard was for His mother, his disciples, the guy next to Him and His Father. He is the Compass of our lives, pointing steadily to the only things that matter.
Great reflection – thank you, Fr Stephen.
The Christian account of creation as fundamentally peaceful, the position that chaos is neither primordial nor prior to the order of creation, cuts to the heart (pardon the pun) of the delusion of violence. Traditionally the Church refused to understand Christ’s death primarily as a scapegoat mechanism, but declaring it rather the peaceful and divine judgment on the violence of scapegoating, and therefore the beginning of the end of the ‘might makes right’ status quo. How far we stray. Lord have mercy.
The Faithful –despite their apparent insignificance in the secular state of affairs–sporadically face a sort of spiteful envy or a kind of admiration from non-believers (or an amalgamation of both). One of the reason for this –which this fabulous article reminded me of– is that genuine Christians possess a humble yet unshakeable confidence of ‘universal’ dimensions that goes against what secular activism stands for: they are the people to whom the victorious eschatological outcome of history [in Christ] has been revealed, and they are intensely mindful of it even in an otherwise spiritually indifferent milieu, so much that they needn’t concern themselves with fretting despite immense challenges to the contrary, only with the re-kindling of their gratitude towards their Saviour.
Dino, yes I see that.
About 50 years ago my American History Prof assign the class I was in a three to five paragraph essay on “The Idea of National Interest” Difficult assignment.
My thesis was that using power to promte national interest was either self-limiting or massively destructive. The more power a nation has, the less of it that can be used without it being self-destructive. Current events bear out that thesis.
The devil is always tempting us to great deeds in this world. But Father is right. Great deeds in this world always come down to whom do I kill and how do I justify it.
We are not of this world so we are called to small deeds of mercy and righteousness and repentance. God gives the increase.
The Tower of Babel always seems like a good idea and a noble cause. But, you can bet your bottom dollar that the idea did not initiate with the slaves who were making bricks. When you’re making bricks, one brick is pretty much like another. Somehow we have come to think that it’s someone else who’s making the bricks.
Monumental and epic times of struggle with the intention to “progress” and change the world for the good may cause more harm in the long run. Sure, these events are recorded in our history books and esteemed significant. But I believe that in God’s history book, passages which are underlined and highlighted and given significance and celebrated are those where the unnamed saint gives a drink of water to the least of these.
Somewhere that morning, unrecorded by Shakespeare, a French farmer awoke and fed his pigs. He milked his cows, said his prayers, and wondered whether winter would be early. He heard about the battle some weeks later and shook his head.
Democracy changes this dynamic. What was previously a fight between royal houses over honorifics and rents from land becomes total, existential war between peoples. This is the brutal, unavoidable logic of the terrorist, and the atomic bomb, and the meatgrinder wars between citizen-armies.
‘Renouncing the “imagination of our hearts” we are called to come to our senses’…
Father Stephen, is this the work only God can do? Do I just try to stand before Him being who I am, in shame, vain imaginations and all?
Any thoughts then for a homeschool mom, who has been studying world history in class?
Fr Stephen I’m very grateful for this essay and reminder. There is considerable push in the media to take us into conflict with our neighbors and families. It’s getting to the point where I don’t take in ‘news’ at all—I’m not sure that’s an appropriate remedy but my lack of knowledge on current events does cause a negative reaction as well in conversations , such are the times. My comeback on being scolded for my lack of attention is to say I have a lot to do and in my ‘down time’ I just want to relax. It doesn’t get me off the hook exactly but it helps to divert the conversation to something else.
Father you have given a talk about evangelization practices a few years back— elsewhere not on these pages. If I find the link may I post it here? I think it pertains to this conversation as well.
Michael what are your thoughts on Howard Zinn’s history book?
Thank you for this post, It is very helpful to me. I am trying very hard to properly focus my life on what matters. It is not easy, probably because I am mostly trying to do it myself, instead of continually asking God to do it for me.
I must confess, however, that I love Shakespeare, and Henry V in particular. So, in their defense, please let me point out that, after the Battle of Agincourt, Henry gives all the credit to God. Here is the clip.
Giving thanks for success in killing other human beings does not make sense to me anymore, but the inconsistency makes Shakespeare’s king that much more human, in the same way that Dostoyevsky’s characters are so human.
Anna, history is ultimately about being human and what that looks like in certain times and places- both successes and failures. Often well crafted historical novels give a better sense of that than official histories. Always be aware of the author’s bias, your bias and the bias of our time. Context and continuity. History is always an educated description. Look for God’s Providence. Have fun. Everything and every family has a history. It presents a unique opportunity to ask questions about what is true and what is not. Slowly and carefully at first in small things.
One f the best times I had with my son was visiting a small museum near us in central Kansas The Coronado-Quevera Museum. It had artifacts and stories of the Coronado expedition and their encounter with the indigenous Queveras. Including about Juan Padilla a RC priest who stayed behind to minister to his new flock when Coronado left — not finding any gold.
The armor of the Spanish was so small. My pre-teen son was too big for some of it. Yet they walked through grass over six feet high for days seeing little being engulfed by a sea of grass. What must that have been like?
Thank you for the reminder of what to focus on in this “spiritually indifferent milieu” we live in, that we are already “eschatologically victorious” in our relationship with our Saviour…
I had a great blessing this past Sunday to be in the Liturgy with Father Zacharias from Essex (in Seattle where he was visiting). In his sermon on the Gospel reading on the death of Lazarus and the rich man, Fr. Zacharias emphasized that Lazarus bore his poverty and suffering with acceptance. He survived on the “crumbs from the rich man’s table”, while the rich man “feasted scrumptiously” (Father Stephen’s article can, I think, be also interpreted this way, the kings and the farmers representing the two spiritual conditions in the Gospel story).
Fr. Zacharias said: “But to God, this is nothing. He has all Eternity to rectify matters, to render justice, to make up for the injustice that people suffer in this world”. And he reminded us that in ANY situation we need to bless and thank God, and bear our “poverty” with acceptance, because then we will have the same destiny as the poor Lazarus – rich and glorious entrance into the Eternal Kingdom… “God Who is the Father of Mercy and of every consolation, relates with people who are just like Lazarus (full of pain, crushed by the poverty in this life) and as such people only we can find contact with God of Mercy and Consolation”. Your comment is another beautiful reminder of this.
May we be granted to see our pains and other “immense challenges” in such a life-giving way…
Obviously, children need general information that is “expected” of them. But I would help them pay attention to what is “not” in the headlines. As a suggestion, I would use the book, Salt, as a way of thinking about historical change independent of wars and generals. There are other similar things out there. The book, Salt, looks at world history through the lens of our dependence on salt. It’s well-written and fascinating. It might spark a project for re-thinking present history.
We should point out to others that their watching of the news has not really done anything to change the world, but has done ever so much to change them…for the worse!
This article is quite timely, as I just finished reading Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens. Longing to understand what Christ meant when He said ” you are in this world but you are not of this world”, I see that the indoctrination of secular ideals, all that we have learned throughout our lifetime, including in the mainline churches, was not reality at all. Hauerwas doesn’t mince words. He describes the difference between living in the world and living in the Kingdom as the difference between living a *true* reality vs. a false one. Pertaining to your article, when history is written from a secular point of view, from the very start the information is based on a false notion of reality. And the more that is written, the more it is circulated, the more it is taught, the more it is believed, the more it is discussed, the more it is lived and becomes knit into the fiber of society. Then there is the farmer, like many of us, whose life continues from day to day, who does not have to check the news each morning to determine where they stand in the world.
As you say Father, the outcome of history is in God’s hands. He, in His love for us, gave us the means to live in His Kingdom. This is what we want, right? But Hauerwas did not hesitate to say that Kingdom living, living as resident aliens, was difficult. He also reminded us that we are the Church, we’re among many, not alone. I am thankful that your blog, Father, is one place that I can be assured that I am not alone…because it *is* difficult at times.
Well put Father. The blessing of my old age and of my whole life is to have become Orthodox and learn to be small. I am still working on that, but the Lord is making a difference in me.
On more than one occasion. when the subject has come up, I have said that I was am a peasant, the latest descendant of a long line of peasants. But that that’s OK, because it was upon the backs of people like me and my ancestors, that civilization was built. I’ve been saying this for years, long before I ever discovered Orthodoxy.
While it always seemed like the right way to look at things given my uninspiring and largely forgotten genealogy, I never attributed any grace to it.
This Red Shirt son of a laborer thanks you again for the encouragement you give.
Glory to God.
Reading another evening’s worth of Christians arguing out in social media (this time about guns), I think I’m am becoming more and more convinced that you cannot serve God and the modern project.
I am utterly certain that if the political parties (either side) got everything they wanted, the world would be in no way better. In neither case. Coming to understand that is, I think, perhaps a necessary conclusion in order to come to one’s senses. So long as we think otherwise, we will be enthralled.
I so remember my Father-in-law’s words (spoken when confronting “issues”), “I don’t know anything about that.”
Father, I have decided not to argue or read the arguments any more. They seem to have a very negative effect on the direction I am going and its is just not worth the aggravation. Even if I engage the internet “experts” nothing is ever changed for the good. I think not knowing anything about things is a way of being small.
One of the British officers in a landing craft approaching the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, recited from memory the “St. Crispin’s Day speech.” Was he deluded? Should he not have taken action? Should he have concluded that there are no real distinctions between democracies and totalitarian dictatorships and said, “Aw, the hell with it” and quit? Are there earthly causes worth fighting for–or earthly enemies we should fight against?
Honestly, Father, while I love most of your work, sometimes I’m baffled by the implications. Forgive me.
Your words are a breath of fresh air, I so appreciate reading such sane and piwerful words.
Thank you for your thoughts, they are food for the soul.
I believe that history and the world is a combination of both. Any unilateral point of view is sure to lead into one extreme or another.
While it is true that the bulk of history never makes “the headlines” as you say and it loses nothing of its importance for it, it is also true that the outcome of some battles makes all the difference of whether the farmer will wake up safely in his bed for much longer. Such was not the case in the 100 Years war but it was in many other wars.
Both aspects are true from different points of view.
I am skeptical about all reductionist approaches to history as well as attempts to “re-write” history by putting absolute weight on only one of the aspects involved- being military or economical or any other.
Respectfully, it does not seem to me that Father’s article leads to the conclusion you have suggested above, but does mean that while we may have to fight in situations such as this – we do not have to swallow the non-sense that we are totally good and they are totally evil and that by destroying the other side we will rid the world of evil… remember Dostoevsky’s comment that the divide between good and evil runs right through the middle of every human heart. There is no glory here – only the recognition and repentance that we had all been drawn into an orgy of human destruction that we all had a hand in bringing to fruition – remember Hitler did not happen in a vacuum – there was long history of anti-semitism prevalent throughout Europe and Russia. There were the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and on and on you could go. Furthermore, there is the aftermath of WWII that unfolded still further conflicts (that are still happening) in the Middle East and across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So while in some situations we may have to fight we, as Christians must also be very critical of swallowing the Utopian narratives that those in power, even on “our side” use to justify our our own acts of inhumanity and always with a sense of sorrow and repentance that to some degree, all of our hands are dirty.
The speech might have been much better coming from lips on that day. The French in Henry’s time were not Hitlers. I do not suggest that there is never a reason to fight. I would suggest, however, that after the defeat of Hitler, America’s continuing struggle anywhere and everywhere to bring Democracy and American Enterprise in the name of a better world…much less the unending projects of our “modern mandate” are very poor extensions of that use of force. In our propaganda, ever “vice” that we oppose becomes a Hitler. Thus, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, etc.
We might have rightly fought as the small versus the great, the good versus the bad, etc. When such battles are done, we return to our farms. The mindset of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about turns every day into D-Day, and that is dangerous and not true.
The very goodness for which D-Day was fought, is found with the farmer in his bed. However, our modern mentality thinks that the goodness is the ability to oppose whatever Hitlers we may declare. It is a matter of understanding the nature of things and of what is true and good.
Your point is well-taken. However, the daily march of headlines and propaganda has forgotten the farmer in his bed. Many Christians, swept up in the modern mindset, have forgotten as well. But the outcome of history remains in the hands of God…as certainly as the outcomes of every battle. The outcome of D-Day (as Deacon Nicholas noted) was not a foregone conclusion. If God does not fight for us…then we lose.
Henry V, for all of his own delusions, at least remembered that much.
I would put much emphasis on the disaster that was WWI. There we have a gathering of “Henry’s.” All “Christian” leaders created a war, that, for all intents and purposes, as never ended…it is our own “Hundred Years’ War.” The disastrous treaty that ended it had so much hubris as to be indescribable. The European Powers, along with America, decided to redesign the world, but created a map of influence and intrigue that has preserved a perpetual war.
The Hitler chapter was only one evil product. It was indeed of their own making. But the pattern that ended WWI was repeated after WWII, with the new object of a Pax Americana. Opposing Hitler has become an easy pattern for justifying war. Opposing Hitler should be seen as the consequences of trying to wrongly manage history…it’s the kind of mess we create when we start down this road (the Bolsheviks are equal examples). Hitler had to be opposed…but he did not have to be created.
My favorite part of Henry V is when Henry is amongst his men before the battle disguised as a commoner and they remind him that all that die under the king’s leadership will be there at his judgement to show him the consequences of his warfare and quest for honor with all of the severed limbs, thwarted hopes and the struggles and proverty of those left behind.
There is no honor in the trenches and as William reminds the king, men seldom die well in battle. Even great heros suffer.
Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in American history a truly brave man struggled with fear, insomnia and substance abuse after the war.
A great book to read is Alistair Horne’s. THE PRICE OF GLORY: Verdun 1916.
When I was young my parents had a photograph book of WWI that showed the trenches and the aftermath -twisted bodies, men destroyed by mustard gas, the whole unromantic horror of war. I looked at it often so I never believed the Wilsonian doctrine of making the world safe for democracy.
WWI did indeed begin our own Hundred Years war that has not ended.
On the night of the first Gulf War commencing, my bishop gave a homily in which he said it would be a long war. He was right. God forgive and change our hearts.
We no longer bother with declaring war any more, they just go on and on. Fear requires it.
Indeed Alistair Horne has a number of books on the ravages of war in the early 20th century.
When I first started reading this blog, I was very concerned about doing what I could to change the world. Today, I am concerned about the world changing me, my nous. God save me.
It’s important for me to say and emphasize that there is nothing wrong with doing good. The problem comes in thinking about making a better world. That is utterly beyond our pay grade and is the kind of thought that keeps us in a certain kind of trouble.
The difficulty is that it’s very, very difficult to talk about doing good to someone in the modern world without them immediately jumping to conclusions about changing the world. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. “Change,” even “progress,” might be possible words for a discussion, but need to be removed from the vocabulary of anyone trying to live the Christian life according to its classical teachings.
Modernity is, at the least, a heresy.
Someone could say to me, “You really don’t believe in progress?” I could answer that I possibly do, but would immediately have to add that I do not think I know anyone who is sane enough to have a discussion about it. Modernity has made us mentally ill. We need to become sane before we do anything.
Thank you, Father.
Surely you must have meant ‘inhuman’ and not ‘human,’ in regards to Henry V.
The insanity began in ernest in the 1840’s although precusors exist all the way back to the Garden it was then that things really got rolling. The flood of insanity has yet to peak and it makes St. Paul’s description in Romans 1 really mild.
So many examples so few voices of sanity. We are all corrupted.
But, we still have hope in Jesus Christ Crucified, Resurrected and Ascended.
Our hope is neither forlorn nor etherial but more real than anything else we think we know. It too is everywhere but it seems to be small even tiny but substantial pieces of flotsom that some how ride the waves with out being swamped.
Hi Father Stephen,
Here is the link I referenced earlier:
My intention is to call our attention to a history of ‘mission’ that predominates in US history. To a great extent that drive was/is closely associated with European Imperialism, and Western Church history. I’m not learned in history as I ought to be. However, I’m quite familiar with a history that is not widely taught in the US texts, concerning the takeover of the indigenous peoples lands and culture, and that process (described as progress) was, in part, subsumed and justified as a ‘religious’ and predominant Protestant imperative. I’m not attempting to criticize but to address the Orthodox reading this comment, that our ‘mission’, is far closer at hand than culture and resource wars conducted in the media and around the world. My outlook is no doubt influenced by the history of my mother’s people (the Seminole in the US), where ‘progress’ and ‘a just war’ is not so sane nor so justified as it seems to be portrayed in the media, regardless of whichever channel one fancies.
I offer Fr Stephen’s presentation as an opportunity to think more deeply about the typical ‘mission’ concept that dominates in the US culture, and about the continued presence (and role) of the Orthodox Church in America. As the strength of the Orthodox Church might grow, God willing, do we want to be a part of and potentially repeat the history that the US has engaged here in her own lands? Succinctly, the Orthodox Church offers and sustains a ‘one-story-universe’ life in Christ, not something that is bifurcated, Liturgy ‘here’, and the killing fields ‘over there’. Such fears and angst that we are willing to develop within our own hearts can and will drive us insane.
One of the most challenging aspects I faced coming to the Church was her missiology. I found it so different from anything I had ever seen or heard. Then I read about what happened in Alaska when the US government sponsored missionaries forceably tore apart Native Orthodox families and their civilzation because the Orthodox were barbarians and not Christian. I am still disgusted. Oh, it was all in the name of progress, truth, justice and the American way.
Orthodox do not do that. We care for people, listen and tell them the rest of the story allowing God to give the increase. Now if only we would do that here instead of trying to adapt. The only place of sanity is the Church.
Robert Fortuin –
Are you referring to the sentence: “Giving thanks for success in killing other human beings does not make sense to me anymore, but the inconsistency makes Shakespeare’s king that much more human, in the same way that Dostoyevsky’s characters are so human?” If so, then “human” is exactly what I meant to say,
Dear Fr. Stephen,
May God grant you many happy and healthy years! Thank you for all you do, for guiding and inviting us into the Kingdom of God.
I would like to share with you a very interesting TED presentation out of England, I think. It always amazes me when I find people who seem to come to the essence of Orthodoxy, but without being willing to accept that God is the source. The words “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” always come to mind… This talk is especially interesting now that I know that in Greek, the opposite of activism is hesychasm 🙂
Thanks and Glory to God that He has not abandoned us to this way…
As a history buff (and a descendant of The Bruce of Scotland) and having read Churchill on the English-speaking peoples, I can’t resist commenting on the Battle of Agincourt. The English longbows 9Welsh) were the masters the battlefield. First they wiped out the destructive weaponry of the Italian crossbowmen at about three hundred yards, a rain of arrows tends to ruin ones day. The English peasant bearers of the number one artillery weapon of the day, the English longbow, went into battle with a helper who handed the arrows to him from the accompanying donkey (loaded down with arrows) and the rain started destroying the advance weapon of the French. The Genoese whose weapons were good for about 150 yards (and totally destructive) couldn’t even get close to the English archers and started fleeing. The French cavalry who were waiting in their normal manner behind the archers, thought that it was time to ride over whatever was left of the English lines (their normal tactic). Instead they ran into the same storm of arrows and thousands died on that dreadful day. The English then ruled the field for, as they say, 100 years, until Joan of
Arc roused the French into military action.
The same tactic of the English king using the Welsh longbows was attributed to one of the losses of Robert the Bruce in Scotland by King Edward I. In future battles, the Scots simply held their shields over their heads a waited for the rain to stop and the future King Robert of Scotland never lost another battle to the English. I have never figured out why the French couldn’t have used a similar defensive tactic; but instead they would lose their battles in the field with the English and then retreat to their walled cities. The English did not have the necessary siege engines and sappers to take the French walls down. That is history.
Deacon Nicholas, there is always the question of ‘just’ war. Personally, I put twelve years in the military ending up as an E7 platoon sergeant (mechanized infantry, and got out when my newly found (Protestant) ethics caused me to question my having part in anything to do with war (fortunately, I never killed anyone or actually participated in battle). If I had it all to do over again. I would got to jail rather than go into the military and that is where I still stand to an even greater degree as an Orthodox Christian. To quote a contemporary poet who is now an Orthodox bishop (modified poem),
No more war for me,
I would rather climb a tree.
I would rather be dead
Than be in (the army in this case)
No more war for me.
Does the Orthodox Church have an official position on war? I know we have military chaplains and we pray in each liturgy for our armed forces everywhere. I have a little more sanguine view of the military than does my fellow congregant Jacksson, having served four years active AF and in the National Guard.
As we need “rough”men, and women to protect our streets, the same can be said for our nation. Nationally we have done much mischief, but as you said, we had to stop Hitler. If I’ve heard Patrick Buchanan correctly, I would probably be more in agreement with his views on foreign entanglements. I have studied politics little over the years so if someone wanted to argue the point, I too would probably reply. “I don’t know much about that.”
All arguments for killing, individually or by the state, come down to a necessity defense. Killing x, y or z was necessary because…..
The necessity always is more important than the life of the person killed.
Most would grant at least the theoretical possibility that such a necessity exists. On an individual basis the necessity is examined to determine if it is valid or not with clear guidelines.
On a national basis necessity is seldom examined. What guidelines there are usually meaningless and ephemeral. The declaration of war required by the US Constitution was written to require such an examination. It has largely failed. No war the US has fought since WWII has been subjected to the process and therefore illegal. Every President who engaged in such illegal wars subject to impeachment. That has not happened either. I wonder why this is? Legislative work arounds have been substituted. Questionable at best. Every just war theory has the element of proper authority to determine the justness of a war. The US wars since WWII lack that key element.
Soldiers are supposedly empowered to refuse illegal orders but that is actually a court martial offense. Just ask Michael New. Illegal orders are ones that did not go through the proper chain of command.
With drones and AI such minor considerations will be non-existent.
The “position” of the Church is found in its various canons over the centuries. It clearly recognizes the people will serve in the armed forces and defend their country, etc. There is not a tradition in the East of “Just War Theory” of any note. The reason is that killing always carries us into sin, no matter how “justified” it might be. The problem is not a legal issue (thus a matter of “just” war), but ontological – the taking of a human life defiles us in a variety of manners.
An example of this can be found in the ancient Canons in which it is directed that a soldier who has taken life should make confession and forego communion for a period (three years is set as a maximum) for the healing of his soul.
Even causing an accidental death should be treated in a manner somewhat similar, even if the time endured is shortened. The reason is that, no matter how just or even accidental a death might be, causing a death carries with it an ontological burden on the soul. We experience this in many, many ways. Trauma, grief, shame, depression, guilt, etc. Only a terribly hardened heart would not experience these things.
Many problems are created when we think of morality in legal terms. When we begin to understand it in ontological terms, we begin to see things more clearly, even if they are often paradoxical. Ontological descriptions do not say what “should” be…they describe what, in fact, is the case.
A man, deeply troubled after injuring a young girl in an accident, goes to his doctor. The man is unable to sleep at night. The doctor suggests that he go to the girl and asks forgiveness. The man protests that it was not his fault – the police said it was not his fault, etc. The doctor says, “Fine. Then legally you should be able to sleep at night.”
Many of the Laws in the OT can only be understood in an ontological manner. God is not a lawyer. He’s a Realist.
I should add that the Church rarely has “positions” (those are modern things). The Church is a hospital. We have a disease that is killing us. The Church’s “position” is that we should come and be healed.
“Positions” are things that Churches, acting as advisors to the powers that be, suggest to be followed. We do not advise them. We have come to heal.
I will note, as an aside, thinking about the use of Henry V’s speech on D-Day – I’ve known men who landed at Normandy. They would all have gladly been “a-bed” in England. They were doing a terrible and fearful thing that none of them wanted to do. They did what needed to be done. Most of them never like to speak of it. War movies are for people who were not there.
Hitler did evil and it was good to stop him. There are many still doing evil.
Even Nietzche recognized that fighting evil with the weapons of evil imoses evil on our own soul. So even if a war begins in a perfectly just an appropriate manner it will never remain that way.
The single greatest act of courage in warfare I have ever heard of was a young helicopter Commander in Vietnam Nam who saw American troops beginning to run amok in a village. He landed his helicopter between the villagers and the American troops and commanded his door gunner to fire on the Americans if they did not stop.
They stopped and many were saved that day. He did not get a medal and I am sure his military career was damaged but he was a just warrior on that day.
Heard the man himself tell the story on TV many years ago. Wish I could remember his name.
God’s justice is mercy and in Him there is no necessity.
Many years, dear Father!
Thank you for your answer to Dean regarding the position of the Church on war. Very helpful indeed.
This conversation has been fruitful I believe. I’m grateful for Nicholas Griswald’s presence who is also a war veteran and who steps back from engaging in argument. Arguments do not help us but I believe these loving conversations do help. The Church brings to us the love that does heal.
When I taught chemistry I had vets from the wars over the past decades. Some of them still obviously suffering from the effects. To them I gave the greatest care and support I could offer. I may not have cared for the war they fought, but I cared about them and never questioned their personal intention to serve.
Sorry Nicholas for misspelling your last name and finding that out just now am grateful for your patience too!
Thank you Dee for caring for those Vets. Many are wounded spiritually, which is the Church’s point in needing healing even in a justified situation. Their wounds do not leave visible scars on the body, but even the practicing of war leaves wounds on the soul. It takes special people to see the wounds in the soul and care for those thus wounded.
Dee, I am used to it. Griswald is a grey forest in Old Frisian (forerunner language of German) Griswold is a grey rolling treeless plain. Only in England could I ever expect them to spell my name correctly. I also lived on Ashton Wold when I was stationed there.
In truth, it is not only the souls of those who serve that are wounded, but the nation itself. America is deeply devoid of the spiritual tools required for healing. Our public liturgies remember the dead and accompany that with patriotic fervor that brooks almost no shadow of turning. Because of this, America never repents for anything and we have no means of national repentance. We argue and justify or argue and condemn, neither of which do anything but turn the knife in the wound.
In the context of confession and communion, single souls can be healed, and sacramentally-based Church can indeed engage in this. Russia, to use a different example, with an Orthodox history and many pieces of an Orthodox consciousness, seems to me, able to acknowledge the many paradoxes of a nation’s history. They have not finished their historical journey, but they have done an admirable job of erecting memorials and services of remembrance for the victims of Communism. They still mourn the dead of WWII, and celebrate their great victory. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is required reading for high school students – by Putin’s request. It is deeply significant.
We are still suffering the many wounds of America’s Civil War, re-enacting its hatreds, wounds, and prejudices, having never repented for our history (nor the slaughter of the Native Americans). There are many who react to suggestions that we should mourn these things and repent as “revisionist” history, when it is little more than the bare truth.
For my own part, as a Southerner, a descendant of slave owners, I have tried to acknowledge the sins of my ancestors and offer prayers for their forgiveness and never defend their decisions. I honor them as my ancestors, but I must do so with the truth. That is the nature of the Orthodox Way. Anything less is not the path that God has given us.
Father, I agree absolutely with you on the Nation needing healing. The signs are everywhere from rabid support for abortion, violence both by gun and other means and the arrogance in which our country addresses the world. There are times in my life when I lived overseas when I was ashamed of what we did in the world. One of the hardest conversations I have ever had and yet one which I pray brought healing was to talk with a group of Orthodox Vietnamese. They came from both sides of the conflict and I asked for their forgiveness for what we Americans did to them and their families. We betrayed the trust of those on our sides and slaughtered those on the other. Those I had talked to all lost family members due to our actions. We talk about our glorious actions but forget that ever person we oppose, kill or wound is somebodies father, brother, son, sister, mother, etc. They are people made in the likeness and image of our Lord that are damaged or killed. There is no glory in that. Even the Germans and Japanese we faced in WW II were people. Our conflict is with their governments and yet we wound their people. At least in Agincourt, Henry V led the Vanguard into battle. He was not home in England in his command post but right there in the thick of the carnage. At least he shared the horror of that day with those he called brothers. He survived physically, but he was wounded in spirit like every other man.
“I’ve known men who landed at Normandy. They would all have gladly been “a-bed” in England. They were doing a terrible and fearful thing that none of them wanted to do. They did what needed to be done. Most of them never like to speak of it. War movies are for people who were not there.”
Dear Father Stephen – My husband travels to Belgium and France every summer for work and my family was in Normandy coincidentally on the anniversary of the D-Day landings -maybe in 2012 or 2013. It was overwhelming to see how many veterans return. They are old and gray now – dignified, noble and tear stained men.
I am first generation american, both my parents are immigrants – they are German. Most europeans feel that because my parents are european they can tell me just how terrible is the United States – which I honestly have always been troubled by because I live here and the politics of our nation are not my personal politics – and the history of this nation is not my history – we as people need to separate ourselves from that. Of course many instances can be found of the stains of america’s past… but being in Normandy with my family – I did find the good of this country. For in Normandy, French families (some school children) still adopt and care for the graves of our fallen. Old French women gave us the victory sign and said “vive america” because they remember the dark days of that past. Like in all things, there is good mingled with bad of any person and of any nation.
There is an inscription at the cemetery in Normandy “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest…. all we asked was for enough soil to bury our gallant dead.”
When one looks at the grave markers in Normandy, it is quickly clear that the gallant dead are young young men. Normandy’s inhabitants have not forgotten this.
Another inscription we saw was at a memorial in nearby Bayeux and it brings to light the generational wounds of war and what it means to know your history. Bayeux is where the Bayeux tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings – 1066 is kept. My girls and I had learned it that year while homeschooling.
This memorial reveals so much of the depth of history and the generational impact of war because Bayeux was one of the biggest losses of British soldiers in WWII. The inscription on the memorial reads
“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.” and as I read it I hoped that the words might be healing – because reading it and knowing the history – you could feel the weight of the sentiment.
What a heart-warming comment. Thank you for the inscription quotes on this Veteran’s Day.
Friends of the blog, at 10 Pacific time I will give the graveside eulogy for my brother-in- law, Don, sister, Mary. He was not in a church, but I will be able to read 2 Orthodox prayers at the graveside. Thank you for prayers.
Memory eternal, Dean.
I believe it is nearly 10am pacific time as I write this , Dean, you have my prayers for you, and your family, for Don and Mary.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Thank you for your prayers. We have committed Don to the Father’s eternal care. Mary experienced Christ’s peace through it all.
As an aside. The quoted speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V was very much treasured during World War II in England. I only became aware of it , when a post war school girl , in the film version of Sir Laurence Olivier. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9fa3HFR02E
In England and Scotland we were surrounded and in danger of invasion from sea and air and so needed to summon up courage and harden resolve. “We few we happy few we band of brothers ”
Shakespeare wrote for an England and Scotland surrounded by nations which need to be kept at arms length Spain, France etc. I like to think that it is not unchristian to defend our countries.
I live in New Zealand now, a nation of islands surrounded by ocean and needing defence from invasion.
I utterly agree viz. Henry’s speech and WWII England. I’m a big Churchill fan for that period as well. WWII is, I think, something of a parenthesis in modern history. It was caused, inadvertently, by the terrible nature of the peace from WWI which failed to really think about what a stable future should be. WWI was utter madness.
But WWII happened. Hitler was like the evil guy sent in from central casting. You couldn’t imagine anybody who would play the role as boldly as he did. Churchill, on the other hand, was a Prime Minister from Central casting. Larger than life in every way. Of course, when the war was done, England was done with him as a PM.
He was, sadly, a frightful colonialist. There are many dark chapters in that legacy… I think that, in many ways, we have been in a perpetual war since WWI…it is our Hundred Years War…but America has been the main player.
I would love to visit your charming country someday…chase hobbits and such. Everything I’ve heard about NZ points to a place with great charm. America is not charming.
Thanks for this great article and very interesting read. I quite often wander about the horrendous environment of war, fear, lies etc that we have created in this world. We are indeed subject to decay, both physically and spiritually, and I totally get it. Amidst all of this, we have forgotten the simplicity of Christ, who destroyed death to give us life in which there is no decay or corruption.
So I agree that before we try to change the world, we should change ourselves first. What about the environment of my heart, mind, soul and body? Acquiring the image and Likeness of God is not possible unless we address the evil in our own hearts. We are capable of absorbing so much information, and isn’t it odd that most of what we absorb is darkness, it is so easy to absorb darkness which in turn manifests itself horrifically into the world.
There are few major cataclysmic events in the history of Earth (including wars), but none compare to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! Christ has won the war, he has destroyed death and invites us to participate in His Resurrection and Life! Every time we repent; receive Christ, pray, attend Church, give alms, and love we receive the light of Christ and the darkness in our hearts is eventually expelled.
(I’m not directing this to anyone in particular. I’m sure most of us are aware of the above. Just sharing).