Some paint the Middle Ages as a period of narrow intolerance. I’ve said enough in other posts not to address that directly here, but in short, that view has little support in the lives or sources of the time. We see in Beowulf, for example an appreciation for the pagan past and an understanding of the difficulties in trying to make sense of the Christian faith in light of their past, not a “narrow intolerance.”
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can’t quite equal the power and style of Beowulf, but it has many of its outstanding qualities, as well as a similar task. The author retells a famous Norse story to a newly Christian Norse audience. At various points he likely altered the story slightly to make certain theological points. One such instance caught my attention.
At the end of the story our hero returns triumphant from defeating the villain. Before setting out on his expedition, he took advice from a seemingly simple farmer and reduced his army (in similar fashion to Gideon in the book of Judges). After victory he marches back and sees the same farmer again. They greet each other warmly, after which the farmer offers more help.
This time King Hrolf refuses. It’s not immediately clear why.
As they take their leave Hrolf declares that the farmer was none other than the Norse god Odin in disguise. He had to refuse his help. He would not take advice from a pagan god though all knew that Odin brought success to those who honored him.
In refusing Odin’s help, he refused “Victory.” The consequences of this decision for him and his kingdom follow predictably. Hrolf Kraki loses everything by the end. But the author clearly believes he should indeed have preferred failure to success at the price of aid from a pagan god.
In a recent article entitled “No Enduring City,” author David Bentley Hart muses on the success of Christians and their involvement in politics. He begins citing two events in medieval Europe. He writes,
The first occurred on August 25, 1256, when the podest and capitano del popolo of Bologna summoned the citizens of the comune to the Piazza Maggiore in order to announce the abolition of all bonded servitude within the city’s civil and diocesan jurisdictions. Some 5,855 serfs were redeemed from their signori—who were remunerated out of the communal treasury at a total price of 54,014 lire—then placed under ecclesiastical authority, and then granted their liberty.
An irrevocable abolition of serfdom in Bologna was then issued in a short text known as the Liber Paradisus, in which was indited the name of every emancipated serf. Historians have occasionally speculated on the economic benefits that Bologna may have reaped from this decision—for one thing, freedmen were eligible to pay taxes—but the actual cost of the manumission, immediate and deferred, was so exorbitant that it is rather difficult to see how the municipal administration could have calculated any plausible profit from its actions.
Perhaps, then, one should take seriously the motives the Liber Paradisus itself actually adduces: “Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio,” it begins,“in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem”: “In the beginning, the Lord God Almighty planted a paradise of delight, in which he placed man, whom he had formed, and whose body he had adorned with the garb of radiance [a shining raiment], endowing him with perfect and perpetual freedom.” It was only by sinning, the argument proceeds, that humanity bound itself in servitude to corruption; God in his mercy, however, sent his Son into the world to break the bonds that hold humanity in thrall, that by Christ’s own dignity all of us should have our natural liberty restored. Thus all persons currently bound in servitude by human law should have their proper freedom granted them, for they along with all the rest of us belong to a single massa libertatis wherein now not so much as a single modicum fermentum of servitude can be tolerated, lest it corrupt the whole.
Hart continues . . .
The second episode, however, which to our sensibilities might seem the more outlandish of the two, was for its time far and away the more ordinary. Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the Summa Theologiae where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.
Of course, Thomas adds, out of her mercy towards each man who has strayed, the Church hesitates to pronounce a final condemnation until “the first and second admonition” have both failed; but then, if the heretic remains obstinate, “the Church, no longer hoping for his conversion, turns itself to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him over to the secular tribunal so that the latter might remove him from the world by death.” Nor can ecclesial compassion extend any further than this. Recidivism, for instance, even of the most transient kind, is unpardonable. Says Thomas, “At God’s tribunal, all who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received are insincere when they return; so she does not obstruct their path to salvation, but neither does she shield them from the sentence of death.”
Both examples have their counterpoints. Some rather cynically suggest that the economic motive of creating more taxpayers formed the real motivation behind freeing the serfs. Others point out, that, whatever we may think of Thomas’ counsel, he sought to save souls and not to kill people.
Still, however we slice it, we cannot avoid a contradiction.
Hart goes to suggest that Christian involvement in politics always seems to go south at some point. On the one hand, when Christians have the power to do good, they can accomplish good things in a unique and lasting way. On the other, such power either corrupts or puts one in an awkward enough position where a compromise of gospel ethics becomes essentially inevitable. We can cite numerous examples of the good and the bad. Betrayals of the gospel ethic may not even be anyone’s “fault,” per se–it could be the nature of the beast. He draws no firm conclusions, but asks us to consider how we should deal with this problem.
I admire Hart a great deal. He has a powerful mind and thinks deeply. His The Doors of the Sea is the best book I have read on the problem of evil. But I found myself a bit frustrated with “No Enduring City.” He has the intellectual capital to spend, but plays the miser. He holds too much back. I wanted more from him to try and settle this conundrum.
When surveying the history of Christian involvement in politics, I think we have the following options:
- Christians should never be involved in politics. Whatever good they will do will be outweighed by the inevitable corruption of their witness to the gospel.
- Christians will likely fail in some way in the political realm. But, we should expect that their failures will be less damaging, and they will accomplish more good in their time in power. Thus, Christians should be involved in politics as much as they can.
- Compromising one’s Christian witness may likely happen in the political realm, but it is not inevitable. Thus, the potential good from Christians involvement in politics is worth the risk, with the right people.
- Compromising our witness to Christ is indeed quite likely in the political realm. Christians should avoid political office. However, Christians should do what they can to influence those in power. In this way they can hopefully create some good for society and escape direct blame for the bad in politics.
Other options likely exist.
In his article Hart hints (but not outright declares) that the continual cycle of success/failure might serve the good purpose of continual renewal, keeping the Church on its toes and supplied with fresh blood. This parallels in some ways Toynbee’s creative/dominant minorities in society. A particular system gets stale and rigid. A ‘creative minority’ finds a way to challenge this system successfully, which brings them into power. Eventually, however, this ‘creative minority’ succumbs to temptation and morphs into its own ‘dominant minority,’ starting the cycle over again.
But Hart will not outright declare one way or the other, because the mere fact of such a cycle doesn’t mean that the good of the creative minority outweighs the bad of dominant minority.
If such a man as Hart cannot decide, I will not either. Perhaps historical analysis is not our best servant for this question. Perhaps we need epic poetry to instruct us.
King Hrolf Kraki ultimately fails. His realm grows a bit soft and corrupt. Yet before that happened he managed to defeat a wicked and truly evil king who had wrought chaos throughout the land for years. He fails, but the good outweighed the bad. So too king Arthur fails. His sins, and the sins of others catch up with them. Yet, the good that came from the golden age of Camelot inspired the very idea of chivalry, which formed the ethic of the west for 500 years at least. When Roland receives the assignment of the rear guard, he suspects treachery, but turns to his stepfather and says,
Ah, slave and coward, malicious heir of dishonored ancestors, did you think I would let the glove fall to the ground as you did the staff when you stood before Charles?
The rearguard is destroyed under Roland’s command, but Charlemagne returns just in time Beowulf defeats the dragon but could not establish the kind of kingdom that had others fight the dragon instead of him. But . . . who doesn’t love the character of Beowulf?
The attempt referenced above, however, were all “grand gestures” involving personal risk. Epic literature is of course literature and not history. But they give some historical insights. The politicking of the religious right involved no grand gesture, no personal risk for anyone. Christian involvement in the political realm will likely fail in some way, no matter how great the sacrifice. But the utterly mundane garnering of power through votes not only failed in the U.S., it engendered resentment against the religious right. The relative political disengagement of most younger Christians today testifies to the insipid nature of such action.
At the end of The Song of Roland Charlemagne cries out, “O God, my life is a burden!” He knows that all of his fighting and all of the sacrifice will not bring about a heaven on earth. But, he smashed the pagans, avenged treachery, and Julienne was led triumphantly to Christ.
Truly sacrificial action, whether political or otherwise, has a lasting impact despite our sins and limitations.
Perhaps herein lies the answer Hart seeks.