This Age of Christian Martyrs


Jim Pouillon
Devon, PA. Everyone knows the “secularization hypothesis” of the West; the only difference between one person and another is whether one also knows that it is garbage.  According to secularization theory, pre-modern religious culture was typified primarily by allegiance to the irrational, a great passionate fidelity to forces beyond the control of instrumental reason and not subject to empirico-mathematical reasoning.  And so, from the stone age to the cathedral age and on to that of Voltaire, the world was a blood bath of “religious violence” in which the benighted slaughtered the benighted.  Then came Gallileo, the story goes (though no one who tells this story ever knows much about Gallileo, science, or philosophical theology), and the benighted turned their blind rage upon the champions of light.  But, coining a phrase never thought of before in the history of the universe, the advocates of secularization observe that the light will prevail against the darkness: despite the irrational conflicts of the religious, a gradual ascent of the Reason would progress.  The Enlightened championed the lowering of Reason to empirico-mathematical reasoning; only truths subject to the immediate demonstration of the senses or quantitative analysis (as opposed to say logic and expansive human experience) any longer counted as truth.  And the Enlightened championed the elevation of human making — of the ability to manipulate or control material things — from its status as “servile” to the highest form of human intellectual activity; instrumental reason and empirico-mathematical reasoning slowly merged in a new apotheosis: man wastes his time speculating on the Truth of God, for it merely distracts from the obsessive testing of that which can be tested and from the obsessive domination of that which can be subjected to human control.

The voices of Enlightenment declared that once man accepted that he could only know that which he could sense, quantify, make or dominate, he would become a much more peacable fellow, modest of mien, humble of horizons, skeptical and moderate of vision.  A millenium of peace and prosperity would ensue for, after all, man would no longer kill for what he could not verify quantitatively in advance, and everything else would eventually come under the rule of his instrumental reason.  So convinced was he of the great pacification he would bring about as soon as he had expelled the benighted and brought to subjection nature, including human nature, that he hardly thought twice about the murder of the backward.  From the thousands of priest killed or exiled in the French Revolution, to the many thousands more slaughtered in their monasteries by the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, to the Gulags for the backward of the Soviet Union, to the re-education camps of Mao’s China; from the anti-clerical libels and slanders of Voltaire and P.B. Shelley to those of Hollywood in our day, the Enlightened would stop at nothing to bring us peace, to put an end to war and irrational hatred.  They would not even stop to count the bodies, which piled up at a rate and in quantities inconceivable in any previous time.

It is a task for another day to refute the libels and slanders against the Christian and the religious in general; a task for another day to argue that, far from being a competition between reason and “religion,” between “science” and “faith,” the conflicts of modernity and the intellectual conflicts of every age are between theology and theology; a task for another day to show that there are better and worse theologies, that there can only be one Theological Truth, and there is no escaping from it except by means of unreason, a refusal to serve the True by seeking it in love.

Today, I wish merely to underscore that every age will be an age of Christian martyrs, but that ours is just getting the fires heated beneath the stakes.  In Pakistan and the East more widely, Christians are continuously subject to harrassment, rape, and death, as illustrated most recently by the slander, arrest, murder, and desecration of a Pakistani Christian who made the mistake of falling for the wrong girl.  In Florida, that ever “rational” exercise of elite social-managerial power is about to put a high school principal and teacher on trial for praying on school property.  And in Michigan and throughout the country, the murder of an infirm elderly man who protested in defense of the unborn is treated as a matter of no consequence.  Christians are martyred in Pakistan, and they are martyred in Michigan.  And, in a sense, they are killed for “good” reasons; their lives are signs of contradiction that make the totalitarian impulse of an Islamic state as hard to secure as the totalitarian impulse of one where the laws of “rational control,” of “instrumental reason,” of bureaucratic domination render men, women, and children mere individuals, mere atoms, to be organized, sheltered, fed, put to work, and left to die.

I do not draw your attention merely to the “hyporcrisy” that a mass murderer like George Tiller could be mourned by the defenders of “light”-as-instrumental-reason, while the murder of Jim Pouillon, a man who sat amid the elements with large photographs to show the world what the slaughter of innocents really looks like, goes largely ignored.  There is no world that could long accomodate both men.  But we ought to acknowledge that the age of liberalism and enlightenment like the resurgance of Islam will always oppose the truth of Christianity, for that truth — useless though it is, in itself, for the control of human bodies — resists and refuses the particular kinds of subjection Liberalism and Islam demand.  And so, we ought to expect the sight of still more broken and beaten bodies, dead at the hands of police or by the bullets of vigilantes, in the years ahead.  We ought to expect such sights to go largely ignored by a media and a citizenry committed to the pacification and triumph of instrumental reason, despite all the “empirco-mathematical” evidence that such a form of reason is itself a regime of destruction and dehumanization.  And, above all, we ought to expect that these scenes are not mere misfortunes that “should never happen” and “would never happen” if more persons just resigned their “certainty” regarding untestable truths.  These episodes do not call us to a lessening and loosening of love, that our desires might be more efficiently regulated and controlled by a managerial state and an administered society.  They remind us, they witness to us, rather, that each human person is formed by and directed by the truth that he loves, and that many have succumbed to a theology that purports to be no theology, a rationality that is not reasonable, and a regime of progress and pacification that continues to reveal itself as a desire for domination, manipulation, and exclusion, bloodless only in its bureaucratic rhetoric.  So long as the many and the elites of our age hear the call to “Enlightenment” like the irresistable white noise of a massage chair, so long may we expect it to produce mild victims of discrimination as well as bodies in the street.  For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, I pray, those bodies will appear as witnesses to the Reason and Truth against which our age has largely turned; they will see that those bodies are of Christian martyrs.

Everyone from President Obama to Jeremy Beer has questioned why the ideologies of our age tend to “demonize” and “dehumanize” human beings because of the debates on matters like abortion and “gay marriage.”  But the dehumanization did not begin with these debates, nor is it confined within them.  It began the moment someone promised peace and reason if only human beings would give up their “irrational” loves and would submit to a social order that claimed the only reality is that which man can make and control for himself.  The demons, henceforth, would be those who refused to serve truths less than the Truth Itself and who refused to become the judge of all truths by making human power its sole criterion.  The world is no more “secular” now than it was seven hundred years ago; but it has a new theology, one that does not like to be called “theology,” and it has its victims — those whom a more reflective age than ours would immediately recognize as saints and martyrs.

My thanks to the Catholic News Agency for providing the links included in this essay.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. Though a recreational apostate and one of those who thoroughly enjoys the barbed tongue of Voltaire, I must admit that I have yet to find any fuller understanding of either Love or The Good by submitting to this mechanistic materialism dead end of the Enlightenment that we in this nation still refer to as freedoma nd progress. Given the freshet of artistic output emerging with the Enlightenment, and the ease to our lives precipitated by the technological advances of this nation, this seems quixotic to me but there you have it.

    Still, the lustfulness of certitude can be found among all and in this certitude can dwell hateful actions that are out of all proportion to the sacraments of he who gathered within himself all those sins so that we would know the consequences of our actions. Is abnegation but another venue for the voluptuary who finds revenge to be luxurious? Or is renunciation a fatal distraction from the open pursuit of love, the reverence for life and the pilgrims ready embrace of The Good?

    As for me, a wise man once asserted “just not yet” and the path opens and closes and doubt can be as clarifying in its mystery as is conviction in its simplicity. The Enlightenment for me then is a rebellion of youth, informed by earlier traditions but arrogant in its youthful confidence and after all these years, might we find the ordering that can reconcile the beautifully mortal with the beautifully divine and find the peace between technics and spirit that has eluded us so far.

  2. Dear James,

    It appears to be a bit early, and perhaps a bit off base, to make this claim: “I do not draw your attention merely to the “hyporcrisy” that a mass murderer like George Tiller could be mourned by the defenders of “light”-as-instrumental-reason, while the murder of Jim Pouillon, a man who sat amid the elements with large photographs to show the world what the slaughter of innocents really looks like, goes largely ignored.”

    It’s not that Jim Pouillon wan’t engaged in a worthy cause, and is being ignored because of that cause. It’s that the circumstances of his and Tiller’s murders are quite different. Pouillon was murdered by a crazy person who also murdered someone else for completely different reasons in his spree. And of course Pouillon wasn’t as prominent a public figure as Tiller. Tiller, however, was murdered by a man who purportedly was Christian and pro-lifer. He targeted Tiller and murdered him in church in front of his wife.

    – TL

  3. Perhaps you’ve said all that must be said.
    I understand that since Roe V. Wade over forty million innocent children have been butchered. The intellectual impetus of this horror lies buried in the rotting corpse of the Enlightenment.
    Perhaps the election of President Obama and the implementation of his egregious statism signals the bill has come due.

  4. That we confuse power with faithfulness is unfortunately blinding contemporary believers to the dangers of modernity, which will, in the end, admit no rivals.

  5. Another angle on this fine essay that is implied but not stated is the application of the ideas of sophists and calculators to foreign policy. In the Middle East, the dirty secret of our enlightened support of Israel is the almost total elimination of Palestinian Christianity; the dirty secret of our enlightened policies in Iraq is the almost total destruction of Christianity there. No more will benighted believers (at least of the Christian sort) spread their darkness in the enlightened areas that we protect.

  6. John Wilson said: “In the Middle East, the dirty secret of our enlightened support of Israel is the almost total elimination of Palestinian Christianity;”

    I know Palestian Christians here in the U.S., and they will tell you that the Islamic militants are driving Christians from Lebanon and the West Bank, where they have lived from Biblical times. Maybe you think that Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah will let up if the U.S. drops its support of Israel. Personally, I doubt that. The militants want to purge the entire region of the taint of Christians and Jews. The IDF, with our support, is what stands between them and their goal.

  7. James,
    You write as if Islam and Enlightenment secularism are equivalent. But this is false. Certainly, politicized Islam can be horribly misused; and the case of the young Pakistani man is tragic and begs for investigation and clarification, and justice as well. But as a whole Islam suggests that all humans are under God, created by him, and beholden to him; the more modern creed does not believe anything of this sort. Islam has believers who think that Islam should be the only religion, but this is fortunately usually a minority, and those who believe this, one can argue, do so based upon a kind of Islamism rather than on Islam itself.

    In seemingly equating the two, Islam and Enlightenment secularism, combined with comments on true theology, you seem to be suggesting a kind of triumphalist Christianity: that only Christianity (and Catholic Christianity perhaps?) should exist in the world. But this is never going to happen, and could very easily and logically lead you to the Christian version of Islamist belief.

    I assume that this conclusion is not true, but the logic of parts of this essay might push its interpretation in that direction.

  8. James,

    As Mennonite with a very, very long and well-documented heritage of true Christian martyrdom (at the hands of Catholics – not Muslims or secularists), I take exception to this piece. The faith tradition of my family and fellow believers was for centuries a faith tradition punishable by death. Enlightenment beliefs – however backward they may seem to you – are what saved my great-grandparents’ generation from the same bloody fate. Were it not for wider acceptance of Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the acceptance of pluralism, I would likely not be here today, nor would any Anabaptist Christian.

    Perhaps I misread it, but your piece seems full of generalizations, and I find the lack of convincing concrete examples upsetting. Might you afford us some additional evidence that this persecution is going on, other than the Pouillon example, which, as far as I know, is the first and only anti-anti-abortion murder in recorded history? Your example of the Christian man killed in Pakistan for desecrating the Koran doesn’t hold water because one could easily argue that radical Islamists rarely discriminate when it comes to killing or attempting to kill people who have desecrated the Koran – even (and especially) their own. (Unless you can prove to me that they were planning on killing him specifically for his Christianity, and not his perceived blasphemy.) As for the example of Florida high school officials going to court for praying because they “endorsed religion in school” – well, I think it’s ridiculous, too, but those teachers are hardly what I’d call a martyr, and as far as persecution goes, there’s far worse, as my ancestors would attest.

    While Pouillon was a Christian, I would hesitate to call him a Christian martyr. Though he died because of his beliefs, he didn’t die because Christians are being persecuted. He wasn’t singled out because of his Christianity. He died because an unstable person disagreed with his views. Being anti-abortion is hardly unique to Christians. If you think it is, I would be glad to supply you with the names of a number of atheists, muslims and buddhists who could set you straight.

    In short, I think you’ve got a lot of nerve to suggest that a considerable number of Christians are being persecuted and martyred in this day and age, when Christianity is the most widely held belief system on the planet, when you have to be a Christian to be elected into public office in the USA, when the most powerful empire on earth promotes freedom of religion rather than feeding Christians to lions- and especially: when dissenting Christian groups are largely tolerated instead of being burned alive in front of their children at the hands of the Catholic Church (which, I might add, seems to have more blood on it’s hands than you may be willing to admit). To call this an age of Christian persecution is either a thoughtless argument, or a ridiculous oversight – especially from a person who proudly claims adherence to a religion that has a less than acceptable history of exercising tolerance. You should be ashamed.

    Most Sincerely,

    Zac Albrecht

    P.S. As far as the abortion issue itself is concerned, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to achieve a consensus anytime soon on ‘the point at which birth begins.’ These murders are a sign that the stakes are becoming too high – for either side. I see this as a chance to find common ground. I think it would do both sides some good to endorse family planning and safe sex programs. Opponents and proponents of abortion can at least agree that an unwanted child is a very bad thing indeed.

  9. Zac,
    I largely agree with what you say; though I’d suggest that your own brush as regards the Catholic church is excessively broad.

    Protestants–though probably not Mennonite Protestants– and Catholics killed each other with some regularity in Early Modern Europe before they tired of it; the Catholics may well have killed more, but the prevailing culture of the time mandated that both killed each other. This suggests it’s not a feature of Catholic Christianity as such, or at least complicates this claim somewhat.

    I’d also amend your first sentence from “As Mennonite with a very, very long and well-documented heritage of true Christian martyrdom” to “As a Mennonite, a member of a denomination that has a very, very long and well-documented . . .” as this would be far more accurate; as it stands, you’re making personal claims that are untenable.

    I spent six years as a very much minority Catholic in a Mennonite school in Kenya; perhaps as a consequence I’ve since admired the German pacifist Protestants.

    As far as most of your other claims go, I agree, FWIW.


  10. Zac,
    One last comment: there are real problems with, and dangers in, being a Christian in many parts of the world, including India (where it’s generally some fundamentalist political Hindus who are the danger to Christians), Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and other middle eastern Muslim countries. So, to correct myself, I’d only agree with you about persecution of Christians in the USA, or in the so-called first world.

    About the tone of the piece you’re responding to, well I somewhat agree, hence my first comment, just before yours above.


  11. All this whining by you Protestants is getting….well, boring!
    What was it that Richard Weaver, a Methodist or Baptist (and a real one since he came from the southern mountains), said about the Reformation and the loss of consensus by you trouble-making Protestants! Can one of you academics, preferably Catholic, quote that for me!
    Dominus Vobiscum….!

  12. Mr. Albrecht,

    I find it curious and, frankly, shocking that one with such a poignant heritage would deny so vehemently the indisputable fact that persecution of Christians is proceeding apace throughout the world. is a good place to start for information. Your insistence on downplaying the suffering of your Christian brethren in order to highlight your own heritage is unbecoming and unnecessary.

    A good deal of this persecution is at the hands of other religious believers, especially radical Muslims and Hindus; though given your assertion that a Christian man (likely) killed for blasphemy is not really being killed because he is Christian (and thus is no martyr), perhaps none of these really counts in your book. I think most people, however, would concede that it is hardly a coincidence that the people in many Muslim and Hindu countries who are singled out for persecution are Christians. Not all the persecution is at the hands of religious believers, of course. The Marxist FARC, for example, has killed hundreds of Christians over the last few years.

    Secondly, while I can understand your feelings about the Catholic Church, it is only fair that you assign blame where blame is due; Anabaptists were roundly persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans, and secular authorities (not to mention that the roots of the Anabaptist movement itself are hardly pretty). Singling out only the Catholic Church for your ire hardly promotes the kind of peaceful dialogue cherished by Anabaptists.

    Nor is dialogue improved by hysteria. You do not give any hard facts, but the picture you paint of the early modern Catholic Church makes it seem like a blood-soaked institution, indeed. During the persecutions of the 16th century, something like 3000 people were executed for heresy across the whole of Europe—about 300 per year. This is bad enough on its own without the distortions so often introduced by those vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church.

    While I have more ambivalent feelings toward the Enlightenment (like the medieval period, it has its good points and bad), I think James’s more interesting point, and the one you refuse to acknowledge, is that the Enlightenment hardly lives up to its name. You appreciate it, rightly, because it signaled the beginning of genuine peace for your community of believers. But the subjection of religious belief to the dictates of instrumental reason (at least in the political sphere) has decidedly not brought about the promised peace—it has merely changed the terms of conflict. Indeed, and this bears repeating, the atrocities committed in the name of reason (so called) make those committed (supposedly) in the name of God pale by comparison.

  13. Caleb, re: you Protestants and the Revolution, no one can deny the truth of your statement.
    Being the product of religious miscegenation I feel free to take certain liberties as the mood strikes.

    libertas et natale solum

  14. OUR ANCESTORS, prayed to Jesus Christ, and speaking for myself, so do I!
    BTW, I think FPR needs a riotous, drunken, convention!

  15. Mr. Ford,

    Do you really find it ‘shocking?’ Really? Would it keep you up at night? I don’t take declarations of persecution lightly. Why would a person with a heritage like mine deny that Christian persecution is widespread today? Because I don’t believe it widespread. I don’t.

    “Your insistence on downplaying the suffering of your Christian brethren in order to highlight your own heritage is unbecoming and unnecessary.”

    Oh, did I insist on that? Really? Let’s talk about what’s unbecoming: attributing false motivations to individuals you know nothing about. I didn’t make the post to brag about my heritage. After an accusation like that I hardly feel obliged to dignify you with a reply. (By the way, you write like Ignatius J Reilly talks!)

    But I want to clear up that I have nothing against Catholics, save differences of opinion on matters historical/political/metaphysical, and I know well that Protestants also murdered Anabaptists, etc, etc. I have little interest in pointing fingers, and only wish to point out that: a) the age of true widespread Christian persecution is long over (ended the first time by Constantine, and the second time by Enlightenment ideals), and, b) you cannot endow the label of ‘Christian martyr’ to just anyone who is killed who happens to be a Christian unless they were killed specifically for their Christianity.

    On to lighter things: I would second Bob Cheeks on the riotous, drunken convention!

  16. Hudson (way above): If you know some “Palestian” Christians who think that they are protected by Israel, I would be surprised. The Palestinian Christians I know think they are treated just like all Palestinians are treated; or, if not quite, then certainly not protected from Hamas, etc. Nor has our policy done one thing to see to their safety and religious freedom, either from Muslim Palestinians or Israel. And would you also argue that Christians in Iraq are better off since our invasion? I repeat: The dirty secret of our policies in the Middle East, wherever you point, is that we have made it easier for the enemies of Christianity to carry out their anti-Christian agendas. Or to put it another way, we are complicit in the martyrdom of many Christians in the Middle East, and much of this complicity has to do with the application of “enlightened” ideas.

  17. This is the kind of article that makes me not want to revisit this site. I agree with Zac. The article is full of broad and inaccurate generalizations; more of a rant than a thoughtful opinion piece. The writer is parroting “facts” he’s heard among his peers, who all hold the same views, rather than actually seeking a rational conversation with intelligent people who hold differing views.

    If some religious Americans feel as if they are being slandered by mass media or pop culture … well, perhaps they’ve earned a certain image, and perhaps they have a bit of a victim mentality going on. There is a grain of truth in many stereotypes. Search yourself lest you be labeled a hypocrite.

    And “martyrdom” seems far too strong a word for this attitude. Christianity is still the world’s major religion. I don’t see the majority of Christians in the world being threatened. I think Jews still hold that dubious honor. Everyone shares it to some degree–atheists and secularists, included. There is no religion or belief system with iron-clad protection against hatred. If you feel threatened or under attack, then say so. But don’t call it martyrdom.

  18. John Wilson: Israel does not persecute Christians, either for reasons of faith or as a practical matter, especially inasmuch as it enjoys wide support among American evangelicals. Israel protects the Holy sites in Jerusalem. It is true that Israelis appropriate Palestinian property and land, Christian or otherwise, and enlarge their settlements in the West Bank. It is also true that recently they have lifted some roadblocks and allow commerce to flourish in West Bank towns like Ramallah, and even shop there themselves. Palestinian Christians born in Israel enjoy the rights of citizens and generally live better lives than most Arabs in the region.

    Israel is out of Gaza altogether. Hamas is in firm control there and has instituted Islamic law. Under Islamic law, it is a capital offense to convert from Islam, which Palestinians are born into, to Christianity or any other religion. I don’t know how many Christians have fled Gaza, but it is hardly a friendly atmosphere for them to live in and worship. Israel cannot protect them.

    Again, it is militant Islam that is driving Christians out of the Middle East where ever and however they can. Muslims are doing what they have been doing since the inception of Islam. You either convert or pay their heavy tax and accept low status in Muslim society, or die by the sword.

    Christians have been killed and driven out of cities in Iraq, yes. You might consider them to be “collateral damage” in the war. However, Shiites and Sunnis have butchered each other in much greater numbers, at least for the fact that there are more of them. I don’t know if Christians have any future in Iraq. I have read that Sunnis and Shiites are intermarrying again. So it is possible that in a more democratic, tolerant Iraq–a less monstrous Iraq than under Saddam–that Christians might have a place in that country.

  19. Flattered, intrigued, frustrated, and even pained by the comments that have greeted this essay, I am more convinced than ever of its basic justice and necessity. I think its argument — pointed, I freely confess, in a manner or tone that fills me with sorrow — both bald and assertive is appropriate to the subject; and, while I do not question the fundamental goodness of rhetoric’s task of guiding the heart, I think the stridency here displayed requisite and find the recommendations given in Abby’s comment misplaced. While there will always be room for the irenic and softly manipulative statement, the purpose of this essay was to warn (more on this anon).

    Sabin, like me, has something of a taste for Voltaire. I recommend reading Anthony’ Hecht’s translation of Voltaire’s poem on the Lisbon earthquake. As I argue in a forthcoming essay on Hecht, that poem, far from displaying a mocking, atheistic humanism, does a fine job of capturing the fear and trembling inherent to human existence. Its targets are, per usual, Liebnitz and Pope, the latter a representative of one unfortunate synthesis of Enlightenment thought and Christianity.

    PDGM, whose moniker I keep misreading as A.M.D.G., makes an objection with which I in part sympathize. It would indeed be a mistake to conflate wholly the ideology of Islam with that of modern liberal, instrumental reasoning. But there are significant parrallels between them. Like PDGM, I think there is something to be said in defense of Islam, and like Zac (to whom I shall turn presently) there is something to be said in defense of the Enlightenment. In both instances we have vines diverging from the root of Christianity, and so, in a certain sense, my criticisms are of divergences or heresies rather than of some demonized other. I would concede irresponsibility in not discussing this, save that the essay itself includes the promise of some such discussion elsewhere. For the moment, I would note the curious analogue between how liberal thought and Islam view the person in relation to the law. In each tradition, there is only the individual and the law; in Islam there is no place for the state, for the Law is of God. For the liberal, there is no place for God, for the Law is of the State. Perhaps I shall return to this point once I have more fully digested Remi Brague’s new book.

    PDGM suggests this essay smacks of a triumphalist Christianity, to which I would reply it both does and it does not. Certainly my hope is not to see the arrival of such an age where everyone believes, as so many classical liberals already believe, that the Truth is a personal endeavor, a yen, as it were, without implications for public order or communal life. That sort of privatization of religion, as my essay suggests, would be a consumate triumph of ideology; i.e. wherein the totalitarian logic of liberalism, itself a religion, would pass itself off as being substantively neutral in regards to the truth. See my essay “Equal Freedom and the Terror of the Past,” if one wishes either to hear this notion unpacked a bit or to gnash ones teeth at me in still further anger.

    Like everyone who is not listless and world weary, I wish the True to triumph in this world and, since my theology teaches me that the True is itself the source and sole bearer of this world, I have reason to hope for that eventuality. To speak more specifically, Christians are called to the conversion of the world; to the extent they refuse that call they fail in love.

    Had Zac not written in response to this essay, I should have had to invent him. Not only is he the bearer of my favorite German surname, but he lists, if I have read him properly, objections to every single item for which I argue in the essay. And then, he has outdone himself, by adding in a post script an attack on positions of mine he may not even know I hold (though he could easily find them spelled out in my two “Sex” essays published here on FPR some months ago). It is always an agonizing affirmation to learn that one has not spun demons out of one’s own wits, but that the opposition really is out there, sipping coffee by the computer.

    Patrick Ford very kindly intervened to respond to Zac’s comments, which spares me some effort. Nonetheless, Zac’s objections were so complete that I feel a certain desire to respond myself.

    The charged tone of this essay was one effort to make visible what to many remains invisible. Zac, Abby, and others like them in our society are convinced that Enlightenment liberalism is “pluralistic” and “tolerant,” and they take these scare-quoted terms as unqualified goods. My essay tried to reveal to such persons that our age neither possesses these attributes nor, for that matter, should it nor could it.

    Zac argues passionately for the necessity of liberal values because the age before was a dark and bloody nightmare. As a matter of historical fact, I would say this is unture. Prior to the reformation, there was plenty of bloodshed, of course, as there always has been and always will be. Because law was mediated by personal rule and overlapping hierarchical authority, many a person was put to death or imprisoned with an efficiency that shocks a sensibility grown used to ideas of procedural justice as not only important but as the form of justice par excellence. My wife’s niece, who is not raised in a Christian household and knows virtually nothing of Christianity, said, when she was a little girl, “Why did they execute Jesus? They should have just put him in prison for a while.” The amusing naivette of this statement reveals also a general transformation in our idea of justice in favor of the procedural. That’s bad, but it is grist for another mill than mine.

    What Zac would like me to concede is that the world was more violent once than it is now; that this violence was significantly a product of religious hatred; and that the Catholic Church — those papists, those priest-ridden non-Christian idolaters! — was responsible for the hatred and violence alike. He would like me to concede, in other words, the very historical narrative that I in fact reject as the necessary myth of modernity, its spook-tale to imbue every modern subject with a terror of the past.

    The violence of the Reformation period was, to say the least, state-driven. I mean this in terms of institutional agency, but also in terms of its final cause. As David Bentley Hart writes, the “wars of religion” had better been named the wars of the modern nation-state, since it was the absolutist ambitions of the nation-state that drove the violence of the period and that were its sole beneficiary. Hart also writes that relgious suspicions and hatred played a significant role in the morphology of those conflicts; I do not claim that no one sought to articulate the violence of the period in terms of religious truth against error. But such articulations, if more than an epiphenomenon were less than a major cause. By the time of the Reformation, the modern state had already achieved dominance over the Catholic Church in the major “Catholic” countries (Spain and France), and the inquisition in Spain and the Huguenot episodes in France are largely reducible to conflicts serving to cement state power at the expense of the Church.

    To pull back from the historical claim to one of principle, I would suggest that Catholic theology in the medieval period had in it a good, indeed acceptible, concept and practice of tolerance — even though it was certainly not tolerance of the type recommended by the liberal state. Zac is, in at least some respects, right to sense in my attack on Enlightenment principles an attack on the Reformation Protestantism that would never have flourished as it did had the rulers of the modern state not found it a convenient tool of manipulation for the creation of the liberal nation-state order. But I think this would require a fuller argument than I can provide here; and Zac objected to everything in my essay, and so I shall have to move on, scatter-shot.

    The three examples of anti-Christian episodes in our day were, for some any way, not the most poignant and effective. Would I had thought to write this essay when a Catholic convent in India was attacked last year, its occupants humiliated, dragged through the streets, and raped. Would I had written even two weeks ago, as the Catholics of Vietnam were being thrown from hospital windows to their death, their property ransacked, their homes and children attacked. On a mild but insidious note, would I had written when the state legislature in Connecticut sought to seize control of the finances and physical property of the Catholic Church in its borders. But, the other morning, I happened to see flash before me three news stories in quick succession; the coincidence itself provoked me to start writing and, what was to be a short for the FPR page became a feature essay. I agree that, given the plethora of examples of anti-Christian and, more specifically, anti-Catholic violence and discrimination, in our age the three that provoked me all but pale. Please take them as mere tokens of a larger phenomenon that is not lacking for others.

    Zac instances an ethics of victimhood — the same ethics of which Abby accuses me. But I cried martyrdom, and the difference is huge. Our ethics of victimhood, so central to the success of the liberal state, runs on the assumption that all exercises of authority and power are an abuse and that, therefore, the victims of that exercise are uniformly to be lamented quite indifferent to their possible individual significance. Were I to make such an appeal on behalf of Christians, I would effectively be adopting the ethics of liberal society and seeking to argue for the “rights” of Christians in terms a liberal would already understand. But I make no such appeal and on no such terms. The term “martyr” means “witness.” A victim can be just a victim in the liberal imaginary, i.e. it is the broken body that speaks of undifferentiated humanity that must be juridically protected by the state, rather than the particular meaning of the person showing forth. But martyrdom, in the literal instance of a death in the name of Christ, or in the looser, but etemylogically justifiable, sense of one whose actions witness to Christian truth, opperates differently than victimhood. Like a body in the street of a modern city, it can be a sign of contradiction, a real signifier of truths otherwise concealed or effaced in the place surrounding. The natural response to victimization is further bureaucratic intrusion, i.e. hate crime legislation, suvelliance cameras on street corners, etc. The natural response to martyrdom is either guilty refusal or conversion of heart.

    In his post script, Zac solves all our problems the way liberal society solves all its problems, by technocratic means. Rather than our all agreeing on birth control, or on some other technology that appeals only to the sensibility given over to instrumental reason, I would plead that we ought to all find a consensus on the importance of chastity. Rather than pinning the hopes of human society on gadgets, we ought rather to insist that the human person who can hope must also have the power of temperance and self-government. He may live chastely according to the particular circumstances of his life. This seems a more reasonable demand than that prostitutes should “be safe,” etc.

    Zac rightly informs me that Christians are not the only pro-life voices in the world. He is certainly correct; it is one of the rare hopeful signs in global politics that the Catholic Church and certain Muslim nations have been able to cooperate to counter the assertive United Nations and NGO protocals to make abortion a worldwide human “right.” One of the strongest opponents of the homosexual agenda in Italy is an atheist politician who grounds his opposition on his atheism (signifcantly, Benedict XVI has written a book with this fellow). But Jim Pouillon was not a Muslim, he was a Christian, and he was shot dead by a man who knew what he was doing. Washing away that episode by calling the murderer “crazy” is certainly possible; but how was that fellow more “crazy” than the one who shot George Tiller?

    This last question leads to the point on which I shall conclude. My essay was written in the heat of believing that the great majority of persons in our country — including many self-described Christians — are oblivious to the renewed persecution of Christians in our world. Indeed Christians committed to the soft totalitarian ideology of liberalism are more responsible for this persecuation than those rare and marginal extremists who flaunt their atheism (Paul Gottfried writes well on this). They are convinced that the regime of liberal governance is “tolerant” and “pluralistic” and so could not *possibly* be complicit in the destruction of one theology in favor of another — its own. They brush aside what happens abroad — whether in India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, or elsewhere — as unimportant barbaric episodes unrelated to liberal modernity and indeed unintelligible except as one more instance of the primitive behavior that Enlightenment “values” will erase from the earth. That erasure is itself a mode of violence, sophisticated of technique and technology, but not of instinct.

    Tim’s comment drives this point home. Pouillon was shot by a mad man. George Tiller was shot in front of his congregation and his wife. Unbearable though the details of Tiller’s death certainly are, they illustrate that Tiller was given at the moment of his death privileges that in his “line of work” he had denied to untold thousands: to be recognized as human, to have his name known, to be held accountable or allowed to assume responsibility for his actions. No aborted children are permitted these things — small consolation though they may appear to us.

    Liberal society is able to bear itself by means of demonizing the past and sweeping and sanitizing away the deaths in which it is directly complicit. My essay sought to be at least a little bit apocalyptic, i.e. to pull back a veil, to make visible a reading of history with which most persons are entirely unfamiliar, and to summon actual instances of persecution and Christian martyrdom. Abby’s suggestion that she might not want to read the essays on this sight any more strikes me as a very typical response to this sort of confrontation. I am sorry I did not, again, avail myself of more brutal examples that such a re-closing of the veil would not be possible. Unfortunatley, there are no brute facts so powerful that one cannot ignore them or manipulate them away.

  20. James,
    A thoughtful reply; thank you for it. But some concerns continue:

    I would suggest that, while Christians must bear witness to the truth, and hope for its triumph–in whatever form that takes, I would suggest one far beyond our weak understandings–to expect this to happen in history is a form of idolatry, not that different from the misguided utopianism of the modern, post-enlightenment nation-state. Christians must bear witness to the gospel, true; but to believe that there’s an “either/or” between the liberal nation state and, say, medieval Christian society is to falsely idealize the past, and to fail to affirm that Christians are always meant to be “viators” or pilgrims, never fully at home in the world, even as the world’s beauty and order bear witness to the good.

    In fact, Christianity exists in a tension between immanence and transcendence, and my concerns with your essay, and also with some of your clarifying comments, is that your ideas might seem to suggest that there can be a Christianity without such a tension: that there can be completely healthy society, as long as it were truly Christian. This is not true. We’re never going to reach utopia, in either Christian or Enlightenment forms, even as we all must strive to bear witness to what is true and good.

    I don’t know enough about Islamic law, but I wonder if what you say about it in your comments above is true. It certainly does not seem to have described the Ottoman reality that existed for some time in Turkey and much of the middle east, though from what I’ve read of Qutb and other Islamist theorists it may well describe their beliefs. But it’s certainly not clear that Qutb is in any mainstream Muslim tradition, just as it’s not clear that the Saudi Wahabbists are mainstream, even though their oil money is pushing their version of Islam all over the world.


  21. PDGM makes a good point. I can well see how someone might right my essay and the comments as he does, though I would insist that this is a partial misreading. And it is only to clarify that I indulge myself with one futher comment.

    Why partial? The Christian doctrine of creation tells us that everything is good insofar as it has being, and that, therefore, politics is a good and, further, that there is a good form of politics. One that corrects for the fall? Of course not. It is one obscured for us by its eschatological nature and by the fact that it is the human person who has a telos ordered to the Kingdom of Heaven rather than, say, a nation or state.

    But the essential good of politics, the ordering of the temporal within rather than in opposition to the eternal, is something I would defend against that very frequent ancient and modern dichotomy that places the political and the temporal more generally in mere tension with the divine. I see that non-Catholics include the Book of Wisdom as apocrypha rather than canonical scripture, and I think this a dangerous omission. I see also that Caleb Stegall takes the latter to a radical, indeed explicitly Machiavellian, point of principle. And I am aware that a certain reading of Augustine has made this appear orthodox for a lot of thinkers. But Augustine insists on a fundamental order, beauty, and harmony in creation as well, which tells us that even politics can be done right. It is possible to live well in that harmony; baptism is both a death to the world and a rebirth into it.

    I wholly agree with you that the modern project of “immanentizing the eschaton” is a great evil; but it is an evil that derived from a non-sacramental, and non-analogical understanding of politics. Marx owes more to Hobbes and Machiavelli by half than he owes to, say, the Crusades, Aquinas, or the experience of medieval Christendom.

    Your comments on Islam are well taken. Based on Brague’s study, I take the totalitarian impulse to Islam as the natural one. But to make any kind of argument on this larger than that I already have, I would have to establish prior criteria on how we are to understand what is authoritative Islam. It is perhaps worth my noting, however tangentially, that both Islamic radicalism and the Indian Hindu nationalism that has led to these Christian persecutions abroad owe a great deal intellectually to modern western state theory. The Islamic Brotherhood, so the journalists say, learned directly from the Third Reich; Hindu nationalism gives an appearance of unity to what of course was long ago a patchwork myriad of devotional cults.

  22. While I agree with the overall point of this article, the murder of James Pouillon may not be a good example. His murderer killed somebody else the same day and planned to kill a third person, and the other two didn’t seem to have any connection to life issues. Nor was the murderer connected to any pro-abortion group, as far as anyone has yet reported. Finally, Pouillon himself may not quite fit the image of the gentle martyr. According to his son, he has a violent and abusive man who used his wife as a punching bag and had a pathological hatred of women.

    Is the son’s statement correct? I have no way of knowing, but it seems a bit premature to proclaim Pouillon a martyr or to accuse the press of ignoring violence against pro-lifers in this case.

  23. To James,

    I enjoyed reading your response, and particularly appreciated your characterization of martyrdom (vs. victimization). I still find your pronouncement of a present/coming age of Christian martyrdom neither convincing nor helpful, though, upon further thought, I would agree that our present age (and the Reformation) is (and was) no less violent than days past, and that the Enlightenment has indeed resulted in an obsessive desire to exercise human control over everything we can get our hands on – a sort of virus of modernity that I would love to create the vaccine for (yes, I see the irony).

    But I’m no liberal. If my post script suggested a “liberal” or “technocratic” solution to you, then I’m sorry you misunderstood. I was attempting to find common ground, not prescribing a solution. Perhaps phrases like “family planning” and “safe sex” set off red flags – buzzwords that they now are. Ideally, and in my mind, family planning would be comprehensive, and would include (but not be limited to – for the non-Catholics out there) the encouragement of abstinence or celibacy. Actually, abstinence until marriage is as good a definition of family planning as I’ve ever heard. I still maintain that both sides could and should work together to promote a culture where children are a thing to be wanted, not a thing to be avoided. This was the point of my post script. (Or, if you aren’t one for cooperation, we could continue making martyrs for their cause, galvanizing the opposition until they make martyrs of our own, and so on… It’s not a method I’d call productive, and, I would be dishonest if I said your article does not encourage it.)

    I’m going to look up Paul Gottfried; are there any specific writings you would suggest?

  24. Perhaps this guy is a jerk, too:

    Not a martyr so much as a fellow beat up by girls, nevertheless . . .

    Zac, if you can get a copy of the Summer issue of Communio, David Schindler discusses the idea of witness as a consumately rational act, which might belie some of your parenthetical suspicions in that last comment. In fact, I’ll come back to this idea of martyrdom, since between Schindler and some early reflections on the idea of protest in Alasdair MacIntyre, there is grist enough for a short essay that might be relevant to your concerns.

    I was thinking of — of all things — a blog post of Gottfried’s attacking the Fox-News-style analysis of the left as anti-Christian. Gottfried there argued that O’Riley and co.’s attempts to say, as it were, only un-American Americans are atheistic, unpatriotic ACLU supporters misses the fact that actually the movements to exclude religion, etc., from the public square are abundantly evidenced in the everyday political assumptions of mainstream Christians. He’s getting at, I believe, the incoherence of the American Christian and liberal democratic traditions — an incoherence, that is, which runs through the individual. His essay on First Principles responding to James Kalb’s “The Tyranny of Liberalism” explains some of this analysis. His book “White Guilt” (if I’m not confusing memories) gets to the heart of things in more extended and scholarly fashion.

    I may have misread your post script. In any case, I couldn’t agree with you more that celibacy until marriage and chaste marriages are the best form of “family planning.” (For those who might read this without the technical vocabulary C.C.D. used to provide, please bear in mind that “chastity” is not the same thing as “celibacy,” fabulous medieval metallic sartorial gizmos not withstanding).

  25. Perhaps the moment has passed, and James (and Patrick, et al) has responded quite thoroughly to the Zac attack.

    Nonetheless, there seems to me one last bit of confusion in some of the responses to James’ piece that I wanted to speak to.

    Both Zac and Abby include in their argument the assertion that “martyrdom” is an inaccurate term for our present age because Christianity is the largest world religion. It seems to me that this is a category mistake, and one worth fixing. Martyrdom does not in any sense require that Christians be in any minority; nor is it fair to conclude that a demographic majority (however construed) indicates that Christianity is “winning.” Witness to the truth, even unto death, has no real relation to whether there are many Christians or few. The truth or success or safety of Christian witness could never be measured by demography.

  26. A good point, Kevin – I agree with you. But it is worth pointing out that in order to designate a period in history as “an age,” the subject being referred to aught to be a defining factor of that age (lest everything be dubbed “the age of____”). Saying that we live in “an age of Christian martyrdom” – at least to me – suggests a widespread or at least notable presence of Christian martyrdom as a defining factor of the time. (Perhaps this is where I fundamentally disagree with the assertion; it is likely defining for James, but not for me.) Christian martyrdom is by no means that prominent, and this age, as it relates to Christianity, would probably be better characterized as “an age of Christian evangelism,” or “an age of Christian postmodernism” or something that highlights Christianity’s most prominent influence on our time. So, my motivation for pointing out the popularity of Christianity was to underscore the audacity of the claim that “we live in an age of Christian martyrs” – which is perhaps not what James was trying to say. We do live in a time when Christians are martyred, but not in an age that martyrdom is so noticeable as to define Christianity as a whole.

    I guess I’m saying that I think it’s sensationalist.

    While we’re getting picky, though, I’ll raise another point. Can we really call this a coming age of Christian martyrdom if most Christians interpret the religion in fundamentally different ways? Sure we can. We can generalize. But it doesn’t change the fact that Pouillon died professing an approach to Christianity that is not representative of the entire religion, with all its denominations and mutations. A Mormon martyr may not be a martyr for the same beliefs as a Catholic martyr. Saying we’re entering an age of Christian martyrdom is like saying musicians are entering an age of electronic instrumentation. It may be true, but- speak for yourself! I’m just playing my banjo.

    This is mostly just semantics. So I’ll stop.

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