Sunday, November 15, 2015

Is your civilization worth dying for?

This is the question ISIS has asked of the West as it threw the gauntlet over the bodies of 129 victims in Paris. With every act of violence and barbarism, they mock our decadence, our fear, and our inability to defend ourselves. Even as President Hollande promises to wage a "merciless" campaign against those who slaughtered his fellow citizens in his own city, he carefully avoids calling them the "Islamic State" to keep from offending those Muslims in France who don't share ISIS's vision. The White House, like an ostrich forcing its head in the sand, stands by our own President's remark the very morning of the attack that ISIS has been "contained". The Obamas and Trumps of the world alike dutifully tell the cameras that their prayers are with the victims, but this seems more a figure of speech than anything backed by real conversations with the Man Upstairs. As our politicos prove time and again that the breed of lions which raised up Sir Winston Churchill no longer walk in our corridors of power; that we have no men of vision and resolve to achieve victory at all costs; the terrorists ask, "when will you finally take us seriously?"

The answer is simple: we do not. The day ISIS is duly reckoned as a deadly foe has yet to come because we're not playing for the same stakes. The West earnestly believes there can be peace in our time if only we can all get on board with the fruits of the modern state: higher education, healthcare, and retirement for all who dutifully buy in to the system with their taxes. Even as the 21st century European hangs his head in shame over the imperialism of his great-grandfather's day, he proudly assumes the new doctrines of equality, tolerance, and secularism can be imposed on the people his ancestors once ruled just as well. Liberté, égalité, and fraternité make for a catchy motto, but those words mean nothing to a disenfranchised young man who thirsts for eternal life more than the comforts of this world. ISIS promises him "freedom" through submission to the will of Allah; "equality" to those who deserve it (for men who fight in the name of the Islamic State, to the victors go the spoils); and "brotherhood" among men of all races who fight under the black flag (to be fair, ISIS appears to accept converts of European descent to their fold as generously as Arabs of immemorial Muslim descent). 

A homegrown terrorist from France
To reduce the threat of ISIS to a mere border control issue is a fatal error, for many of their most fervent fighters were grown right in France, the United Kingdom, and even the United States. In January, France's prime minister estimated 1,400 Frenchmen in ISIS's ranks, many of whom we know are ethnically French converts that barely speak a lick of Arabic. One of the attackers this weekend, though ultimately of Algerian descent, was born and raised near Paris, even living in Chartres until 2012. Indeed, as we see from their acts of terror in Lebanon just one day earlier, many refugees from the Middle East are fleeing from ISIS themselves. The Islamic State isn't fighting for resources or material comfort. They don't care about the color of your skin--in fact, they're probably killed more far more brown people than whites. They don't "hate us for our freedom"--they pity us for our delusions. This is strictly a war of ideas... a war for which we've come woefully ill-equipped. The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Nona, whose predecessor was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists and who now lives in exile from his own diocese thanks to ISIS, explained our failure to grasp the seriousness of the conflict:

"Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future. I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive.

"Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider again our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger. You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home."

A society built upon social safety, material comforts, and secularism may have sounded like a good idea for Europeans following the horrors of World War II, but these are not the pillars any reasonable person would risk being beheaded on a beach or burning to death in a cage for. It's why, according to one poll, 16% of Frenchmen actually supported ISIS last year, at least as an alternative to their current establishment. They've become like the decadent ancients Sir Kenneth Clark spoke of in his series on Civilisation, which I quoted in my article on beauty for OnePeterFive:

"[B]oredom, a feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity. There’s a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy, a poem in which he imagines the people of some late Antique city, waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack it. And then, finally, the barbarians move on somewhere else, and the city is saved, but the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing."

The Modern Medievalist has little faith in the race of men to throw the barbarians out of the gates, it's true... but as long as we have faith in a good and sovereign God, there's still reason to hope. Indeed, it seems He has written that hope into France's own history. At the end of the medieval era, the Hundred Years' War had been more like a century of catastrophic defeats for the French. Then, as now, the French seemed to have all the advantages: numbers, discipline, superior armaments (heavy cavalry), the home turf, and even more efficient means of taxation to pay for it all. Again and again, from Crécy to Agincourt, English archers and yeomen butchered the flower of French chivalry, the proudest and most civilized sons of western Christendom, on their own soil. The English king, Henry V, married a French princess and sired a son, Henry VI, to claim the titles of both King of England and France. The whole kingdom was about to become a Norman colony.
"Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors."

--the Dauphin, Shakespeare's Henry V

As Paris sat in foreign hands, the French heir to the throne, Charles, languished in faraway Chinon without a crown until a peasant girl called Joan, guided by nothing but her visions, picked him out from amidst his courtiers in disguise and told the prince of her mission from God to restore the kingdom. Shortly thereafter, the "maid of Lorraine" led French soldiers to victory and claimed not Paris, but the coronation city of Reims, which stood far deeper into English-held territory. There, Joan stood victoriously under the banner of France as her prince, the Dauphin, was anointed and crowned King Charles VII, demonstrating divine favor and rallying all the divided French subjects under one figure at last. 

Joan of Arc was only active for about a year before she was captured by the Burgundians in 1430 and sent to trial. Her appearance in the war, nonetheless, was the first major shift toward a French victory in nearly a century of conflict. Until Joan entered the fray, the common classes were relatively uninterested in what amounted to a dynastic dispute between powerful relatives for control of the land. It fell to a teenage girl who with no formal knowledge of the art of warfare, or even the ability to read and write, to elevate the French cause to a religious struggle for their very identity. President Hollande can send his entire air force to Syria tonight if that's what it takes to maintain his place in the polls, but until his people can match ISIS blow for blow in zeal for God and their claims to civilization at home and within their hearts, any offensive in the Levant will be as wasteful and frustratingly useless as Napoleon's campaign to subjugate and modernize Catholic Spain. They can bomb the Islamic State into a glass parking lot, and others will simply rise to take their place. Many of them will likely come from within France's own borders
"immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends ... looking for new families of friends and fellow travelers. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ into a radical religious vocation through the appeal of militant jihad."

In the war for souls, the France of Hollande, of the revolution of 1789 will not win against angry young men with nothing to lose, who believe eternal life awaits them moments after detonation. In the face of annihilation, only the France that once proudly called herself the eldest daughter of the Church will stand triumphant. The French, like the rest of us, must now choose: to submit, to die, or to rediscover the faith and conviction that led Joan of Arc to engage her enemies relentlessly in battle and die bravely at the stake, confirmed in the righteousness of her cause.

The collect for Mass on Saint Joan's feast day (May 30) in the traditional Latin rite gives us this prayer:

"O God, Who didst raise up the Blessed Maiden Jeanne to defend Faith and fatherland, grant to us, we beseech Thee, by her intercession, that Thy Church, overcoming the snares of the enemy, may rejoice in a perpetual peace. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen."

This image is illustrated by Theophila. You may contact her on this site to order a print.