Brennan Buhr | Monday, September 16, 2019
St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred for his faith in the second century, remains one of the most compelling witnesses to the truth of Christ in Church history. Although very few biographical details are known about this great saint, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to various local churches in the eastern Mediterranean region describing the physical and spiritual sufferings he bore as Roman soldiers dragged him from Antioch to his inevitable execution in Rome.
Anyone who is even minimally interested in early Christianity ought to read these letters — in fact, Professor John Cavadini regularly assigns them at the beginning of his beloved upper-level theology course, Christian Traditions I. In an unparalleled display of heart-wrenching prose, Ignatius maintains a hopeful tone in the face of impending death, reminding his fellow Christians that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the essential feature of their faith — in short, Christ died in the flesh to redeem fleshly humanity from its sins. Ignatius affirms that he must imitate Christ’s death through his own martyrdom in the teeth of wild beasts let loose upon his flesh by the imperial regime. He even exhorts to Christians in Rome that they must not stand in the way of his execution, for all his earthly loves have been “crucified.” His only remaining desires are “the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… and the drink, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.”
What can Ignatius’ harrowing yet awe-inspiring martyrdom teach contemporary Christians in our chaotic and deeply secularized Western world? David French — whose Friday discussion with Sohrab Ahmari and Charles Kesler at Jenkins-Nanovic Halls was strangely devoid of the incendiary contestation which many (including myself) had expected — would likely say that Ignatius’ suffering has little to nothing to do with this present condition.
French made the fairly obvious point that “the Colosseum” no longer poses a physical threat to practicing Christians. Simply put, no Christians in modern liberal societies like the United States are being thrown to the beasts or burned at the stake. In fact, the supposed “censorship” of Christian views in the public square is actually the fault of contemporary Christians themselves (Drew Brees apparently fits into this category) who lack the courage to defend their faith in the marketplace of ideas against the heretical doctrines of progressive liberalism. Our enemies (if French would even go so far as to admit that term) are not persecuting us. Rather, it is our own lack of courage which has stifled and continues to inhibit the essential goal sought by Catholics and Protestants alike: the faithful, unabashed and public practice of Christianity.
Strictly speaking, French is correct that the particular persecutions which early Christian martyrs like Ignatius suffered at the hands of the state are no longer operative in modern liberal society. Of course, violence against Christians remains an ongoing reality, but this reality does not extend far beyond the deserts of the Middle East and various parts of Africa. The “blessings of liberty” which the liberal American founding conferred upon our nation’s citizens have ensured that the tyranny of the state over the body is virtually eliminated.
What French fails to consider, however, is the nature of modern liberal democratic tyranny which has decisively shifted compared to past ages in origin and effect. Though I am sure he has read Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic work “Democracy in America,” French seems to ignore the keen Tocquevillian insight that this uniquely modern tyranny is imposed by popular opinion (not the state) over the mind (not the body).
In volume II, part II, chapter 7 of “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville writes that the princes of old “materialized violence” in the body, whereas “the democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain.” Modern tyranny “leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul.” In such a society, minority voices are legally free to spread their gospels in the marketplace of ideas with as much courage as they can muster. However, this “useless” proceduralism cannot save them from their fellow citizens, who will spurn them, deny them employment or status in elite circles, and thereby render them outcasts in the midst of a country they once thought home. The modern liberal says, “Go in peace; I spare your life, but I leave you a life worse than death.”
Indeed, this situation aptly describes the contemporary crisis of conservatism. French’s exhortation that the state, not liberal philosophy, is the problem and that “a more courageous right” can genuinely counteract the totalizing force of modern progressivism fails to grapple with the reality that souls rather than bodies are deteriorating in the present age. Although we live in a time of unprecedented material well-being — a point which liberal-conservatives like Jonah Goldberg incessantly cite as evidence for liberalism’s inherent goodness — it cannot be denied that the West is experiencing a profound decline in spiritual health. Thanks to the addictive ease of smartphones and social media, life may be far more comfortable than ever before, but it has also become less meaningful since, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn succinctly put it, “men have forgotten God.” French seems to be more concerned that Americans have forgotten about the Enlightenment, insofar as the 18th century American founding was fundamentally an Enlightenment project. French himself may not have forgotten God, but his argument that Christians simply need a space within the marketplace of ideas neglects the promise of a society thoroughly shaped by Christian truth.
Where does St. Ignatius of Antioch fit into this context? Ignatius reminds us that the only life worth living is a life dedicated to Christ, whatever suffering that may entail. Christian conservatives cannot simply write off the idea that “the Colosseum” is no longer relevant in the contemporary context, for liberalism’s reign over the mind provides the often-subconscious forum for Christian persecution in the souls of Western men and women today. To counter this, we must take back the public square with the same Christian vigor that Ignatius demonstrated on his death march to Rome.
In my last column, I argued that French’s quest to negotiate a compromise with progressive liberalism was hopelessly naïve; progressives have been going right to the soul for quite some time. I maintain this point even more strongly after listening to French’s conversation-dominating arguments this past Friday. Originalist jurisprudence coupled with platitudinous pleas for “more courage” are insufficient remedies to the soul-crushing specter of liberalism. Christians must recall the witness of martyrs like St. Ignatius of Antioch if we desire to fulfill our call to bring the gospel of salvation to all peoples, especially those who have turned away from the faith in the modern West.
Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.