Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing the Beatitudes Anew

Recently I have been reading Matthew's Gospel and I was really struck by the Beatitudes, both for their forcefulness and their role in framing the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, arguably the rest of the Gospel.  I have probably heard these read from the pulpit a hundred times, but here they are again, from Chapter 5:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you  because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For me, and likely many others, familiarity has largely emptied these statements of their meaning.  So permit me the liberty of re-writing these as a kind of manifesto for what it means to be a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ (which, after all, takes its lead from Jesus, the Head):
We care deeply about the holiness of the world and deeply lament the tragedy of sin (5:4, 6). 
We choose the values of the Kingdom over those of the world:
Humility over arrogance (5:5)
Poverty over wealth (5:3)
Purity over lust (5:8)
Mercy over vengeance (5:7)
Peace over war (5:9) 
In all these things, we expect and welcome the persecutions which will come our way, for so were the prophets and Christ Himself persecuted (5:10-12).
Before you go and start quibbling, let me offer several caveats for this rough paraphrase.  Jesus says that such people are blessed; He does not, per se, tell us that we need to choose such things, only that we are blessed if they come our way.  Still, I'm hard pressed to see why a Christian would not want to seek a life of blessing.  Admittedly, some of the terminology has been shifted a bit, for example, Matthew uses the phrase "poor in spirit," whereas I have employed simply "poverty."  However, in Luke's parallel, he simply writes, "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and, in any case, I think it is difficult to be poor in spirit without at least contemplating the possibility of literally being poor.  I have tied mourning and thirsting for righteous to the idea of caring about the salvation of the world.  You might argue that there is more to these two beatitudes than this particular reading, and you're probably right, but I think this kind of deep interior mourning over the eternal death of sin is a key part of what Jesus is talking about.  Finally, one might note that Jesus here praises poverty and peacemaking without explicitly condemning their opposites, though such condemnations are certainly to be found elsewhere (e.g. Luke 6:24, "Woe to you who are rich!").

I can only conclude that this is a profoundly radical, even otherworldly, call which is made to us.  You might call it counter-cultural, and so it is, though I think counter-worldly might be a better term.  Notice the nature of the blessings; they are blessings in the Kingdom of Heaven, not here below.  One can easily imagine someone deriding the Beatitudes: The poor receive the Kingdom of Heaven, but you can't put that on the table.  Will the meek really inherit the land?  More likely they'll be exploited.  "Children of God" may be the only compliment the peacemakers are paid; others will probably call them idealists or naïve dreamers.  Right here, at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus identifies the Gospel with the "Kingdom," a strong, glorious, and strikingly political term.  He then promptly turns this kingdom on its head, marking it as a kingdom of humility.

And far from turning away from the Beatitudes, Matthew's Gospel continually comments on them.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount elaborates upon them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.  
  • "You cannot serve God and money" (6:24).  
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal" (6:19).  
  • "Give us today our daily bread" (6:11).  
  • "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" (6:25).  
  • "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (7:11).   
Blessed are they who mourn.
  • "You are the salt of the earth" (5:13).  Preserve it from wickedness.   
Blessed are the meek.
  • "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others" (6:2).
  • "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (6:5).
  • "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites" (6:16).
  • "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).   
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • "You are the light of the world" (5:14).  Bring justice and truth to it.   
Blessed are the merciful.
  • "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (7:1).
  • "Go first and be reconciled with your brother" (5:24).
  • "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (6:12).
  • "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you" (7:12).   
Blessed are the clean of heart.
  • "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No'" (5:37).
  • "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery" (5:28).
  • "If your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be" (6:23).   
Blessed are the peacemakers. 
  • "When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (5:39).
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44).   
Blessed are they who are persecuted.
  • "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock" (7:25). 
As soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain, having preached all these things, He administers three back-to-back healings (8:1-15).  That's the fruit of this new life of humble dependence upon God: it heals our hearts, our relationships, and our society.  But we are reminded that the costs are high.  In connection with the healings, Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4, "He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Mt 8:17).  Yes, Jesus brings us healing, but at the price of His own suffering on the cross.  It is a life of suffering to which He calls us as well.  Lest we should doubt that this new life should cost us everything, Jesus reminds one would-be disciple that we must let go of our material goods ("Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head," 8:20) and asks another man to relinquish even the desires of his heart ("Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," 8:22).  Do not doubt, however, that He to whom you entrust your life is capable of fulfilling all His promises, restoring you to wholeness and bringing you true happiness.  For as the disciples discover a few verses later, "Even the winds and the sea obey him" (8:27).  This is the King of Kings, the Lord of the Universe.  His word is good.

In the final story of Chapter 8, Jesus enters a village.  Having proclaimed the Kingdom of God, a radical kingdom of humility but also of healing, having revealed its costs but also His power to save, Jesus now drives out the village's demons and destroys their unholy herds of swine (8:28-32).  The King has entered and offered to extend His blessings to them.  "The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged Him to leave" (8:34).  They want no part in the Kingdom.  May we have the grace to accept His call.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Short Reading List - Foreign Policy

As you might have guessed, I am a bibliophile.  I collect not only physical books but also lists of them: favorite books of various genres, books I recommend, books I'd like to read.  At one point my Amazon Wish List fulfilled this last function.  In some sense it still does.  But over the last several years this Amazon list has grown far faster than I could possibly keep up with.  It has been subdivided into various daughter lists, each of which now grows at a similarly impossible pace.  It is no longer primarily a collection of titles I would like to own or even read any time soon; rather, it is home to various titles I would like to remember for various reasons, mostly because they come strongly recommended by authorities I trust (though, admittedly, often very diverse authorities).

Hoping that perhaps others could make use of this conglomeration, even if I can do so only rarely, I have decided to share these lists here, for your perusing pleasure, in several installments, beginning with foreign policy.  I think you'll find them a far-flung bunch.  Perhaps you'll see something of interest to you and pick it up.  If you do, please, let me know what you thought.  And if you've already read some of these titles, likewise, please, share a short review.


Military History, pre-1900.  So vast is my interest in military history that I eventually had to bifurcate it.  This list runs the gammut from the ancient world, through the medieval period, all the way to the likes of the American Civil War.  It includes Michael Decker's The Byzantine Art of War, William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, Robert Tonsetic's Special Operations in the American Revolution, and others.

Military History, 1900-present.  This list is my natural intellectual home.  My dissertation on the origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) included discussions of conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia in the four decades preceding the Second World War and how lessons from those conflicts were applied by the Allies.  This list covers similar ground.  It's heavy on the Second World War and the British Empire in the 20th century (yes, including decolonization).  It includes a look at the Polish-Soviet War, studies of the role of the US Navy in the Allied Intervention against the Bolsheviks and on the Yangtze in the 1930s, several works on Japan and its war in China, and a history of the Stauffenberg family, one member of which tried to assassinate Hitler (about whom I have written).  Other intriguing reads on this list include David French's The British Way of Counter-Insurgency and an account of Karen rebels in Burma (for whom I have a soft spot).  The list also includes works on the Global War on Terror.

Diplomacy & International Affairs.  This list includes theoretical works (such as The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security), books on historical case studies (including Foreign Affairs and the Founding Fathers and The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin), and biographies of both American and foreign statesmen (among them Castlereagh, T. E. Lawrence, and the little-known Frank McCoy).  You'll see that, among other topics, I'm intrigued by Southeast Asia.

Intelligence.  Much of this list's potential material is covered in the above categories, but it includes a few intriguing titles, some critical (e.g. The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture), some historical (The Archaeologist Was a Spy), others decidedly non-Western (Intelligence Elsewhere: Spies and Espionage Outside the Anglosphere).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Shield of Faith - An Update

Six years ago I wrote a post about St. Paul's admonition to the Ephesians to "hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the Evil One." In that post, I highlighted the communal value of shields in the Greek-speaking world, as when wounded Odysseus "called... [and] Aias came near him, carrying like a wall his shield, and stood forth beside him" to protect him from the Trojans. At the time, I thought this intercessory quality of faith, by which we are protected by the faith of our brothers, was a novel reading of this passage. Not so, I discovered.


Around AD 740, three monks - Denehard, Lullus, and Burchard - who assisted St. Boniface in his missionary work in Germany, wrote to Abbess Cuniburg in England. One of their requests to her was that "you will not refuse to shelter us against the cruel darts of sin with the shield of your prayer," a clear reference to Ephesians 6:16.

As Christians are suffering persecution around the world, and in many cases dying for the faith, please remember them in your prayers and extend the shield of your faith over them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The City on a Waterfall


The concept of a city built on a waterfall was first brought to my attention by James Gurney's Waterfall City (pictured above) in Dinotopia, published in 1992.  But while the aesthetic appeal of such a city is quite obvious to me - in spite of its equally obvious impracticality - I realized one day that this is by no means the only fictional city built on a waterfall.  Did a number of minds simultaneously come up with this same idea?  Or does it have a single point of origin?

As one blogger points out, Waterfall City bears a certain resemblance to the city of Theed on the planet of Naboo (seen below) in Star Wars: Episode I, which was released in 1999.



In 1999 the British band Ozric Tentacles released an album titled Waterfall Cities; clearly the idea was moving into wide circulation.  But where did it begin?


A quick search of the internet is daunting.  The concept has become so popular in fantasy literature and art that one has trouble isolating a few key instances of it among reams of fan art (seen above and below).



Did James Gurney really conceive this idea, the otherworldly idea of balancing that height of human civilization, a city, on that most terrible of natural objects, a waterfall?  It seems unlikely to me that it took so long for someone to dream up such a place.  And yet, it seems he did...



If you know anything about the origin of waterfall cities, please, share!

None of today's images are used with permission or anything so fancy.  But if you do a quick image search for "waterfall city" you should turn them all up.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Athanasian Creed

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Athanasius (c. 297-373).  While most Christians know the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, less well known is the third of the orthodox creeds, attributed to St. Athanasius.  Whether he actually wrote it is a matter of some debate, but it certainly coheres with the theology he articulated (as well as the long sentences of his Greek!).  Whereas the other creeds focus more on the life of Christ, this one focuses primarily on the two great mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation.


Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith,
which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one,
the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible,
the Son incomprehensible,
and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal,
and yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible,
but one uncreated and one incomprehensible,
so likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
and yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth
to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
so are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say: There are three Gods or three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son;
neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers;
one Son, not three Sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another,
but the whole three persons are coeternal and coequal,
so that in all things, as aforesaid,
the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation
that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is that we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds;
and man of substance of His mother, born in the world,
perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,
equal to the Father as touching His Godhead,
and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood,
who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ;
one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God;
one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ,
who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead,
at whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies
and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting
and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Voices of Southern Dissent

I currently reside in Virginia.  I have a son who was born here.  But I struggle with the state's Southern identity, an identity which, for many, is bound up in the American Civil War and the experience of secession.  I don't mean to suggest that all Virginians are racist or that Southern pride is nothing more than support for slavery.  But, because the Confederate rebellion was a part of Virginia's history, many Virginians feel the need to support it or at least remain silent on the matter.  As someone opposed to the rebellion of the Southern states and their practice of slavery, I find this position problematic.

But I think it is worth mentioning that the South was not monolithicly pro-secession in the 19th century and thus need not make a pro-secessionist bent part of its identity today.

Consider, for example, the Loudoun Rangers, a cavalry unit raised in 1862 in northern Virginia, a unit which fought on behalf of the Union and tangled with Mosby's partisans.

Or let us consider Texas, a state which was my adoptive home for eight years.  Sam Houston, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas, was elected governor in 1859.  Houston was no liberal humanitarian: although he enjoyed warm relations with the Cherokee Indians, he owned slaves and opposed abolitionist efforts to free them.  However, he saw secession as ill-advised and treasonous.  When a Texas convention voted for secession and subsequent accession to the Confederacy, Houston refused to recognize the moves, calling them illegal.  Houston was eventually removed from office for refusing to take the Confederate oath.  He explained:
Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void.
This is the kind of political idealism - whatever the costs - that Southerners love.  It is also deeply Unionist.  Regarding the war to come, Houston proved himself more clear-sighted than his opponents:
Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
Houston and the men of the Loudoun Rangers were rare, but not unique.  North Texas was full of German and Czech settlers - some of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe - who supported the Union.  West Virginia was so off-put by the war of secession it seceded from rebel Virginia.  In addition to the many African-American units raised from among the freed slaves of the South, white Unionist forces were also raised.  The 1st Alabama Cavalry was formed in 1862 by men who opposed secession - most from Alabama, but some from elsewhere, including Georgia.  The regiment fought in various campaigns and was present for the surrender of the rebel Army of Tennessee in 1865.  Arkansas raised eight white regiments and six colored regiments for the Union.  Similar units were raised in Louisiana and North Carolina.  Tennessee formed upwards of 30 regiments in the service of the Union.

I am looking forward to reading David Downing's A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy.  This is a Southern legacy I may be able to embrace and teach to my children.


Quotations are from James l. Haley, Sam Houston, University of Oklahoma Press (2004), by way of the estimable Wikipedia, which also supplied the image.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Toward a Theory of American Heraldry

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of heraldry, having proposed heraldic arms for the City of Charlottesville (see left) and Albemarle County, to complement or replace the current seals of questionable aesthetic merit.  But does heraldry have a place in America at all?  Are not heraldic arms associated with monarchy and therefore fundamentally at odds with the American republic?

First, the legal question: Can an American assume arms?  In many countries, such as Britain, arms are legally protected.  They may only be used by a grant deriving its authority from the sovereign.  In other countries, such as South Africa, the governing authority registers arms, but, provided they conform to certain standards, cannot reject an application because it does not grant the arms; everyone in South Africa has a legal right to bear them.  In the United States, no heraldic authority of either flavor exists (the claims of various online organizations notwithstanding).  Thus, the only legal limits on arms are those on any logo: you cannot use for commercial purposes a design that someone else has registered.  You can use your own design without registering it, provided you are not concerned about someone else stealing your design and have no intention of taking legal action against them for doing so.

Second, the historical angle: Do American have a tradition of using arms?  Here the answer is clear: yes.  While American heraldry is less standardized than that of Britain or other countries with heraldic authorities, it is widely used.  George Washington's arms are fairly well known (see left), having been adopted for a variety of uses such as the flag of the District of Columbia and the Purple Heart medal.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the more anti-traditional of America's Founding Fathers also bore arms.  John and John Quincy Adams utilized heraldic arms, as did most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But, you ask, is there still a vibrant tradition of heraldry, or was it only a brief carry-over from the colonial period?  One could likely write a dissertation on such a question, though it seems to me the US military provides a strong answer in the affirmative.  Heraldry may not be used in every aspect of everyday life, but for certain purposes we certainly retain it.  (I highly encourage the perusing of the US Institute of Heraldry's website if you have any interest in military heraldry.)

Third, the ideological angle.  Just because Americans have used heraldry does not mean they should?  Is is truly consonant with America's republican constitution?  Here I think we have to step back from Britain and its heraldic world, much though I love it.  When one does so, one discovers that in much of Europe heraldry had little to do with the sovereign.  In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, burgher arms were assumed by various members of what we would call the middle class: merchants, artisans, clergy, and the like.  Similar practices can be found in Scandinavia, were farmer have also traditionally borne arms.  Thus, heraldry has no fundamental connection to a monarchy and why should it?  Heraldry is simply a method of visual representation of individuals or organizations.  That non-noble heraldry has a long tradition in the German-speaking world is no minor point for the United States; German-Americans constitute the largest single ancestry group in the country and the Declaration was translated into German even before it was passed.

Thus, there is no reason that any American, so inclined, should not assume arms.

But what are the proper sources for such arms?  In one sense, the same answers given elsewhere apply in the US: symbols associated with one's place of origin or residence, profession or interests, or visual puns (canting).  I might add that one should draw on such associations as one deems appropriate.  If you care deeply about genealogy, use the traditional heraldic colors of your country of origin.  But if you couldn't care less about your umpteen greats grandfather, find something else to depict.

But there is a more tricky matter: how does one indicate familial connections?  British heraldry, and most other systems, has methods for handing down arms from parents to children (usually fathers to sons).  But in America, status is - in republican principle, at least - held by virtue of one's innate human nature and one's role as a citizen, not by birth.  So should, for example, a son use his father's arms, differenced with the appropriate mark of cadency?  Certainly, if one wanted to strongly stress a familial connection, one could do so, though I would certainly not want to require it.  Moreover, I think it runs contrary to our republican spirit - not to mention basic creativity - to forgo modifying inherited arms.  Nevertheless, experience shows that we all owe a great deal to our parents, for both good and ill, so if they bear arms, one would do well to incorporate elements from those arms into one's own.

A related matter concerns marshalling, that is, the combining of arms.  Typically a married couple will place their arms side by side (no objections here) and their eldest son will quarter his parents' arms.  I have two objections with quartering.  First, it tends to become very cluttered very quickly, rarely working beyond a single generation, and often not even then.  Aesthetically it is often a failure.  (See, for example, the unnecessarily cluttered arms of Mary and Philip, above left, or William and Mary, right.)  And what is the point of heraldry if it is not clearly identifiable?  Second, quartering again presumes the inheritance of arms.  I think it far more interesting and American for each individual to design his or her own.

Some final considerations:  While Americans are not bound by the laws of other countries, they would do well to respect them.  Thus, I would strongly discourage any American from copying outright arms which are registered not only here, but also abroad.  This is bad taste and runs contrary to the fundamental heraldic notion of unique identification.  Moreover, I would encourage Americans to avoid those symbols which are typically reserved elsewhere (e.g. the use of royal crowns) and use cautiously those elements of heraldry - such as supporters and standards - which are sometimes associated with special privileges.  Perhaps the most common error in this regard concerns the heraldry of Scottish clans.  Americans often assume that, having a certain surname, they belong to the corresponding clan and therefore have a right to use its arms.  Not so.  Under Scottish law, arms belong to the chief of a clan; members of the clan, that is, the chief's supporters, use a crest badge.  So don't go plagiarizing any Scottish chiefs.  It's rude.

While I cannot make promises on the timing, several more posts regarding heraldry are in the pipes, and I hope to expound on these ideas further in the context of some examples.