Humility (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction (containing links to all the other series posts), go here.

Last in sequence, appropriately enough, is the chivalric virtue of humility. Perhaps not a virtue we have come to associate overly with knighthood, it nonetheless comes in final and perhaps chief place as the seal of all the other virtues.

In my Mediæval Planetary symbolic scheme, humility is associated with Saturn; in the thinking of the day a baleful and malevolent planet connected with death and calamity. It seems somehow apt. Such things as ruin and calamity can come as death-blows to our idea that we are something in and of ourselves. Rightly appropriated, the leaden influence of Saturn pierces our puffed-up self-importance and arrogance. The call of Christ to take up the Cross and follow is rightly understood as a call to die.

Knights, typically, weren’t very good at humility. It was something honoured more in the breach than the observance; a virtue, yes, but one often at odds with the rest of the proud knightly code.

The knightly life in pursuit of honour often promotes pride, not humility, and the Mediæval knight was notoriously touchy about perceived slights to his honour. Star Trek’s Klingons are a warrior race whose culture revolves around honour, just like the knights of old. Honour – the praise of one’s fellows and the acclaim of one’s culture – is attained through meritorious acts, particularly courage on the battlefield. And because everyone loves a winner, especially particularly victory on the battlefield. The Miles Christi, or true Christian knight, may have elevated humility to the status of virtue, but it was a virtue not lived so much, unlike the other more martial and demonstrative virtues.

This is what happens when your idea of honour is honour before men. There’s another kind of honour, though: honour before God. The difference is rather like the difference between objective guilt and guilt feelings. Objective guilt – guilt before God, if you will – is that you did, in fact, do the unrighteous deed. You are guilty. Whether or not you feel guilty is a separate question. We all know there are people who can apparently commit the most grievous of offences and seemingly feel no guilt; no twinge of their seared conscience at all. Conversely, we can sometimes feel guilty about things for which we bear no objective guilt, for example, guilt feelings do not always miraculously go away after we get forgiven by God. Our objective guilt has been atoned for, but the feeling remains.

The Bible uses similar language, not for honour, but forhonour’s polar opposite shame. Verses such as “The one who trusts in Me will never be put to shame” suggest an objective shame, a shame before God, as well as the shame feelings we normally associate with the term. As with the guilt/righteousness axis, so with the honour/shame axis.

If our sense of honour is rooted in God, in objective honour, then it frees us to do some things that would normally be considered dishonourable. Not the objectively dishonourable things such as lying or cheating, but those things at which our pride rebels. Taking the low place, not the place of honour. Menial work. Acts of service. Tasks that are despised and considered worthless by society.

I don’t know about you, but this is looking a lot like humility to me.

Just like Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made Himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

He humbled Himself

and became obedient to death,

even the death of the cross.

Jesus identifying with fallen humanity in baptism, shocking the already-righteous by hanging out with evil government collaborator tax-collectors, prostitutes and drunks, humbling Himself to wash the sweaty, dirty feet of His apostles, stooping to the humiliation of hanging naked on a Roman cross.

In the eyes of the world, shameful and dishonourable. The Messiah can’t come from Nazareth – nothing good comes from there. The Messiah can’t hang out with sinners – He’s supposed to be righteous. The Messiah can’t wash my dirty feet – He’s the Master, and that’s the job of the lowest slave. And the Messiah really can’t be apparently defeated and die in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable, naked in front of everyone to be jeered by the rabble. God’s honour is at stake!

Yes, it is. But rather than being an offence to God’s honour, these actually reinforce it. God sees what really is, and works in the sphere of objective honour. Man looks at the outward appearance.

When I listed off seven chivalric virtues and failed to include honour, I originally said that honour was the sum total of all of them. I may have been wrong. Honour may well be humility in disguise, looked at in a mirror.

Honour before men is rooted in pride. Objective honour, paradoxically, is willing to be dishonoured before men for true righteousness’ sake.

Not that being in a low position automatically means you’re all right in God’s eyes, either. Sometimes we can think that humility means being down on yourself. We take Paul’s self-description as “the chief of sinners” and apply it to ourselves, thinking this is what we’re supposed to do. It certainly seems properly self-effacing. Look at me, I’m so humble.

Oh dear.

Sometimes, claiming to be worse than we really are can be a sort of inverted vanity. I’m important! Look, I did big, important sins! It becomes rather like the proverbial fish that got away. “I needed grace and it was this big!

Humility is, as the Scripture puts it, “thinking of yourself with sober judgment.” Neither too highly nor too lowly, but in accordance with the view of God, the One who truly sees.

Interestingly for the Mediæval planet associated with ruin and death, Saturn was also the highest planet, nested in the uppermost of the seven planetary spheres, and thus closest to the Primum Mobile, God the Prime Mover. It somehow seems appropriate that this should be the virtue associated with seeing as God sees – seeing yourself the way you really are.


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Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series looking at the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction go here.


I was in my teens when the Promise Keepers men’s movement first hit the UK. I gathered that it was some sort of men’s thing, but I never really felt like I got a straight answer to my questions as so what it was about. It seemed to me like they were running on an assumption that everyone already knew what they were about.  Well, “everyone” didn’t: ” So it’s about encouraging men to be faithful to their wives, then?” Well, that’s part of it, but there are other promises…” “Huh?”

It didn’t connect. I used the word “promise” very seldom, and much of what they were trying to talk about just didn’t fit into my categories of what constituted promises. Didn’t Jesus effectively teach us not to make vows of that sort? In my mind, I didn’t make “promises”, therefore they had nothing to say to me.

Maybe now I understand a little better what they were trying to say. What I think they they meant was encapsulated in the chivalric virtues of Faith and Fealty.

There’s no guarantee I would have understood back then even if they’d used those words, but I might have done. The likelihood of anyone using the word “fealty” in order to make it clear what they were talking about, though, is and was effectively nil.

It’s an old word, replete with significance but seldom used today. In our modern Western democratic world, we don’t see things in the stratified way of the Middle Ages. Everyone’s equal, and fealty is about vertical relationships. We don’t have much use for it.

Of all of the seven chivalric virtues I’m identifying, fealty may well be the trickiest to update, tied so closely as it is to Mediæval notions of innate class distinctions. What does it look like in the democratic age?

In modern terms, “allegiance” is probably the closest we come to the full sense of its meaning. At its best, this gives us pictures of patriotism, of the love of country and the claims it may make on us. Apparently some Christians are so into the use of romantic imagery for God that they consider it inappropriate for our relationship with Him. Jason Gray’s “More Like Falling In Love” seems to suggest that “giving my allegiance” is some cold, distant, bloodless thing that doesn’t really mean very much.

Not in my personal universe it isn’t, but it shows how little use most of the modern world has for the idea.

America in particular is home to a spirit that runs directly counter to the notion of fealty. At best, it manifests itself in a love of freedom that is noble and right. At its worst, it devolves into a rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” The virtue of fealty is that no, actually someone does have the right to tell you what to do.

There are people here in America that don’t like the current president. I can’t legally vote, so I feel like I’m messing in dangerous waters here, but I understand this. In any democratic system there are going to be people who voted for the other candidate and can’t stand the one that got elected. But he’s still the leader of the country, and the office is bigger than the one filling it, something that some people appear to have forgotten.

Allegiance is in part about belonging to something greater than yourself. Being a follower in a right sense: submitting your individual freedom to a higher cause and purpose.

It’s a hard thing: harsh, uncompromising, uncomfortable. This is not feel-good. We like to hear how Jesus is our Lover and Friend and Saviour. We find it rather less pleasant to hear how He’s our Overlord and Master and Sovereign. But like all hard substances, it makes a jolly good foundation.

You don’t build a house on soft clay and expect it to bear up as if it’s on rock. All of the piers and piles and digging down and moisture conditioning that we do in the construction industry are designed to mitigate the negative effects of unstable soils, particularly, here in North Texas, clays. It makes me wonder how many of our discipleship programs and conferences and special events are the same sort of thing: stuff designed to mitigate the effects of our self-centred Gospel because we haven’t been building on the bedrock of Jesus’ right to tell us what to do.

In my Mediæval planetary symbolic scheme, Fealty is associated with Jupiter, the kingly planet. The association is obvious, but the ancient conception of Jupiter was not only solemn majesty and kingly power, but also joy. Gustav Holst, in his The Planets suite, made Jupiter “the Bringer of Jollity”; this is pure Mediævalism in a good way, and exactly the way the most important planet was viewed.

Joy in allegiance?

Absolutely. Certainly there’s a joy in it. A patriot doesn’t feel that their country is a burden, nor that its demands are unreasonable. Following Jesus is joy and peace. He makes demands of us, but we know that, unlike our countries that are governed by fallible people and can even get it horribly wrong at times, God is absolutely good and really does have our best interests at heart, and unlike us, He’s omniscient, so He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

Loyalty is the other half of Fealty, and where it begins to overlap with the chivalric virtue of Faith. Sticking by your friends. Staying true. Keeping faith, in the Mediæval sense. Not abandoning an allegiance given just because it’s becoming less comfortable.

Allegiance and loyalty.

Like the knights of old, we can choose whom we give personal allegiance to. The oath of fealty was a special vow of allegiance that went beyond the normal requirements of hierarchical position: you pledged your life, your honour and your sword to the service of your liege lord. It was a deeply personal thing that goes way beyond some of our modern understanding of the giving of allegiance – witness the American oath of citizenship in which one renounces “all other allegiances” and the non-enforcement of that by the US government.

To my mind, “Liege Lord” encompasses things about our right relationship with God that simply cannot be expressed in the romantic “Lover” image we seem so fond of at the moment. As I’ve said before, choosing to follow Christ isn’t so much falling in love as pledging fealty.

I may be weirdly anachronistic in my approach, but this is the way I feel. I pledge my life, honour and sword – all that I am, all that I have and all that I do – to Him, knowing He’s good and that He loves me.

There’s an old patriotic hymn that seems appropriate here. Its music, aptly enough, is taken from Holst’s Jupiter, and though it’s seldom sung any more, with my Mediæval mindset, of course it’s one I have a deep attachment to.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price

The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice

And there’s another Country I’ve heard of long ago

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering

And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Parts of it may be questionable in our modern times. “The love that asks no questions” sounds eerily like the “just following orders” mentality of every Secret Police we’ve ever heard about. Combine it with our “freedom-loving” rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” attitude and we’re looking at an uphill struggle to understand.

Fealty does not absolve you of the demands of conscience. What it does is negate the demands of comfort. There may be good reasons to abandon your loyalty to a cause or a person, but there’s a world of difference between abandoning your loyalty for just cause and abandoning your loyalty just because (And different people will view what constitutes “just cause” differently).

Fealty, after all, goes both ways. The one who pledges fealty makes claims on the one to whom they pledge just as surely as the other way around. Lord Steward Denethor’s response to Pippin’s oath of fealty in The Lord of the Rings is instructive: “And I see it, and will not fail to reward what is offered: service with love, fealty with honour, oathbreaking with vengeance.”

After the fact, Gandalf is a little more cautious. “It was nobly done, whatever put it into your fool head… Still, you are his, now, and he will not forget it.”

This is fealty in its essence. Applied to God, we are His now, and He will not forget it.

Let us not forget just Whose we are.

Shield-Maidens

 

The knightly code of chivalry never has been just for the boys.

Chivalric lore is full of examples of the “damsel in distress”, whose sole purpose is to provide someone for the knight to rescue. The phrase has come down to us to refer to a woman so incapable of effecting her own deliverance that the only hope for her was the chivalrous male rescuer.

The Mediæval reality was somewhat different. Blood was more important than gender, and a noblewoman was still noble; thus, expected to take a lead role in the absence of her husband. Up to and including the defence of his castle and holding off a besieging army. She would see to the provisioning of her men-at-arms, conduct the financial affairs of her demenses, sit in judgment over the affairs of the estate, and at need, be warrior enough to hold an army at bay. The damsel in distress is largely a creation of poets rather than history, and some, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, had quite a military reputation in their own right.

Examples of warrior women have been known throughout recorded history. Boudicca of the Iceni. Tomyris the Scythian. Semiramis of Babylon. While some of these women were from cultures that allowed women to fight alongside the men (the Scythians), others were from far more patriarchal societies, in which a warrior woman was an oxymoron. Indeed, the shock of the patriarchal Greeks at seeing Scythian women fight is part of what gave the Scythians such a bad reputation as unremittingly savage (and incidentally, probably gave rise to the legend of the Amazons).

The real Amazons: Scythian warrior women

“Amazon” is, in fact, how we often think of such women. The word in Greek is literally “Without Breasts”; acccording to one version of the legend they would cut off their own breasts so that the extra flesh would not get in the way of drawing a bow-string. Metaphorically, the word describes a masculine woman, a woman who sacrifices femininity for the field of battle and competence thereon. In this mould are both Eowyn’s disguising herself as the knight Dernhelm in The Return of the King, and Joan of Arc’s cutting of hair and abandonment of women’s clothing. To all intents and purposes she became manly in order to fight.

Perhaps also in this mould, though certainly less fully, is Queen Elizabeth I’s famous speech to her troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada. The whole thing is excellent, but only a single line at the beginning concerns us directly: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too!”

Given that she was the blood daughter of King Henry VIII, who could be accused of many things, though never gutlessness, this is a firm claim to the strength of her mighty sire. To paraphrase what Shakespeare’s French king Charles VI said of Henry V: “she is a stem of that victorious stock”.

“The heart and stomach of a King”

Her contrast of “a weak and feeble woman” with “the heart and stomach of a King” is rhetoric playing on the popular views of the age more than the taking on of a kind of inner masculinity; she is known to have delighted in jewellery and clothing and typically feminine arts as well as having the strength of character to put heart and fire in her subjects on the eve of what might have been an invasion.

She’s actually more of an example of the other kind of woman warrior: the kind that can fight alongside a man without losing any of her femininity. In modern parlance, perhaps the femme fatale: the woman who’s just as good as a man when it comes to fighting.

The Vikings called them “shieldmaidens”, and they are the female counterparts of the knights.

Actual attested shieldmaidens of the Viking era are very few, if any, but in legend their names live on: Guinevere, who in some Arthurian legends came riding out to rescue the young King Arthur in his first battle. Maid Marian in the Robin Hood tales was of that mould, too.

And perhaps Deborah the judge, from the Bible.

An artist’s impression of Deborah that manages to make her not look wimpy.

This may be something of a stretch, given that she doesn’t actually personally lead the troops, but she certainly functions in the military role of commander-in-chief. She could not do otherwise; the role of judge in those days combined civil-judicial authority with military leadership (and spiritual leadership: the judges were selected by direct Divine mandate, and besides, Deborah was a prophetess). She summons Barak, and, seasoned warrior that he is, he has enough sense of a chain of command to obey her summons. She even tells him when to attack.

Yet she does all of this without sacrificing femininity.

She’s described as “the wife of Lappidoth”, so she’s obviously, in an intensely patriarchal society, feminine enough that she could attract and keep a husband’s affections.

I often wonder about what sort of man was this Lappidoth. What sort of man does it take to refuse to bow to your own culture’s expectations and be the husband of the woman that God has chosen to lead the nation and command the army?

Was he a weak mama’s boy, as some have characterised Barak? Was he the über-strong manly man that Southern American culture seems to suggest a strong woman “needs” to keep her in line?

Or was he just not threatened by his wife’s power?

Most telling to me is the prophetic victory song penned by Deborah and Barak after the battle. Lauding both Deborah and Jael in strongly military terms as among the human architects of the Lord’s victory, it nevertheless contains the following line:

“Warriors ceased in Israel until I, Deborah, arose/ arose a mother in Israel” (Jdg 5:7 NIV footnote).

Not “arose a commander”. Not “arose a warrior”. Not even “arose a prophet”. “Arose a mother”. Her characterisation of herself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is not in the culturally masculine roles of warrior and judge, but in the universally feminine role of mother.

This, however, is a mother who goes to war. Strong in both character and faith, she’s used of God as powerfully and definitely as Samuel in Saul’s fight against the Philistines.

Barak’s often been portrayed in our sermon illustrations as a weakling mama’s boy; a coward who wouldn’t go up to the fight unless Deborah was there to hold his hand.

Personally, I think this does a disservice both to Deborah and to the tribe of Naphtali’s only Biblical hero, and may be minimising the den of vipers that Deborah was asking him to stick his hand into.

This was the chariot age. Chariots had been around for at least a millennium, ever since the Sumerians loaded troops into donkey carts to give them a bit more battlefield mobility. During that time, the chariot had developed from a clunky, heavy, slow four-wheeled cart pulled by donkeys to a fast, manœuvrable battle platform on two wheels, pulled by larger and swifter horses. It would contain two or three people: a driver and one or two warriors, all wearing heavy armour and carrying bows or long spears as well as close-range weapons. Armies were ranked according to how many chariots you could muster. If you didn’t have any chariots, your army basically didn’t count.

By contrast, the foot soldier of the day was extremely lightly equipped. Maybe he’d have a helmet, if he was particularly wealthy. Possibly even a small circular bronze breast plate a bit bigger than a saucer. Armed with bronze-tipped spear, bow and arrows or sling and stones, only the wealthy would have swords. Bronze was expensive.

They wouldn’t even have had personal shields. The shields they had were massive free-standing figure-of-eight-shaped things taller than a man, toted by a muscular servant or retainer who walked in front. When the Bible later talks about Goliath advancing on David “with his armour-bearer in front”, it is undoubtedly referring to this guy.

They provided reasonable protection, but you had to stay behind them. A fast-moving force of chariots could slip around the ends of your shield wall and shoot arrows into your mass of men faster than you could reposition the shields to block them, and that’s without the intimidation factor of a mass of armoured charioteers bearing down on you at high speed.

It was no wonder that it was considered that sending any amount of infantry out into battle against chariots was an act of either desperation or suicide.

Barak obeys the prophetess’ summons, showing a willingness to obey the Lord’s leading. Even if that leading came through the culturally unlikely vessel of a woman; many men of his day in that part of the world would not have responded to a summons from a woman at all.

Deborah tells his to take 10,000 men from Zebulun and Naphtali and go and attack Sisera with this 900-chariot army. Even at better than 100:1 odds, this is still suicide, for the reasons listed above. In normal circumstances, the foot soldiers of the time simply could not hope to match chariots on the field; in that sense, chariots were rather like the nuclear weapons of their day. If you didn’t have them, you couldn’t hope to successfully fight a conventional war against anyone who did.

Barak isn’t resistant to obeying the voice of the Lord, but then as now, there were many who claimed to speak for God. Deborah offers no sign; Barak knows her only by reputation. How is he to know whether this is in fact the word of the Lord or merely the word of Deborah?

Asking Deborah to come with him seems pretty reasonable, under the circumstances. Less “come and hold my hand, I’m afraid” and more “Do you believe this is of God enough to put your own life on the line and come with me?”

Deborah, true to her Divinely-ordained leadership, rises to the challenge, leading with an example of faith that resonates triumphantly to this day. She comes with him. “But,” she says, “on this expedition the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” (Jdg 4:9 NIV footnote). Many generals of the ancient world were all about military victory and their own glory therein. There’s no way one of these would be ok with sharing “his” glory with anyone, let alone a woman. Barak, by contrast, seems more about actually getting the job done. He knows it’s not his glory to begin with. Let God honour whom He will for the victory that He gives.

It seems clear from details supplied in Judges 5 that what happened was that God caused heavy rains that turned the low-lying plains, normally ground where chariots were so dominant, into a field of mud. The chariots’ wheels got stuck, and Barak was able to lead the Israelite army down from the heights to win the victory over the previously-invincible 900-chariot army.

Sisera, the commander, flees on foot to the tents of Heber the Kenite, one of Moses’ brother-in-law’s people. The Kenites were non-Israelites living for the most part among Israel, as they had done since the wilderness, but we are told that there were friendly relations between Heber and Sisera’s Canaanite king Jabin.

Apparently Heber is not at home, and Sisera is met by Jael, who is Heber’s wife and one of my favourite bit-part Bible characters. She’s been shamefully treated by many of our Bible commentaries, which wax lyrical about her “cruel assassination” of Jabin or her “heinous betrayal” of the sacred ancient customs of hospitality. Some day I may even write my own, so that there can be at least one voice in her defence.

She evidently recognises who Sisera is; apparently the “friendly relations” between her husband and Jabin are close enough that she can recognise Jabin’s army commander on sight. Sisera is a non-Semitic name; perhaps even in Jabin’s service he was still recogniseably not a Canaanite. She can see that he’s on foot and alone. Evidently something has gone disastrously wrong for the Canaanite forces.

Jael is faced with a choice. If she tried to hide, she would have to hide all of her people – children and servants – as well, otherwise their lives would be in danger. Anyway, she’s the wife; they are her responsibility in the absence of her husband. If she or any of her people were discovered, as they undoubtedly would be as Sisera searched the camp, their lives would probably be forfeit. Sisera is a Bronze Age general; such men were not selected for their gentleness.

If the Israelites were to come along and discover Sisera, as they undoubtedly would unless he hid specifically in Jael’s tent – searching his wife’s tent would be a mortal insult to Heber – then she would probably lose her life along with all of her people. Victorious armies don’t tend to take kindly to people harbouring fugitive enemy commanders.

On the other hand, if her husband were to return and find Sisera alive, and in her tent, He would naturally assume that she was being unfaithful to him and according to the culture of the day would kill her himself.

Under the circumstances, she does what is in her power to do in order to save her people. And it seems she does not share her husband’s compromising position toward the Canaanite king. The Bible never makes the mistake that most ancient patriarchies made in assuming that women had no opinions of their own. Culturally, they may have been expected to follow their husband’s lead and keep their mouth shut, but time and again we see women in Scripture being portrayed as having their own ideas and opinions: Sarah, Miriam and Abigail are just a few of the others; Jael fits right into this mould.

She invites him in to her tent. Sisera would have to be an idiot not to realise that this was her tent, nor the corollary that this was undoubtedly his safest refuge. In he goes. But rather than being a good guest, he starts asking for water.

I’ve been in a culture with enough similarities in its approach to hospitality to recognise what an insult this is. The Central Asian people I worked among for several years had a saying that “a guest is more humble than a sheep”: you go where your host directs, you eat and drink what they set before you. Another proverb states “it is better to hit than to ask”. The thought is not that smacking your host around is a good thing, but that your host will be automatically bringing out the best of everything to serve you. That’s what hosts do. To ask for something is to suggest that they aren’t doing their job as host, and they take hospitality very seriously.

She gives him, not water but cream, in an ornate bowl as befits his rank, and Sisera tells her to lie for him (again, this is a dreadful insult to the honour of your host) and falls asleep.

Is anyone else noticing what’s going on here? The whole picture is reminiscent of a little boy with his mother. She tells him to come inside, and in he comes. She even gives him milk to drink. Sisera tells her, in effect, “if anyone comes looking for me, I’m not here”. Then she tucks him into bed and he falls asleep.

Then she does the deed she’s famous for, the one that has so many Christian commentators howling for her blood. She picks up the mallet and tent peg and nails him to the ground through the skull.

Yes, it’s pretty bloodthirsty. This was the Bronze Age. People regularly killed their own food. Let’s not read onto it our modern squeamishness.

Yes, it’s a deed of stealth, an assassination. So was Ehud’s killing of the enormously fat King Eglon of Moab.

Yes, she seems to lie to him. But both Ehud and the Hebrew midwives appear to be just as economical with the truth, and to do so with God’s apparent blessing.

This is a thorny issue and one we don’t like as Christians. It doesn’t fit neatly into our black and white categories. I could take a whole blog post just looking at the Biblical evidence, but there does appear to be room in the Biblical accounts for a sort of “necessary deceptiveness” when people’s lives are at stake.

But a lot of the Christian commentators seem to hate her for it.

And the Bible’s verdict?

“Most blessed of women be Jael! Most blessed of those who live in tents!” (Jdg 5:24)

Incidentally, there’s only one other woman to whom the “most blessed of women” accolade is given: Mary the mother of Christ.

Popular Protestant portrayal of Mary is as anything but a shieldmaiden. She’s a woman of faith, yes, but we tend to paint her as a good little submissive: demure and gentle and barely having a will of her own. I’d like to suggest that maybe this might not be quite right.

It may be an unreasonable step to re-image her in the mould of Jael, tentpeg and all, but we might do well to hear “let it be to me according to Your word” not as the saying of a weak-willed submissive but as the gutsy faith of one determined to obey the Lord, no matter the cost.

Perhaps she’s not a shieldmaiden precisely (though in the armour of God passage in Ephesians 6 faith is pictured as a shield), but she’s certainly a woman of valour.

 

Courage (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of the Chivalric Virtues series. For the series introduction, go here


And at length we come to the virtue of Courage, the virtue I intended to examine first when I started this series. Perhaps the paramount virtue of knighthood and the one most readily associated with masculinity, it’s symbolised in my Mediæval planetary scheme by Mars, of course. As I seem to be following the Mediæval Ptolemaic planetary order from lowest to highest, it comes fifth in order.

Courage is readily associated with battle and conflict (thus its association with Mars), and we are quick to recognise the quality of virtue of the soldier who puts themselves in harm’s way on behalf of their nation. Valour in arms is only one type of courage, however, and though it exemplifies much of this hard virtue, it is not the totality of it.

Valour in arms is largely physical courage: the courage to face physical danger. Other sorts of courage have a more moral nature: the courage to take an unpopular stand for what’s right. Indeed, in British politics a decision that will be unpopular enough to lose you an election is euphemistically referred to as a “courageous” one. The courage to face an unpalatable truth rather than seeking refuge in a pleasant lie. The courage to open up and be vulnerable rather than erecting walls up to the sky.

Courage is not fearlessness. Though we sometimes get that idea, true courage is acceptance of the risk, because either the cause or the gain is worthwhile.

A large part of courage is risk. Courage is a virtue that isn’t on display a lot until it’s needed. But in a time of danger or risk, it’s the person of courage who rises to the challenge. They may be shaking in their boots, but the mark of true courage is not fearlessness but acting rightly despite felt fear.

Courage doesn’t have to prove anything. If you’re feeling a need to prove how brave or how fearless you are, what you’re dealing with is bravado, not courage.

Bravado is the sort of false courage that takes stupid risks for no good reason. Bravado makes a big show of fearlessness, but when it comes to the crunch they’ll bow to social pressure. It always has something to prove, always has a need to go one better. Bravado will not only jump the shark, but do a triple backflip.

Courage doesn’t need to show off. Mars’ metal iron isn’t something you normally employ for decorative purposes the way you would gold or silver. But iron has a strength and hardness to it that gold and silver lack utterly.

Fascinatingly, Mars’ Greek counterpart Ares was portrayed as a coward. In some ways it seems almost absurd to make one’s war god cowardly, but sich were the ancient Greeks. Perhaps it’s a reminder that what we often consider the forge for the development of courage – the field of battle – can sometimes produce not a courageous warrior but a swaggering bully.

The field of battle favours the physically strong, but physical strength and skill are not courage. Courage may supply the will and fortitude to gain the strength and skill in arms, but courage is first and foremost a moral quality. Our English word is derived from the Old French corage, itself related to the Latin word cor, meaning “heart”. Courage, then, is a quality of heart, not of flesh. It’s ultimately sacrificial; putting itself in harm’s way for a cause, a loved one, a belief. It’s no accident that in Dante’s cosmos the Heaven of Mars was the sphere of martyrs.

We may need to step back here and define what we mean by “martyrdom”. The word’s got a bit of a bad reputation through the actions of Islamic “martyrs” who are willing to blow themselves up in order to take those they consider their enemies with them. Christian martyrdom will have none of that. The bright company of Christian martyrs are those who have courageously faced persecution and death. Who have preached the Good News about Jesus Christ in the face of hardship and sword. Who have been imprisoned, tortured and executed because they will not give up their faith, who go to meet their Saviour with a song of praise on their lips.

All that they have in common with Islamic “martyrs” is a willingness to die if necessary.

It requires a whole different level of courage to look into the eyes of a persecutor and refuse to deny Jesus, knowing that they will kill you unless you do, than to march to the battle line with weapons in hand and enter the firefight. This is not to minimise the courage of those who do, but to say that sometimes there’s no glory in courage. Just doing the hard thing that’s needed.

In the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, there was an exchange in which one of the characters quotes from the Scripture: “‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his brother’. Not for glory. Not for armies, not for empires. For one person. In the dark, where no-one will see.”

This is the essence of true courage, and how we distinguish it from bravado. What do you do in the dark, where no-one can see.

It’s one thing to do the right thing where everyone can see you and heap praise on you for your actions. It’s quite another to make a stand all alone in the night. In that circumstance, when it all comes down to your own choice, is when you find out what’s really in your heart.

Fear, I suspect, for most of us, even with the Biblical command to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous…”

Great. Now I’m still terrified and I feel guilty about it.

But that’s not the point. God is the One who spoke the universe into being. He’s the One who commanded Peter to walk on the water. His commands carry with them the ability to obey. Think about it. He said to the light “Be”, and it was. Is it really too much to believe that at His “Be strong and courageous”, that strength and courage were birthed into the heart of Joshua?

This is how it works. If we trust Him, and do what’s right, He supplies what we need. Even courage.

Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.


Probably the one of the knight Roland’s chivalric vows (from the Mediæval Song of Roland) that intrigues me the most is the vow “to despise pecuniary reward”.

This fairly closely matches my own attitude, but it’s scarcely a common one, particularly in our modern business- and entrepreneurship-worshipping culture.

The idea of payment is central to our Western democratic Capitalism: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The wealth of nations. The law of supply and demand. Entrepreneurship – the idea that you can start a new business and make good money doing it, and that that is always and only a good thing – is deeply embedded in American culture.

And it’s alien to me.

Not because of some transatlantic difference, but because of me. I’m what I describe as an “economics atheist” – I don’t believe in the worship of money. Not only that, but I mistrust and do not like the avaricious impulse that seems to be at the heart of it all.

When I was in Central Asia, my first language teacher gave me the local name Zhomart. Names in the local culture are almost as significant as they are in the Bible, and most of the time, when the locals rename a foreigner the name is very apt. The literal meaning of Zhomart is “generous”, and for a long time I puzzled over why this would be deemed so apt. My best friend (whose local name translated to “wing” and carried the connotation of support) excelled much more than I in the grace of giving. We joked a few times that we needed to switch names – he was the generous one, and I… Well, I wing it.

Looking at the Mediæval idea of largesse, however, and in particular the knight Roland’s peculiar vow, I’m struck by how very appropriate the name is. I don’t really care about making money. As long as I have enough, and so far I do, I’m really not that concerned with getting more.

This is perhaps not quite the true thrust of the vow, but the attitude of opposition to Mammon and holding worldly wealth lightly is certainly allied. The idea of despising pecuniary reward means not doing things with the idea of getting paid. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you’re going to get something out of it. The distinction being drawn is between the knight and the mercenary.

The knight is supposed to fight for what’s right. The mercenary will fight for whoever pays them.

The knight is concerned with honour. The mercenary is concerned with payment.

The knight fights for the welfare of all. The mercenary fights for the welfare of self.

The knight wants to serve. The mercenary wants to get rich.

The mercenary impulse seems overwhelmingly common in this day and age. The stock market dominates all. Buying and selling of goods, services, time and information transcend national boundaries and make the world what it is.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for what you do, but the Kingdom of God (and the knightly code, too) operates on a higher level than buying and selling.

The generous attitude of largesse stands opposed to the avaricious and mercenary impulses. Star Trek’s Ferengi, with their “Rules of Acquisition”, sum up the mercenary impulse; the First Rule is “once you have their money, you never give it back”.

Frankly, I find Klingons easier to understand. The whole business of acquisitiveness seems somehow… sordid. My view of money is more that it’s a necessary evil than that it’s a good thing in itself.

It’s a very knightly attitude, but I’m unlikely to ever get rich.

I’m fully aware that my attitude is fairly extreme, and probably unrealistic on a large scale, but I do think we could all do with a bit more largesse.

What would the world look like if corporations were a little more concerned with doing the right thing than doing the profitable thing? What would it be like if we could stop being afraid of not having enough? What would happen if we learned contentment when we have enough rather than a continual desire for more?

Largesse, simply defined, is open-handedness. It resists the thinking of the modern corporate world that “money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing”. There’s nothing wrong with having money, or getting paid. But money is a terrible master even if you have it, and it’s one of the few things that can get a hold of you without you getting a hold of it.

Even on the left side of the political spectrum, we often act as though money is everything. What is the redistribution of wealth but an attempt to use money to fix all our problems? I find it instructive that the one false god we never put a name to is the only one that Jesus named: Mammon. Mammon is the opposite of largesse; the idea that “money is the only thing” or that “only money can make things happen” or that “only money can help”. Trust in the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty God.

Largesse is generosity, the cure for covetousness and avarice and the cause of thankfulness. Holding wealth lightly, able to give where needed, and not seeking payment as an end in itself.

Payment, of course comes in multiple forms, and coin is not the only currency there is. The mercenary impulse also manifests in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mindset that can result in false expectations or a reciprocal rather than generous outlook.

In our teaching on husbands and wives, we’re often told that “men need respect, women need love”.  Like, men don’t also need love, and women don’t also need respect?  Or the idea that “men give love for sex, and women give sex for love”. The idea often comes across, even in Christian teachings, that when a husband does something nice for his wife, like helping with the housework or buying her flowers or something, that she’s supposed to reciprocate in the bedroom.  (If I hadn’t heard it myself, I’d think this was a straw man argument, but…)

While it’s true that no wife is going to feel interested in sex on a Saturday night if you’ve been being a jerk to her all week, the reciprocity at the heart of this idea bothers me.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I think it’s in danger of turning our wives into whores. If we have an expectation that they will do something nice for us in the bedroom if we do something nice for us around the house, how is that not sex for payment?

Man up, guys. You signed on to an equal partnership when you got married, and part of that is doing your share. Caring for your wife. Doing nice things for her because you love her, not for some kind of payment. Giving her the respect she deserves (Proverbs 31:31). Largesse in the marriage relationship.  Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s part of being a man by the code of chivalric virtues.

Historically, the Mediæval planet Sol, the sun, was associated with largesse and liberality. Solar deities were often associated with dragon-slaying, and in the Western tradition dragons hoarded gold and gems. If dragons personify Mammon and greed, the dragon-slaying Sol is appropriate for the opposition to Mammon characterised by the virtue of largesse. Let us, like the sun, not hold onto our “light” but shed it abroad, freely giving as we have freely received.

Arms and the Man

 

Looking at the chivalric virtues, it occurs to me that there may be a disconnect between my love of the ideals of knighthood and my mistrust of the right to bear arms.

My country doesn’t recognise the possession of weapons as a fundamental right, and is largely a gunless society. This shapes my understanding of What Ought To Be in ways that most Americans would find bizarre, even unnatural. Even the police don’t carry guns as a matter of course, and never have. The arming of the police would change forever the nature of British policing, and for the most part they lead the charge in resisting any efforts to make that change.

But at the same time, the knight was first and foremost an armed man.

It’s easy to romanticise the sword and the lance, but they were weapons just like guns, if not worse. Most of the time, a well-aimed bullet will kill cleanly. Swords were made to dismember.

Chivalry was a warrior code, designed, at least in theory, as a constraint on the behaviour of the armed and the strong, with social benefit to following it and social sanction against those who did not. It was, in effect, a formalised expression of “This is what a good man looks like”. But it assumes the bearing of arms. That’s part of what makes a knight. The Mediævals would have understood the right to bear arms as being the grant of a coat of arms and its associated status, but the language makes it clear that this is for a military purpose necessitating and assuming weapons.

Can you update the ideals of chivalry without the inherent idea of the possession and use of weapons? Does the nature of modern weaponry law and law enforcement mean that new standards need to be brought into play?

In short, can I reconcile the armed factor in Mediæval knighthood with my personal distaste for and mistrust of firearms and their partisans?

The answer may well be both yes and no.

Nothing in my version of the chivalric virtues mandates the bearing of arms, but I have to admit here that this is my list of seven virtues: Faith, Courtesy, Mercy, Largesse, Courage, Fealty, Humility. It’s entirely possible I have unconsciously selected or interpreted in a way which minimises their armed nature and justifies my non-armed stance.

Guns are the weapon of the modern age, as swords were back then. Borrowing from the parallel Japanese code of Bushido, you weren’t supposed to put your sword away unblooded.

In more modern terms, you don’t draw unless you intend to shoot, and you don’t shoot unless you intend to kill.

My personal difficulty with the idea of bearing arms in the modern sense is that I don’t want to kill anyone, and I’m not sure that I have much if any right to as a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. There may be times and situations in which killing someone is the least worst option, but I’d just as soon remain unarmed and avoid the temptation, and the issue. Why make it as easy as crooking a finger to do something as permanent as killing?

With this mindset, I personally have no business carrying a gun. Or any other weapon, even the sword that I’d love to own.

Chivalry is a good code for an armed man to follow, but we’ve lost a lot of the social advantages in terms of reputation for those who do, and a lot of the social sanction against those who do not. Even in the Middle Ages, nothing forced you to follow the code, and there were enough who didn’t. Cowards in armour, bullies with a “Sir” in front of their name, merciless Black Knights and men of deceit with the spurs of knightly rank.

There is, in many ways, even less incentive today. There’s little kudos for being chivalrous, and little sanction for not being. Times have changed, and I have to hesitate to draw a parallel between the armed knight of story and the armed citizen of American right-wing politics.

Whereas you generally knew who a knight was by their surcoat and shield, today’s armed man can disappear into the crowd. The open, above-board ideal of the chivalric knight goes well in some ways with the idea of open carry. They can see your weapons from the outset; you’re not trying to hide anything. It’s a gesture of integrity.

The trouble is, it’s also a gesture of intimidation. We have comparatively huge and faceless populations, and no-one knows either you or your family, even by reputation. So if no-one knows who you are, how do they know if you’re one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? When the knights and the raiders look exactly alike, how do you tell who is who?

We don’t have enough of the trappings of the chivalrous age for me to be comfortable with bearing arms in the American sense. The American gun lobby resists any attempt to create a registry of gun ownership, fearing that it could be used by the government to disarm the people, so no-one really knows who is armed.

Contrast the age of knighthood, when heraldry, the art of knowing who was who and who had a right to call themselves who meant that those who were knights were in effect registered and known. It’s a rather more public act to carry a weapon in your own name and authority as a known public figure than as one of a faceless and nameless crowd.

If there were some way of visually distinguishing who was who, and small enough numbers of “knights” that you could tell at a glance who it was and what their reputation was like, it would be one thing.

But the good guys don’t wear white hats. Armed men do not, for the most part, advertise who they are. Except for the police and uniformed military. These might be our modern knights, in that sense.

Knights were, after all, men with authority as well as arms, certain responsibilities and rights including the enforcement of the King’s Law and maintenance of the King’s Peace.

Is there a place in the chivalric world for unregistered men-at-arms owing allegiance to no-one? Maybe not. We will touch on this again when we look at the virtue of fealty.

But what of unarmed chivalry?

As I said, nothing in the seven virtues necessitates the bearing of arms. Faith-Integrity is about the character of a person, not whether they happen to have a gun. Courtesy is highly desirable in an armed society, but the bearing of arms does not create courtesy by itself. Mercy, including fighting for the cause of the weak and defenceless, doesn’t necessarily have to always mean an armed struggle, though Right without Might in its service may be in danger of being overpowered by the ruthless. And the other virtues, too, are about one’s character, not one’s weaponed status. It’s the mindset of a knight, not necessarily the weapons and armour, that make the man.

For centuries, knights in full plate armour dominated the battlefield, but at Crècy and Agincourt the flower of chivalry fell to a handful of English longbowmen. What happened? Was it all truly the technological superiority of the longbow, or had the armed knights begun to trust more in their armour and weapons and knightly status than in their actual skill?

Chivalry is an attitude of the soul. It comes from within, by training, upbringing and personal choice, rather than from without, via the picking up of weapons or the donning of armour, or the imposition of an external standard of behaviour. Unless you own it, you will be a pretender. Anyone can wear the armour, but it’s what’s in your heart that makes you a knight.

In former times, this was expressed in the idea of inherently good or bad blood. Nobility was considered a birthright. We don’t need to incorporate this idea into any modern code of chivalry, but we might use it as metaphor for the idea that it’s the inside that counts.

My apologies for a somewhat rambling post, but I don’t have as much time as I would like to be able to tweak it into shape.

 

Mercy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.


The qualities of courtesy and mercy go together. The idea of courtesy can also be expressed as graciousness, being full of grace, and grace and mercy together are the two primary character attributes of God.

I am, however, for the purposes of this series unifying the virtues of justice and mercy, which is a little less immediately obvious.

I’ve blogged before on the subject of justice and mercy, and much of what I’ve already said is also applicable here. However, this series comes at the subject from a slightly different angle, so it may be worth reiterating.

As a knightly virtue, what is mercy? And what is justice? The chivalric vows of the Song of Roland include vows “to fight for the welfare of all”, “to give succour to widows and orphans”, “to protect the weak and defenceless” and “to eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit”. All of these vows could realistically be viewed through a lens of either mercy or justice; in practical terms, the chivalric outworking of mercy and justice is identical.

In short, showing mercy means fighting for justice. In the situation of an offence, compassion for both victim and perpetrator means we want to see justice done. Justice, not revenge: vengeance is not ours to grasp, but rests with the Lord as the ultimate Sovereign and the only One with all of the facts. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a step forward in terms of justice, setting forth the idea of punitive balance and limiting the sentence to the equivalence of the crime. Even today, we look at some sentences and decry them as unreasonably harsh.

But at the same time, showing mercy for a victim means fighting for justice for them. Protecting the weak and defenceless; those who cannot protect themselves.

In chivalric terms, justice and mercy run together as the constraint on our strength. Might is to be used in the service of Right, whether our “might” is literal physical strength or economic muscle or popularity and persuasiveness or positional authority.

This is what separates the knight from the bully. Bullies use their strength in no-one’s service but their own, to cow, terrorise and dominate. We can see the bullies in all walks of life – physical bullies, emotional bullies, economic bullies, political bullies, authoritarians and petty despots…

Fighting against these doesn’t always involve fists. In fact, in most cases that’s the least desirable option. But mercy requires that unrighteousness be opposed.

This is how God can be a God of love and a God of wrath. Evil really is evil, and mercy means doing what is in your power to end the suffering it causes.

In Divine terms, making a final end of evil will be so final that only righteousness will endure. And we none of us measure up to that absolute standard. In the wisdom of God, there’s a way through the apparently irreconcilable imperatives of love for humanity and anger against the hurt caused by evil. We can be brought to the side of righteousness.

Mercy and justice both are the outworking of love and compassion. Seeing a need (widows and orphans, the weak and defenceless) and taking steps to do something about it. Standing up for those who cannot do so. Doing good to those that need it.

Legend has a name for those warriors who embody all of the knightly qualities but this one: the Black Knight. Of dauntless courage, courteous, loyal to his liege and even possessed of a towering integrity, the Black Knight is nonetheless black-hearted and evil, a symbol of warrior virtue gone wrong, because they have no mercy in them and are contemptuous of weakness. Let us not go there, but rather, use the symbol of the Black Knight as a lesson in the importance of this virtue. Because anyone can be brave, but it takes a truly strong person to show mercy.

In the planetary terms of my Mediæval cosmological symbol scheme, Mercy is of course associated with Venus. In the planetary symbology of the Middle Ages, Venus and Mars stood for the feminine and masculine archetypes. A legacy of this is the use of the planetary symbols of those planets to represent male and female in biological texts. Indeed, that association has become the norm, and many have probably forgotten their origins as planetary symbols.

Interestingly, though, we as Christians often seem to want to feminise mercy. Spiritual gift inventories are particularly prone to this in my experience, which can often leave men who score highly in mercy feeling somewhat uncertain or disappointed.

Mercy need not be entirely feminine, however, any more than courage need be entirely masculine. The Scripture is full of both courageous women and merciful men.

We shouldn’t be in the situation where we have to rescue the manly qualities of mercy or detail what a masculine mercy looks like, but somehow we appear to be there anyway. For the record; nowhere does the Scripture indicate that any of the spiritual gifts are segregated by gender, least of all mercy. Perhaps we could do with letting go of our Christian cultural gender expectations a little and not trying to second-guess the Almighty Giver of Gifts in what He is doing.

If this post can broaden a few minds as to what mercy might look like, then my job here is done.