The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

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Bloody Christmas: Holy Innocents

Part of the Christmas story we often gloss over, the story of Herod the Great’s butchery of children doesn’t sit well with our sanitised Nativities, much less our seasonal good cheer and feasting.

This is not something the kids will portray in church or school Nativity plays. It isn’t cute. It isn’t heartwarming. It isn’t even nice. It’s horrible.

With my personal focus this year on the hidden, inverse nature of the Good Story, though, it seems a timely reminder of what sometimes happens when human ideas of greatness meet God’s.

The Magi’s well-meaning attempt to find the One whose birth the star heralded in Herod’s court was the point of contact between the visible, public realm of the rich and powerful and the hidden, silent space of that which truly matters most. When the focus of the world was on the movers and shakers of the Empire and Judea – Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius, Herod the Great – on palaces like the Herodion, Jesus is born to a poor family at the bottom of the social ladder, in a backwater town in a conquered province.

Even the Magi got this part wrong. They were phenomenally well-informed otherwise, especially considering that they were almost certainly pagans – the term “Magi” referred to the astrologer-priests of the dualistic Persian Zoroastrian religion. They saw the star, realised it portended a King of the Jews who was so important in the Divine order that the proper response to His appearing was to worship Him, journeyed to Judea bringing gifts of prophetic significance, and then did the logical thing of going to the place you’d expect to find a King.

Herod the Great has come down to most of us as an evil sadist with a cruel and vindictive nature, largely because of his response to the Magi and their search, and yet history bestowed “the Great” on him. In human terms, he was. A builder of fabulous monuments, it was he who squared off the Temple Mount into its present walled shape, he who built the Herodion palace in the desert and raised up the mountain on which it sits, he who fortified Masada. A king ruling over a conquered province doesn’t get called “the Great” for no reason. In terms of the rulers of the day, he wasn’t even especially cruel. Ruthless, yes, but that is common to almost everyone who has ever risen to wield power.

And yet what we remember him for is the terrible crime of butchering children in order to try and secure his own throne.

In the liturgical calendar, the 28th of December is the commemoration of this terrible event. The feast of the Holy Innocents shows what happens when might meets right; in that it foreshadows the crucifixion and echoes Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys.

As part of the story of what we consider the most joyous and festive time of the year, it strikes a discordant note. Attila the Hun following hard on the heels of Saint Nicholas. Gift-giving-and-massacre.

It makes a sort of sense, though, when you consider that the Christmas Story is really an invasion.

Like the D-Day paratroopers, Jesus drops into a world behind enemy lines, the embodiment of God’s rescue plan to free the world from Satanic oppression. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”. The point of the spear. The vanguard of Heaven’s liberating invasion. And of course, the devil makes his counterattack, with all the violence, pride and ruthlessness that is in him. Human kings ruling without reference to any Divinely-imposed limitations form the phalanx of the true oppressor, the self-aggrandising Herod does what any contemporary regime would have considered the proper thing to safeguard his throne and perpetuate his regime.

“Holy” Innocents might seem to be overstating the case, however. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to attribute any real sense of true holiness to these nameless ones who were the bloody collateral damage of Herod’s ruthless moves against a threat to his power. Innocents, yes, but holy? Maybe a stretch.

Perhaps it’s not as out-of-line as all that, though.

I mentioned earlier that this was an example of what happens when might meets right, when naked power comes up against the holiness of Christ. A foreshadowing of the crucifixion, I said; another time when the might of human empires came down hard on the representatives of righteousness.

As those who are supposed to be the representatives of righteousness today, it’s uncomfortable reading. No-one wants to get squashed underfoot or horribly killed.

But if we’re to be true representatives of Christ, we have to continue to bear witness to the truth no matter what the enemy does. Sometimes we might even get killed. They killed the One we call Lord, after all.

This is what it means to be a martyr. The word literally means “a witness”; someone whose life bears witness to truth and righteousness no matter what the humanly-powerful are doing. We don’t take up the sword of might, we cling to the right no matter what.

In a sense, then, even these poor innocents caught in the crossfire are martyrs. Witnesses of what human greatness does to Divine greatness. Witnesses of the terrible consequences of a power-craving ruler faced with God’s unspoken Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparsin scribed over their reign.

Though it’s Matthew’s Nativity account that shows this event, it’s neither his, nor Luke’s, nor even John’s account from his Gospel that makes sense of it. No, for that you have to look at the Nativity account of the book of Revelation.

The scary, symbolic account of a woman giving birth to a son who will rule the nations, while a dragon waits to devour the child as soon as he is born. Of war in heaven, of the dragon attacking the rest of the woman’s offspring: Jesus’ fellow-sons of the Father.

A Christmas story it’s almost impossible to cutesify, which you’ll never see in a Nativity play, but a Christmas story nonetheless. Might meets right, the right triumphing not by meeting force with force, but by refusing to give up the right. Continuing to love even in the face of hate. Continuing to do what’s right when it would be so much easier to take up the enemy’s weapons.

A bloody Christmas story, yes, but one worth looking at every so often. Christmas is a lot more serious than we sometimes make it.

“And Peter”

“I’m going fishing,” Peter announces.

This isn’t some hobbyist speaking. It’s not the “think I’ll go and drop a line in the water” of someone that fishes for pleasure. It’s a step backwards, away from what Christ had called him to. An admission of failure. I’m no longer fit to be His disciple. I denied Him, not once, but three times. Even if He’s alive, He can’t possibly still want me.

Might as well go back to fishing. It’s all I know. It’s been an interesting three years, but it’s over.

“We’ll come with you”, say the others. Whether this is their own throwing-in of the towel, or a reluctance to let Peter go off by himself at a time like this, or a simple unwillingness to entirely forsake the camaraderie of those three years is anybody’s guess, but go they do.

They fish all night, but catch nothing. Three years is a long time, but Peter’s a grown man. He’s spent how many countless hours upon that lake, man and boy, learning his trade from his father before becoming a fisherman in his own right. That sort of ingrained skill doesn’t evaporate overnight, not even in three years.

Maybe God is against him. After all, he did deny His Son. At any rate, not one solitary fish.

At the close of the night, someone shouts from the beach.

“Friends, haven’t you caught anything?”

It might trigger a twinge of memory, but you put it out of your mind. That life is over. At any rate, it’s not an unusual question.

“Throw your nets on the other side of the boat,” the stranger calls, after the disciples’ negative response.

Now this is familiar territory. But there’s only one way to test it: Do what the stranger says.

What have they got to lose?

At once, their nets are bursting. They can’t hold all the fish.

There’s no doubt at all, and Peter knows it. Jesus is deliberately taking Him right back to the beginning, when he was an outcast fisherman, rejected by all the rabbis as unfit to be a disciple. One of the many whom the teachers of the Law of the Lord had put aside.

Now as then, Jesus breaks through all that. Others may find Peter too hardheaded, too impetuous, too indisciplined. Peter himself may find himself unfit. None of it matters. There’s only One opinion that counts, and it’s borne by the One standing on the beach.

Leaving the others behind in the boat, in his own impetuous way Peter plunges into the water as soon as he can stagger to shore.

When the others join them, Jesus has the grill all ready, with enough fish already cooking that the haul is superfluous. Breakfast is served: fresh fish a la Son of Man.

Some way through the breakfast, Jesus pulls Peter aside. “Do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, I love You,”

“Feed my sheep”.

The question repeats, then repeats again. By the third time, Peter is distinctly uncomfortable.

“Lord, You know all things”. You know how I failed You, how I let You down. You’re proving it right now. But You know that I do love You.

And the threefold declaration comes with a calling, not to be a fisher of men but a shepherd of the flock, and with a promise.

“You know, Peter, that when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted. But when you’re old, someone else will dress you, and stretch out your hands, and lead you where you don’t want to go”. Yes, Peter, your death will be like Mine: hands outstretched. And this time, Peter, you won’t fail. You won’t deny Me; you’ll remain faithful, for My Spirit will be in you.

Christ is risen…