The Church Militant

Archangel_Michael_church_Vienna“The Prince of Peace brings his peace through violence and hatred, shown forth in the sword,” says Michael Voris, a Catholic media producer and apologist, while holding a sword. “Following the babe means violence, division, and hatred.”  Voris clarifies that he’s speaking of spiritual violence, not physical violence, but it should not escape our notice that he’s swinging a weapon (with sound effects) while he says all this. His primary symbol of the spiritual life is an instrument designed to cause harm and death. He speaks also of light casting out darkness, but chooses words that signify brute force: “when light comes into a room, the darkness is abused and driven out by the violence of brilliance.”  Light too is like a sword.

Voris markets himself as a soldier of the light fighting against spiritual, doctrinal, and liturgical corruption in the Church, and he’s developed an following from among those who, like him, believe the Church has been decimated by heresy and modernism. He’s pretty intense. Only a handful of bishops the world over seem to meet with his approval.  He refers to much of the clergy as “emasculated.”  Voris wants a strong warrior God who demands the sword, but he alleges that these clergy want only a weak, cooing baby of a god who makes no demands. He calls his presentation of the Faith “bold and muscular.” The Sr. Executive Producer of ChurchMilitant.TV knows how to pick fights.

Although he’s something of a fringe figure, Voris’ spiritual militancy is not entirely out of step with the history of Christian spirituality.  Anyone who has ever tried to overcome a vice or bad habit knows that this endeavor is hard work.  A struggle, even.  Reason, will, and appetites don’t always get along.  Sometimes desires are at war.  I for one long to be virtuous, but, damn, I do enjoy my vices.  Even when I know they’re not good for me or my relationships with others.  If I want to be good, I can’t let my bad habits win; I must, instead, fight against them and seek to conquer them.  There’s a militant aspect to the moral life.

Traditional Christianity expands this metaphor into a grander narrative, interpreting the conflicts in the human soul as part of a larger battle between God and the Devil, where God freely gives his people the graces they need to overcome their sins and the Devil cleverly tempts souls to evil means and ends, away from God and away from grace.  An old name for the Christian church on earth is the church militant: those still fighting the good fight, hoping to attain heaven and avoid hell.

This metaphor of spiritual warfare has always been a part of the larger narrative of Christianity, but it hasn’t been the whole story.  Christianity has been home to many images of the spiritual life, many of which have little or nothing to do with warfare: the pilgrimage or journey, the relationship of children to a parent or of sheep to a shepherd, the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, the building of love, the detachment from temporal things in favor of eternal things. Being different people coming from different places, Christians tend to emphasize different images in their own spiritual lives.  This is only natural.

Voris, however, does more than emphasize spiritual warfare, its figures and images. For him, it’s the framework by which he interprets and understands all other ways of the spiritual and the religious.  Hateful violence is not a metaphor for some aspects of the spiritual life, but the central theme uniting the entirety of true Christian (i.e., Catholic) spirituality. In his telling, the angels of heaven didn’t sing in praise of the Incarnation because it was itself a joyful and glorious event, but rather because the birth of God announced the Final Battle with the diabolical. He has a place in his story for men beating their swords into plowshares: at the very end, when evil and sin have been defeated.  For Christians in the world as it is now, the peace of Christ “means total war.” He wants the followers of Christ to take up their sword against the world, sin, and evil. Love of God means hatred of these things. “Catholics are born for combat” is the tagline of his apostolate.

Is all this a problem?  It is if you think the spiritual life should be directed towards God.  What Voris is selling isn’t.  The sword is the image of his spiritual life, and the sword is directed not to God, but to the enemy.  That’s what you attack with the sword: your opponent.  God has a place in his spirituality, but not as the object of focus and attention. He envisions God as something like a general on the battlefield and also ultimately as the prize to be won, but in the day-to-day drama of Christian spirituality, which he sees as marked by violence and hatred, God is on the periphery. The focus is, ironically, on the diabolical.  You might say it’s theologically disordered.

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18 thoughts on “The Church Militant

  1. These sorts of fights seem to have been going on since time immemorial to use a cliche. The problem is that the spiritual violence can easily turn to physical violence against Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, non-Believers, and Catholics he considers to be heretics.

    Muscular Christianity seems to be a constant fact for people who can’t stand the pacifism of Jesus. A constant need to make Jesus into an action hero with machine guns and rocket launchers.

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    • Quite so. We’ve seen what happens when Christianity gets violent, and it was a disaster of epic proportions.

      I also find it impossible to inhabit the mind of someone who thinks the Catholic Church is a hotbed of modern thinking.

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    • I think its a debatable proposition whether or not Jesus was a pacifist and totally committed towards non-violence. Same goes for his disciples. There are parts of the New Testament that are not inconsistent with the idea of righteous violence. Jesus did not deal with the money-lenders in the Temple, money lenders that were doing a perfectly valid task under Jewish law, in a pacifistic manner.

      Large parts of both Testaments and the Qu’Ran are fine with the idea that sometimes, violence is the proper solution to the problem.

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      • To my knowledge the cleansing of the Temple is the sole episode in which Jesus seems to demonstrate even a potential for violence, and even it is ambiguous.

        And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Gospel of John, 2:13–16.

        But it’s not clear to me whether Jesus actually whipped the vendors or just scared them enough that they ran away. The bit about making the whip and then driving the vendors out, that suggests that he used the whip. But the vendors seemed to be able to take the livestock with them, which suggests to me a controlled enough exit so as to allow time to clear the animals out. Maybe Jesus had to crack the whip, and got the rest of the crowd rallied behind him, and the rest of the vendors decided they didn’t want any of that and started packing up their things to go. What is clear is that Jesus was pissed off.

        Where were the civil authorities? Was there a general prohibition on the carrying of weapons within a certain distance of the Temple? But even so, there were plenty of Roman soldiers about, meaning if nothing else big dudes with swords and the know-how to use them (beyond the obvious “put the pointy bit in the other fellow”) whose paramount mission was to keep the locals under control, and a riot breaking out in their obviously important temple doesn’t sound even remotely consistent with that instruction.

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      • Judea was probably one of the least desirable posts in the Roman Empire. It had to be administrated very carefully and the Romans new well enough that one mistake could send off a really nasty rebellion. You needed tough-minded but not stupid governors that would react more than act. The Romans probably had a policy of not doing things to anger the Jews on religious issues whenever possible.

        In the case of the moneylenders, they fulfilled a valid religious function. Every Jewish man was supposed to pay a half-shekel tax to the Temple during Pesach. The tax had to be paid in the form of the shekel coin. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish population was widespread enough that the pilgrims were coming in from hundreds or thousands of miles away with all sorts of coins. The moneylenders changed those coins into shekels so the Temple tax could be paid. The Romans most likely were more cautious during Pesach because religious feelings and national tensions were running high. The Romans probably would deal with any disturbance after the fact and in a relatively discrete way rather than reading the riot act.

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      • The best interpretation I’ve read about the moneychanger incident attempts to put Jesus’s actions in the context of late Second Temple Judaism.

        The priestly elite were living a pretty comfortable existence as the primary mediators between the Jewish people and the Roman imperial government. At the same time, corruption and greed made it very difficult for the average Jew to afford all of the taxes, travel, and offerings required to practice the religion. Overturning the tables in the courtyard of the temple was not protest against their existence, but rather against the exploitative practices they were engaged in.

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      • Judea was probably one of the least desirable posts in the Roman Empire.

        Try investigating a crime when the suspects all answer every question with another question.

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      • , that is not the traditionally Jewish interpretation of the money changer incident. The traditionally Jewish interpretation was that Jesus was basically engaging in a heretical disruption of the Pesach festival. A lot of Jews hold to a more pro-Jesus version of the incident for a variety of reasons including assimilation and the fact that being anti-Jesus isn’t considered socially acceptable. Bellow is a link to the Talmudic defense of the money changers.

        http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/150565/daf-yomi-56

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  2. Is all this a problem? It is if you think the spiritual life should be directed towards God.

    What if a person’s God is wrathful, vengeful, jealous and genocidal?

    Personally, I think spiritual life should be directed inwardly, towards one’s self. If there is a God, that’s the only place we’d ever find him/her/it.

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    • Oh, and I forgot to add, very nice post.

      And one other thing: Pope Francis just turned over the tables in the Vatican Bank, which sounds like a good thing given the evidence of what those money changers were doing.

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      • Well, it’s complicated, yes? Seems to me, tho, that a person who’s looking for God won’t find it out there unless they already have an idea of what they’re looking for. But that’s a big old circle, isn’t it?

        If we think that spirituality is a different thing than psychology – in the sense that religion and various conceptions of God don’t reduce to a psychological (or more physical terms more broadly) – then it’s different than religion (since religion, it seems to me, can for the most part be so reduced).

        Of course, the meaning of the word “spirituality” is something people disagree about. For some it’s just acting in accordance with the tenets of a religion.

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  3. I pretty much agree with Kyle on this. I’ve seen a few of Voris’s shows, and he strikes me as a very ordinary populist. A few selected facts woven together to construct an adversarial story. Any disagreement in approach is considered an act of disloyalty to the cause.

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  4. The problem with Voris is that he mistakes the fight against the Devil with striking the persons oppressed by the Devil. He is so eager for combat he doesn’t care if he unfairly targets the oppressed. This is contrary to what St. Ignatius would have done and said.

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  5. This reminds me of the previous post on the Muscular Jesus.

    I think you’re right, Michael Voris is actually far more focused on evil and everything bad in the world than he is on God.

    He also mistakes the focus of the spiritual battle. It reminds me of the Muslim principle of Greater and Lesser Jihad. The Greater Jihad is the struggle within your self to submit to the will of Allah. The lesser Jihad is the external struggle against the infidel. Michael Voris’ faith conflates the two Jihads, he is not at war against his own concupiscence, but rather at his external enemies. He’s not even at war against spiritual forces, but against earthly ones.

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