Thursday, May 29, 2014

Christian Activism and the Code of Chivalry

“Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.”

That’s how Anglo-Irish writer Kenelm Henry Digby described chivalry in The Broad-Stone of Honour published in 1822.

It’s a nice description. But I like even more the way Sir Walter Scott put it when he had the charming and brave knight, Ivanhoe, answer a young woman’s question in this way:  “Chivalry?  Why maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection, the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant.  Nobility were but an empty name without her.  And liberty finds the best protection in her lance and sword.”

Chivalry. The word itself stirs the imagination and moves the soul to embrace manly virtues: strength, courage, a willingness to fight in a noble cause. But also kindness, innocence, courtesy and grace.  And we must not forget honor, self-discipline, loyalty, and a burning love for God.

In recent speaking engagements (three Christian men’s groups, a gathering of teenagers, a church congregation), I’ve dealt with these themes.  And in these talks, I do not treat chivalry as myth or literary legend.  I deal with the subject as a historian and Christian activist, emphasizing to my audiences that chivalry did not live only in the romances of King Arthur, Sir Roland, Robin Hood and others.  Chivalry was a hard fact. It was a set of ideals, to be sure, but ideals which were devoutly pursued by men very much from the real world.

Note, for instance, the vows of allegiance, holiness and service taken by those knights allowed into the Order of Bath early in the 12th Century.  “Brother, the king our Sovereign lord wills it that you take up this high and worshipful order, which as a knight I declare to you certain points... You shall love God above all things, be steadfast in faith, sustain the church, and be true to your sovereign lord.  Be true to your word and promises, be secure in this.  Also you shall sustain widows in their rights, anytime they require you, maidens in their virginity, helping them and succoring them in your good that they not be misgoverned for their own faults.  You shall sit in no place where an evil judgment should be wrongfully given to anybody, according to your knowledge.  You shall suffer no murderers, nor extortions of the people within the country where you dwell, but with your power you shall put them into the hands of justice, that they be punished as the king’s law requires.” (1128 AD)

Do these vows sound familiar to you?  They should because they illustrate how the honored code of chivalry was founded on something harder, older and more sublime. They come directly from Christianity.  Indeed, the knight of chivalry has his best model in the New Testament picture of the warrior-saint. Remember Ephesians 6?  2 Timothy 2:1-4?  And what of the wealth of Scriptures (Old and New Testament) that speak of purity of heart and body, courage, justice, mercy, graciousness of speech, service to the defenseless, humility, loyalty to the Sovereign King, and so on?

The Knights of the Round Table are the epitome of the chivalric heroes of the early medieval era. But the codes of chivalry they represented so wonderfully did not originate with them.  Rather, these ideals come from the pages of Holy Scripture.  And so too did the role models of chivalry: Moses, Joshua, Samson, Daniel, Gideon, David, the mighty men of valor, and yes, the apostles and other early missionaries of the Church.  All of these heroes could rightly be described as knights-errant with a devotion to God’s holy commands.  All were champions of those virtues which would, centuries later, be described as chivalry.  And those biblical ideals resound even louder than the vows taken by the Knights of the Bath. Here are a few examples:

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Reprove the ruthless.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.”  (Isaiah 1:16 & 17)

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’”  (Jeremiah 22:3)

“Vindicate the weak and fatherless.  Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.  Rescue the weak and needy.  Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”  (Psalm 82:3 & 4)

“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  (James 1:27)

“Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back. If you say, ‘See, we did not know this,’ does He not consider it Who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it Who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?”  (Proverbs 24:11 & 12)

You say that living out the chivalric code is a tough task?  No doubt about it.  But not too tough for men of God.  And that’s the key point I’ve been making in my talks about chivalry.  I want men to know that the codes of chivalry were real, that they were noble and exhilarating, and that they derive from Holy Scripture.  But the most important thing for them to understand is that the codes of chivalry are of the utmost relevance to them today!  They are certainly high ideals. But, just as certainly, they are do-able ideals.

You say you’re not worthy?  Jesus can take care of that.  He died to pay the penalty of  your sin and to create in you a clean heart.  His blood makes you worthy.  You say you’re not equipped?  Jesus has that covered too.  He offers His redeemed children the Holy Spirit, specific spiritual gifts, the powerful sword of the spirit which is the Word of God, and the fellowship of the Church.

Make no mistake; the exciting adventures of chivalry are not all in the past.  They’re right here, right now.  And God is looking for those who will simply answer the call.  Whether you are a carpenter or a clerk or a cook or a clergyman, whether you work in an office or a factory or a warehouse or a hospital, whether you’re retired or in school or unemployed or in prison, the chance to be a knight of the Cross who joyfully embraces the code of Christian chivalry is there for any man on the planet.  And, for that matter, any woman too.

Think what a rebirth of chivalry in America would do for marriages.  For parenting.  Think what it would do to such demonic wickedness as abortion.  Think what would happen if instead of anti-heroes, hip hoppers and dopey sit-com dads, there were Christian knights full of integrity, courage, wisdom, and a love of God whom young men could look to as role models.

Consider with me just a few timely possibilities.  What would have happened if Christian men around the Omaha area (Christian men by the hundreds and thousands) would have called or written Ralston Arena officials and protested their plans to bring in the Lingerie Football League? And what if those thousands of Christian men would have contacted the Omaha City Council over the sexual deviancy proposal that came up earlier this year?  Or the Omaha Public School Board when it spent thousands of tax dollars to force employees to undergo indoctrination on matters of sexual deviancy and anti-Americanism?  Would these outrageous actions have succeeded had Christian men calmly, simply, but resolutely stood against them? Not a chance.

Therefore, when one considers such examples of moral failure, one is tempted to conclude, as Edmund Burke did in the 19th Century, that the age of chivalry is dead and the glory of Christendom extinguished.  But I, for one, will not accept that.  For the Scripture is quite clear as to our responsibilities to be salt and light in a decadent culture.  Indeed, God desires us to be part of His triumphal procession (2 Corinthians 2) as we serve as warrior-knights  -- wearing His armor, wielding His sword, and displaying a confident willingness to engage the enemy.  Thus we overcome in our personal struggles, in the culture wars and even in those battles being waged in the heavenlies.

“Chivalry,” said Ivanhoe. “Why maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection, the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant.  Nobility were but an empty name without her.  And liberty finds the best protection in her lance and sword.”

So, what do you say, guys? There are before us holy quests to fulfill, innocent citizens to rescue, and plenty of dragons to slay. Let’s saddle up.

(The painting at the head of the essay is “The Vigil” by John Pettie. Exhibited first in 1884, it is part of the Tate Collection.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Zek Who Changed the World

In 1962 the Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir published Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. 

And the world changed.

The editor of the journal, Alexander Tvardovsky, knew that he had discovered in Solzhenitsyn an astonishing new writing talent, a man who brought to his art a courageous moral vision. Such a writer hadn't appeared in print in Russia since the days of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The Communists had destroyed art...and artists.

But there was something about this startling little book, written from the point of view of a prisoner in Stalin's gulags, that gave Tvardovsky enough hope to take the manuscript to the authorities and ask for permission to publish it. After all, Stalin was dead, the butcher who in his monomaniac savagery had murdered millions of his own people. And his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, had his hands full trying to wrest control from Stalin's hard-line comrades in the Politburo. Khrushchev had already launched (within the private domains of the Soviet elite) his attack on the "cult of personality," a campaign to present Stalin as a paranoid dictator whose excesses had actually undermined the Glorious Revolution.

Perhaps Solzhenitsyn's daring manuscript could now see the light of day.

Of course, in going after Stalin's memory, Khrushchev was anything but the enlightened, progressive soul that liberals in the West first praised him as being. No, he was just another Communist thug who was anxious to develop his own power. Discrediting Stalin, even it meant exposing some of the ugliness of Soviet history, was merely another means to get a tighter grip on the Kremlin. And One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch with its heart-rending portrayal of the senselessness and brutality of a Stalinist-era forced labor camp in Siberia written by a former zek (slave worker) who experienced it? Khrushchev figured that the novel would make an effective move in the next stage of his campaign, taking his attack on Stalin's "cult of personality" to the Soviet public and even to the peering journalists of the West.

But what Khrushchev, in his own spiritual blindness, could not foresee was how powerful a bomb he had set off when he gave Tvardovsky the permission to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. For the Stalinists in the Kremlin proved harder to defeat than he imagined. Indeed, they raged against Kruschev for allowing even select horrors about the Soviet Union to be published. Instead of securing power, Khrushchev began to lose it.

Moreover, even the little scent of freedom that arose from the publication of the novel (and Solzhenitsyn's emergence as a respected dissident voice by the West) had an intoxicating effect on the Russian populace. Khrushchev had desired only a little light to shine...just enough to expose Stalin's treachery to the ideals of the Communist Revolution. What he got was a light that grew more brilliant and hot than he ever imagined, a light that revealed the utter wickedness and absurdity of Communism itself.

Khrushchev quickly realized his mistake and tried to reverse it with a complete suppression of Solzhenitsyn's work and reputation. He was too late. The comparatively mild light of Ivan Denisovitch would blaze up higher and higher with the more detailed, more searing revelations of Solzhenitsyn's subsequent books: The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and so on.

Published in Western editions, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work would become the single most reason behind the destruction of the Soviet Union's claims of a moral foundation. And when that began to weaken, other heroes of freedom (Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher) would follow up to eventually eliminate the threat of Communist tyranny over Eastern Europe.

Re-reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch recently was as thrilling as ever as I contemplated how God had used this small novel as a big voice for freedom. The soaring of the human spirit represented there is inspirational on many levels -- the clever sarcasm the author uses to engage the foolishness of the Soviet schemes is superb; the introduction of Alyosha presented the strongest Christian character that Russian literature had seen for three generations; and the passion for a detailed history of how the camps were run strongly foreshadows the full exposure Solzhenitsyn would produce in his later works.

All these elements of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (and more) show the spiritual genius as well as the bold courage of Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- a humble zek who quite literally and grandly, changed the world.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

For Memorial Day...And Beyond

Kelly Strong wrote this poem as a high school senior and JROTC cadet in 1981. It is a tribute to his father, a career marine who served two tours in Vietnam. Kelly went on to serve his country as a Coast Guard pilot. (From information given at the International War Veterans Poetry Archives.)

FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
by Kelly Strong

I watched the flag pass by one day,
It fluttered in the breeze;
A young Marine saluted it,
And then he stood at ease.

I looked at him in uniform,
So young, so tall, so proud;
With hair cut square and eyes alert,
He’d stand out in any crowd.

I thought… how many men like him
Had fallen through the years?
How many died on foreign soil?
How many mothers’ tears?

How many pilots’ planes shot down
How many died at sea
How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves
No, Freedom is not Free.

I heard the sound of Taps one night,
When everything was still;
I listened to the bugler play,
And felt a sudden chill;

I wondered just how many times
That Taps had meant “Amen”
When a flag had draped a coffin
Of a brother or a friend;

I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives.

I thought about a graveyard
At the bottom of the sea,
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No. Freedom is not Free!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Change the Language, Change the Culture: Chemical Abortion & Beyond

Progressives who desire to transform society understand that to change the culture, you must first change the language in which the issues are framed.  For instance, the violent, immoral and lethal act of elective abortion was eased into the social landscape by calling it a “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” or “an evacuation of uterine content” or the “restoration of normal menstrual function.”  The change in language helped propel the change in practice.

It wasn’t rational.  It wasn’t right.  But, for passive people who had already surrendered much of their Christian heritage, their thinking and their moral code for the self-centeredness of secularism, it worked.

Another vivid illustration of how a language shift produced a dramatic culture shift took place earlier in time and it too concerned abortion; more specifically, early abortion caused by chemicals and devices. It was prompted by the collision of physical science with the ideologies of the sexual revolution and population control movement.

Now, the science itself couldn’t be clearer and any embryology textbook will lay out the facts. Conception occurs when the sperm fertilizes the egg.  It is at that very moment that a new life begins. After that, it's all about growth and development, baby.  The science cannot change.  But language?  That’s another thing altogether.

The language employed to describe human reproduction first began to change in the 1960s when population control advocates were looking to sell so-called "birth control" chemicals and devices among cultures that had a high respect for prenatal life. The problem was that the action of the pills and IUDs acted (at least some of the time) subsequent to conception. That is, they didn't always prevent conception but they did prevent the embryonic human being from developing any further. And that is abortion.

The primary techniques utilized by these misnamed drugs and devices was to prevent the developing person (already begun at conception and now growing quite rapidly as he or she made it down the Fallopian tube) from implanting in the wall of the cervix or, if implantation did occur, to dislodge the embryo from its new home in the womb. But this is all after conception. These drugs and devices destroy lives that have already begun.

Again, the science couldn't be clearer.  And the science itself cannot change.  So the progressives went after the words. The population control advocates (and others who wanted to promote the sexual revolution) pressured groups like the American Medical Association to change the definition of conception, to move it further down the line from fertilization.

“Put the new definition of conception anywhere you want,” the progressives insisted, “as long as it's after the abortifacient action that these new drugs and devices utilize. You see, we can't push the product if people realize they act post-conception. They don't want abortion on their conscience. So shift the definition so that we can sell them as preventing pregnancy rather than stopping a pregnancy that's already underway.”

And that's exactly what happened. Though it makes no scientific sense, though it's a lie of the most sinister proportions, the definition of conception was disconnected from fertilization and linked instead to the embryo's implantation in the uterine wall. The effects of this lie have been universally damaging to life, health, family and culture.

Of course re-defining conception isn’t the only case where changing language was a sinister prelude to cataclysmic social change.  We see the tactic used everywhere in the culture wars.  Indeed, we live in an Orwellian world in which lies, distortion, omission, manipulation, and obfuscation fill the very air we breathe.  It is an atmosphere whose pollution is added to daily by politicians, academia, Hollywood, judges, Madison Avenue, the mainstream press, and the diversity classes your employer nowadays requires you to attend.

Behind all of these sources is the father of lies, he who has been wickedly determined (from his first rebellion against God until now) to blind men’s minds, to spread lies, to hinder the proclamation of truth, and to call evil good and good evil.  But man has given the devil a lot of help.

In stark contrast, the faithful Christian calls things by their right name. No snow. No spin. No shuck and jive. We are called to be truth-tellers, light-bearers, and prophets – courageously, consistently and, as winsomely as possible, speaking the truth in love.

In this post-Christian phase of American history, there are certain lies which need to be opposed with particularly intense and concerted efforts. And among them are the ones I’ve described in this post. They are lies that have ushered in the silent holocaust of abortion as well as such corollary evils as physician-assisted suicide, lethal human experimentation, infanticide, and the coarse cheapening of human life throughout all levels of society.

It was to help counter this dissembling culture of death that Claire and I formed Vital Signs Ministries more than 30 years ago. And, because the liars and cheats haven’t gone away, it is what we’re still about today. Today we call things by their right names primarily from VSM’s web page, Vital Signs Blog, VSM Resources (our Russian-language website), essays and correspondence, the pulpit, sidewalk counseling, personal visitation, the 11 presentations per month of “When Swing Was King,” networking with other pro-life and pro-family groups, letter-writing events, mentoring, public advocacy, and special events. And, of course, undergirding all of these things are the faithful prayers and generous support of dear friends and colleagues like you. Thank you so much.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Resisting Manipulation

I recently had the delightful experience of re-reading The Double Image, one of Helen MacInnes' most intricate novels of intrigue. Published in 1965 when MacInnes was just beginning to hit her stride, The Double Image has all the elements of her best thrillers: an innocent but capable bystander thrust unexpectedly into the role of hero, clearly delineated "bad guys," a clever unraveling of the mystery, several nice twists of plot, exciting settings (this time Paris and the Mediterranean isle of Mykonos), and a pleasant splash of romance. It is little wonder that Helen MacInnes was my Mom's favorite author. In this genre, she’s one of mine as well.

And, as often happens when reading good writers of any type, noteworthy insights into culture, philosophy and individual character can be found nicely woven into the story.

I cite one example from The Double Image, one which interested me as a historian and, even more, as a Christian activist who seeks to be part of the resistance to the schemes of all tyrants. Here is the passage...

“History wasn't just a record of wars and peace conferences; history was a long and bitter story of intrigue and grab, of hidden movements and determined leaders, of men who knew what they wanted manipulating men who hadn't one idea that anything was at stake: the innocent and the ignorant being used according to someone else's plan.

But every now and again, the plan would fail. Because people could be surprising, too, in their resistance - once they knew what was actually happening. Once they knew…”

Ah, that’s the key. “Once they knew.”

The critical tasks of telling the truth to our culture, of letting others in on what is actually happening and, yes, even “recruiting for the resistance” is an indispensable part of Christian faithfulness. We are called to be lights in the darkness: informing, illuminating, challenging, warning, even rebuking. Thus we preach the unadulterated gospel. We teach the whole counsel of God as revealed in His Word. We promote life, justice, wisdom, mercy, and righteousness.

By so doing, we serve as prophets, freedom fighters, and liberators — all in the matchless Name of Jesus and for His glory. It’s a high calling, indeed, but an incredibly important one that we must take on with humility, courage and a continual dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 09, 2014

"When Swing Was King" Swings Into Summer

Yesterday afternoon at Life Care Center, we presented the latest volume of “When Swing Was King” (a freshly updated version, at that) and it was a big hit. But then, it always is! After all, how can you go wrong when you give residents of nursing homes and other senior living facilities 1) fabulous music, appreciated all the more because it is the music of their youth); 2) interesting and compelling photographs to look at while the music plays;  3) entertaining and informative commentary about the songs, musicians, and pictures; and 4) a chance to spend time visiting with friends who come by every month.

It certainly beats sitting alone back in your room or being parked (with a bunch of other residents) in front of a big television screen at the nurses station, forced to watch whatever inane program it’s tuned into.

As one of the residents (a lovely and engaging 91-year old lady) told Claire last month, “I love the days when you guys come because it gets me out of my room. I really love the music and you guys are so fun and friendly. It really is a delight and I look forward to it so much.” She then spoke almost in a whisper. “You know, the people here are good and they try to take care of us but most days are so…so…” She hesitated to say the word so Claire made an educated guess. “So boring?” “Yes! That’s exactly what it is. So thank you for helping us escape that with these parties you throw.”

Parties? It's a good word, an apt description. And it can be looked at that way from our vantage point too. Being pro-life activists these last three and a half decades has certainly brought us a big share of heartbreak and controversy and somber perseverance. It still does. 3 times last week, for instance, we were praying and holding pro-life signs outside Planned Parenthood abortion businesses.

But in these last 3 and a half years, the Lord has graciously allowed us the temporary respite of these “When Swing Was King” parties — 11 every month in our 2014 schedule. We are profoundly grateful to Him for this tremendous blessing. And we’re grateful also to the residents, to the activity directors, to everyone who prays for the ministry’s protection and effectiveness, and to the generous supporters of Vital Signs Ministries because you make it possible for us to continue. We do not charge the facilities a dime for bringing them the shows.

As always, we invite you to come along and be a part of this keen outreach. (The schedule is posted on the Vital Signs Ministries website right here.) And if you’re interested in knowing just what songs are bringing back the memories this month, here they are:

1) Glenn Miller Orchestra — “Adios”

2) Nat King Cole — “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”

3) Artie Shaw Orchestra (Vocals by Helen Forrest) — “All the Things You Are”

4) Tommy Dorsey Orchestra — “Those Little White Lies”

5) Benny Goodman Orchestra (Vocals by Helen Ward) — “You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes”

6) Xavier Cugat & the Waldorf Astoria Orchestra — “Perfidia”

7) Dean Martin — “That’s Amore’”

8) Harry James Orchestra — “Begin the Beguine”

9) Larry Clinton Orchestra (Vocals by Bea Wain) — “Dipsy Doodle”

10) Perry Como — “Some Enchanted Evening”

11) Chick Webb Orchestra — “Strictly Jive”

12) Glenn Miller Orchestra (Vocals by Tex Beneke & the Modernaires) — “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo”