The Necessity of Battle

Douglas McManaman
March 14, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

As I reflect back upon the more than thirty years I spent as a teacher, I realize that out of all the school principals I had worked with over those years, only two were brave and relatively exemplary Catholic leaders. One was a man, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the other a strong and bright Trinidadian woman. In between these two were a number of men whose leadership style emboldened the enemies of the school, i.e., drug dealing thugs, who, as a result of the timidity they witnessed, eventually gained a level of control over the fearful students of the schools.

I will never forget the day this Trinidadian principal came on the PA and instructed everyone in the school to put down their pens and to listen up very carefully. Her message was specifically addressed to the drug dealers in the school who had begun to provide free marajuana to some of the younger grade nine students, as a way of increasing their clientele. She was incensed at the news that this was happening. With great indignation in her voice, and after instructing everyone to stop what they were doing and listen, she said: "All you drug dealers out there, know this: your days are numbered at this school. I'm coming after you, and I'm your worst nightmare." She went on for another minute or two chastising them, reiterating her foretelling. All I could think of were all the male principals I worked with in previous years and how they would react if they were to hear such an announcement; without question, every single one of them would have insisted that this woman had lost her mind, that she was a fool for initiating a battle she could not win.

But before her announcement was over, the "kingpin" of the school had been nabbed, for during it, he was out of class wandering the halls and at one point began to jump up and down crying out: "Catch me if you can! Catch me if you can!" At that very moment, a vice principal turned the corner and witnessed it all: "You're caught", he said. He was sent home and expelled the next day. By the end of June, every drug dealer was caught and expelled. At the end of the year, I overheard a vice principal saying to a colleague: "We don't know how it happened, but we always found ourselves at the right place at the right time".

I had to shake my head at this man's dull-witted remark; for it was obvious to anyone with faith how it happened. This woman loved the students enough to enter a frightening battle for them; she had the faith, the trust, and the intensity of love to take the first step in that battle, and when that happens, the Lord takes the next step and battles on our side: "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (Ja 4, 8); for "the Lord is a warrior, Lord is his name" (Ex 15, 3). When a person in a leadership position steps out in faith to do what in fact he or she has an obligation to do, to protect the vulnerable and engage in the battle that life in Christ fundamentally is, the Lord joins us: "But during the watch just before dawn, the Lord looked down from a column of fiery cloud upon the Egyptian army and threw it into a panic; and he so clogged their chariot wheels that they could drive only with difficulty. With that the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from Israel, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt." (Ex 14, 24-25).

I remember the year my best friend, a priest of a nearby diocese, was assigned to a new parish. On his first day, a group of women introduced themselves to him, referring to themselves as "the bitches of St. Basil's", assuring him that "we're here to give you a run for your money". These were women who saw themselves as catalysts of true progress; needless to say they did not like the straightforward, back to the basics preaching of my friend. They opposed him at every turn. But my friend too was a "warrior" who loved the congregation enough to actually preach with substance and grit. I recall the Sunday he actually called the ladies out, publicly, loudly and clearly telling them: "If you don't like it (i.e., the principles and fundamental teachings of the Church), get out!" A few days later, my friend received a call from the bishop, who insisted: "You can't be telling them to get out". My friend simply replied, "Well, I have been telling them to get out, and the more I do, the more people come, and the collections are steadily increasing". In time, my friend even moved the tabernacle to the center of the Church, and just as he began to call the congregation's attention to the change on the sanctuary, a thundering applause erupted. The ladies never returned after that, and the collections continued to increase.

What is it that accounts for the increase in Church attendance, not to mention collections? Although determining the causes and factors that explain a phenomenon like this is more complex than intuition would suggest, who can doubt that a significant factor is courageous leadership and a challenging kerygma, as opposed to the innocuous and insipid preaching they were subject to for years, a style of leadership that typically does not appeal to men?

There are many anomalies in our lives, but struggle is not one of them; on the contrary, a life without struggle would be truly anomalous. I recall one principal I worked with who typically identified a good day with a smooth day; conversely, a bad day was one beset by frustrations, conflicts, and difficulties-in short, a struggle. Most people make that identification, but a smooth day is not necessarily a good day, and a day full of frustrations, confrontations, and difficulties might very well be the best and most fruitful day of the week. Many of our leaders today typically identify good days with smooth days, and doing so causes them to regard setbacks, conflicts, uncomfortable confrontations and challenges as anomalies. When this occurs among clergy, Catholic leaders will employ strategies designed to avoid battle altogether. The result is that the Lion of Judah is slowly tamed, and preaching becomes mind numbingly innocuous. However, one cannot win a battle that one refuses to fight, and a lion tamed is not the Lion of Judah (Christ), but an imposter. Moses directed Joshua, both of whom prefigure Christ, to go to battle:

At Rephidim, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, "Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand."

So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses' hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17, 1-16)

Moses with raised hands prefigures the crucified, the sign under which we are always victorious. But the decision of a "king" to siesta while his army is at war makes himself vulnerable to a serious fall, as we see in king David:

At the turn of the year, the time when kings go to war, David sent out Joab along with his officers and all Israel, and they laid waste the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. David himself remained in Jerusalem. One evening David rose from his bed and strolled about on the roof of the king's house. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; she was very beautiful... (2 Sam 11, 1-2)

The Christian is not called to a life of peace, rest, and tranquility: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's enemies will be those of his household'" (Mt 10, 34-36. See also Eph 6, 10-12; 2 Cor 10, 3-5). Peace and tranquility are only moments of reprieve in a long war; they are gifts from God, and although we would like that state of affairs to endure perpetually, as did Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Lord assures us we don't know what we are talking about and directs us to come down from that mountain to continue the struggle.

The decision to face conflict for the sake of the gospel is rooted in a love of God that extends to our neighbor; on the other hand, the decision to avoid all conflict is a decision to avoid battle. Immediately following these verses, Christ points out that "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me". In other words, whoever loves his own peace of mind more than the division and conflict that life in the Person of Christ inevitably brings about is not worthy of Christ, for such a love amounts to a refusal to fight under the sign of the cross: "...and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10, 38). The follower of Christ has to be willing to lose his life in battle if he is to find life: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 10, 39).

The effeminate, which includes both males and females, are characterized by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement. They tend to confuse an argument with a quarrel. If these people are teachers, they often discourage debate; disagreement with his/her point of view is often taken as a personal affront. The more "manly" among us, which includes strong women as well as real men, tend to enjoy a good debate. Such people appreciate the fact that the other was willing to act as an obstacle. In this light, cancel culture is fundamentally a phenomenon rooted in the increased feminization of western culture. However, the fear of being canceled is also fundamentally effeminate. It is particularly ironic to uncover this fear in the Church, for Christ was canceled; the very redemption of humanity was the result of a "cancellation", and we are called to share in that cancellation (Jn 15, 18; Mt 10, 17-19). Catholic leaders who find themselves in the midst of a war must indeed fight with prudence and strategy, for one has to be able to discern what battles are worth our attention and which ones waste time and energy-a prudence not always exemplified in conservative Catholics; for there's a fine line between audacity and strong leadership, but there is a difference between a prudence that has as its end the avoidance of battle and a prudence that has victory as its end. Avoiding battle for the sake of peace does not achieve peace in the end, because peace must be "made" (Mt 5, 9), and "making" is an activity, not a passivity. Those who fear being canceled to the point of rendering the kerygma of the Church palatable to the enemies of the Church essentially love their own livelihood over the spiritual and moral integrity of the vulnerable. Such fear is unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a pastor or bishop, for each one of us is called to be a peacemaker, and the harmony that peace is (pax) can only be achieved by engaging in a difficult battle that upsets those who love evil and despise everything the Church loves.