“You’ve never been to Nish?!” My friend was incredulous. How can someone who has traveled, it sometimes seems, every inch of Montenegro, Bosnia, and Kosovo not have found the time to go to Nish? The lady is far from being a local chauvinist, but when I first met her and asked (as I had been taught by a Belgrader) if she was “iz Nish“—leaving off the genitive ending, as they do sometimes near the Bulgarian border—she exclaimed, “Oh, those people in Belgrade. They think they know everything.” In fact, as she later explained, the Nish dialect is a little strange. The accent falls forward on words, and many Turkish expressions remain within the local vernacular as a memorial to 500 years of occupation.
Why not go to Nish? Dr. Johnson’s observation that every human life is worth a biography applies to cities as well. This little city in southeastern Serbia was a major stop on the route to Byzantium. Constantine’s family came from Nish (or rather, Naissus), and that first Christian emperor was actually born there. It was in Nish that Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Serbian royal dynasty of the Middle Ages, met with Barbarossa, who was on his way to the Crusade. The Turks first took the city in 1385 but lost it again to the Serbs and did not reconquer it for good until 1454. When I go, I shall be able to visit the Turkish citadel built on the site of a Byzantine fort. I can also see a church that is not much taller than a man’s height—Islamic law forbade the erection of a Christian church higher than a Muslim building. It is a nice memorial of the kindness and benevolence of Muslims who rule over Christian subjects.
An even more impressive monument to the Turks is the Cele Kula—the tower of skulls. In 1809, during Karageorge’s uprising against the Turks, the Serbs under the command of Stjepan Sindjelic made a last stand in a fortified powder magazine. When all hope was exhausted, Sindjelic let the Turks into the fort and touched off the powder, killing himself, his men, and all the Turks. There was no other way. In revenge, the Turks built a tower out of the Christian skulls.
Dr. Johnson’s respect for the individual human life applies to all human beings, but only Christians can grasp the implication. Each life is precious, being made in the image of the God who sent His Son as a man, to enjoy the life of this earth, resist its temptations, and die to give us “life and that more abundantly.” In the older sections of Christendom, every spot, virtually, is marked by a martyr’s grave, and there is hardly a day in the year that does not commemorate a saint. I am beginning this essay in late September, and tomorrow, for example, is the feast of Our Lady of Ransom, who inspired Saint Peter Nolasco in 1223 to establish the Mercedarian Order for ransoming Christians who had fallen into the hands of the Muslims.
In October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary recalls the battle of Lepanto, when the Christian naval forces of Don John of Austria trounced the Turks on October 7, 1571—a victory to set beside Marathon and Salamis, Rome’s defeat of Carthage, Charles Martel’s repulse of the Moors in the Pyrenees, and Leo III’s defense of Constantinople from an almost fatal Muslim attack in 725. On the seventh, I board a plane for Rome, where a few days later I attend a celebration, organized by the Centro Culturale Lepanto, commemorating the Christian victory. Scattered among the prelates and scholars in the audience are descendants of noble Romans who took part in the battle, which took the lives of thousands of Christian soldiers and sailors but liberated even more thousands from slavery in Turkish galleys.
Christianity is often lumped together with Islam as one of the world’s great monotheisms. Christians certainly believe, as they were taught by the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophers, that God is one, but they have had to grapple with the problem of a God whose divine Son came down to earth and became a man. The disciples of Jesus could not have stated the matter more precisely than that; over the years, however, as some heretics overemphasized Christ’s divinity and oneness with the Father, and others focused more exclusively on his humanity, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity took shape. The familiar expression —three persons of one substance—may seem an arid formula, but it encapsulates a life-and-death struggle for Christian sanity that cost the lives of orthodox martyrs and sincere heretics. To the extent that we are Christian, we are Trinitarian; to the extent that we lapse into Arianism or monophysitism, we are heretical, and if a church is willing to tolerate Unitarians within its ranks, it had best give up the pretense of Christianity, if only for the sake of truth in advertising.
A series of Church councils established the position of catholic orthodoxy, but no sooner had the church settled the major issues of Christ’s nature from within than the Unitarian demon attacked from without. When Christian theologians first made the acquaintance of Islam, they interpreted it as a Christian heresy. Islam is an eclectic hodgepodge (something like Bahai or the Unification Church), and Muhammad did at times try to appeal to Christians by portraying himself as a reformer of their religion. Though he lacked the intellectual rigor and erudition of an Arius, his rage against the Incarnation was far more violent.
Muhammad and his followers were nothing if not violent against every human pretension to be made in the image of God or to love a God who took on the image of man. Muslims were as zealous in shattering images of Christ and His saints as they were in slaughtering the human beings who worshipped Christ as God. The infection was contagious, and it was not long before the soldier-emperors (including the great Leo III) who defended Christendom from Muslim armies picked up the same rage. Although iconoclasm was eventually condemned at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the rabies has never been eliminated. The Bogomils, Cathars, and Albigensians were not only unsound on the Trinity and enemies of the established order of the Church, but many went as far astray in the practices of everyday life as the Anabaptists who embraced some of their heresies. Deny the images that reflect the Incarnation, it seems, and you will go on to reject marriage and private property and all decent order.
This is not to say that I agree with a friend of mine, a convert to Orthodoxy, who once told me that there is no salvation for those who do not venerate icons. But, if I have to fall into one extreme or another, I had rather be superstitious than irreverent. I can say with the Anglican Thomas Browne that I love “the civility of hat and hand,” because it is not only through icons that Christians display their respect for the human flesh that God created and Christ deigned to sanctify. Christian worship is not purely cerebral, but a complex system of organized physical gestures: standing, sitting, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating; sprinkling, censing, anointing, and breaking. Unitarians have almost entirely succeeded in eliminating the ritual element from their comical services, but they are not nearly half so Christian as the average Muslim. (Better a foolish Turk, Luther should have said, than a Unitarian with a Ph.D.)
Wherever Christians are, there you will find the Cross, and wherever Muslims are in charge, they will make war upon it. During the Gulf War, when our soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia, presumably, to save the Saudis’ bacon (or, rather, their goat), U.S. military chaplains were forbidden to display the Cross or even to carry a Bible with a Cross emblazoned on the cover. Perhaps it is a good thing the South did not conquer the North, since the Cross of St. Andrews on the Confederate flag would have caused problems with our Muslim allies. (Or is that one more proof that the South was right?)
How few flags today actually include a Cross—or anything meaningful! Riding past a display of flags on the way into Rome from Fiumicino Airport, I cannot help observing that nearly all of them were variations on the flag of the French Revolution, including the Italian flag, which Umberto Bossi had the bad taste to describe as “la drappa jacobina.” The British Union Jack is, of course, made up of the Cross of St. Andrew superimposed upon the Cross of St. George, and as I stare at it, I see the stripes of the British Cross unwind themselves and straighten out into alternating red and white stripes—the perfect symbol for a Unitarian state.
A few days later, I find myself in Pisa, visiting the church of St. Stefano, designed by Vasari and built as a Tuscan naval chapel for the Medici’s Knights of St. Stefano, who were supposed to be naval crusaders against the Turks. Painted on the ceiling of St. Stefano is a series of oil paintings depicting Christian naval victories over the Muslims, and all along the upper part of the walls is a procession of captured Turkish naval standards. I am puzzled by about a dozen of them that I take to be our own Stars and Stripes until I realize there are no stars and notice that each flagpole is topped by a Turkish crescent. Then I remember seeing these very flags when I first visited the church over ten years ago. On that occasion, the resemblance of Old Glory to a Turkish battle flag seemed amusing, but less so today, as the United States is bent on building its own Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Middle Fast.
At best, the Stars and Stripes signify nothing more lofty than the power of the unitary state (the 50 stars—another favorite Turkish device—representing the states are a cruel joke). The Cross, however, is no mere historic accident. If Christ had come in the 20th century, we should not have stuck—as the joke has it—an image of an electric chair on top of church steeples. The Cross was, indeed, an inverted image of shame, but its symbolic properties have been the subject of meditation for better Christians than I am.
The Cross is, most obviously, a tree—albeit manmade — and thus refers not only to the prophecy of a savior hanged upon a tree but also to the Tree of Life. The vertical axis runs from Hell to Heaven, as St. John Chrysostom observed: “The cross uprooted us from the depths of evil and elevates us to the summit of virtue.” The horizontal axis, however, stretches out to encompass the earth in its embrace. If the ends of each axis were joined, they would form two circles, but although circles are a perfect shape in themselves, they are closed and exclusive, whereas the Cross of Christ is open to all who will take it up.
Those who can bear this Tree of Life cannot fail entirely to appreciate life. To protect innocent life, Christians may have to kill enemy soldiers in a war or execute murderers, but they may never deliberately take an innocent life, no matter how noble the purpose is, whether it is keeping soldiers out of harm’s way by bombing civilians or ensuring a “quality of life” by killing unborn children. The abortionist and his patient, the terror bombers of Dresden, the Nazi and communist butchers—if any of them had been Christian, they would have acknowledged their sin and repented publicly. If there are “Christians” who wish to defend, say, the pilot of the Enola Gay or the officers who ordered the missile and bombing attacks on Yugoslavia, they have eliminated themselves in advance from the Christian argument as effectively as if they had administered a retroactive abortion to their mothers.
President Bush is perfectly correct to say that this struggle is no clash of religions and civilizations, and the establishment’s repeated declarations that Islam is a religion of peace have the effect of erasing whatever line in the sand had been drawn between our two worlds. The Muslims, it is true, are continuing to build their towers of skulls, most recently at the World Trade Center, but the United States is building its own monuments in Afghanistan. An even nominally Christian America would be declaring a new crusade, not against “terrorism” (a proposition as abstract as poverty or drugs) but against Islam. At the same time, we would be treating our enemies and their families and neighbors as creatures made in the image of God. We would, of course, be sending in our warriors to do battle with the Taliban, but though civilians would certainly be killed, either by accident or in revenge, there would be no villages mistakenly wiped out by high-altitude bombing.
Burke lamented the passing of the Age of Chivalry. I mourn the exit of Christianity from the world’s stage, the final disappearance of Christendom. Go look for it somewhere in Middle Earth or in Faery, but not on this earth in this time. In such an age, it is unreasonable to look for Christian statesmen or to criticize the unbelieving politicians who are forced to make difficult decisions by the light of what human reason they have, but it is up to Christians, the exiled children of Eve who do so much good work testifying to their reverence for life in unborn children, to bear witness both to the exclusive truth of their faith and to their respect for the lives of people living under the terrible moral and spiritual darkness that is Islam.