Mission Nary Impossible
The Unevangelized May Be Better
& Worse than Savages
by Anthony Esolen
Man is an ineluctably moral being. He can pretend to moral relativism, but he cannot live it. He can say, misunderstanding Jesus' words, that we must never judge another person's actions, but in the blink of an eye he will assume that judgment seat, nor must he be a hypocrite to do so.
The question is not whether we will judge between good and evil, but how. What criteria will we look to, what models of virtue will we honor, what awareness of our sins will instruct us in mercy? What will charity towards sinners plead in their behalf? What will charity towards the innocent plead in their behalf? How will our moral judgments hang together? Whom will we acknowledge as our authority?
We Christians now must be missionaries to people who are better than the nihilism they do not know they profess. The old, sturdy Christian virtues remain in the wisps of etiquette, detached from one another and from the grace and example of Christ. An echo, a fragrance, a half-forgotten memory remain, and make it harder for us to persuade our well-fed and much-distracted fellows of the real moral vacuity.
We do not dwell in the City of God. We do not even dwell in the City of Man. We dwell in the Suburb of Man, beside and beneath civilization. We have neither the purity of the saint nor the gritty material squalor of London in the time of Dickens. We have hygiene and proper diet. We follow something cleaner and sillier than superstitions. We follow the news.
So the evangelist has his work cut out for him.
Fr. De Smet's Mission
When Father Pierre-Jean De Smet made his courageous way among the Indians of the American northwest, he met plenty of tribes whom Europeans might have considered savage. They sang out like howling wolves; they painted their faces and chests; they slept in skin huts; they raided their weaker neighbors; they had no writing; some of them took more than one wife.
But Father De Smet did not regard them as savages. They were children of the one God. They honored him, thousands of them sometimes gathering in silence, for hours, to hear him speak about the Great Spirit. Some had sent emissaries all the way from Puget Sound to Saint Louis, pleading with the Jesuits to send a priest to teach them. Father De Smet could travel where no other white man would dare to go without armed cavalry.
Whatever may have been the moral errors of the native customs, the Indians were not insane. If you grant that the manhood of the warrior, the wisdom of the chief, and the spiritual intuitions of the medicine man are worthy of honor, and if your brains are not addled by mass media, mass politics, and mass schooling, then that honor will engender among you certain customs and moral judgments. If I may be allowed a gross simplification, to preach among such a people was to reveal to them who the Great Spirit really was, and what he really required. The missionary did not have to build up humanity from the rubble. They were often bad men, to be sure, but they were men. They could reason and act from principles.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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