Sing the ending of the fray

31 March 2017

BEAR GRYLLS comes in for some criticism not only because of his promotion of survivalist skills, but because of his muscular Christian­ity, which he describes as the back­bone of his life.

He is a far-from-typical product of Eton, and he recently criticised his Alma Mater for its failure to teach him important life skills, in­­cluding fitness and communica­tion. He believes that young people need exposure to risk, and that learning to take appropriate risks is em­­powering. Struggle, he believes, increases strength and resilience. He speaks of those at Eton who were brilliant at school, but were disasters in life because they missed “the one thing that really matters in life, which is called the fight”.

In the early Christian centuries, the Passion of Christ was often seen as a struggle, a fight to the death and beyond with the forces of evil. Those marvellous ancient Passion­tide hymns often express this: “The royal banners forward go” and “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood portrays Christ as a young hero who mounts the cross to conquer. The cross itself mysteri­ously understands the pur­pose of Christ’s agony, and speaks of its own task to raise him up and support him through his final hours.

I have often felt recently that we have downplayed that element in the Christian life which used to be de­­scribed as spiritual warfare. We un­­derestimate the necessity of strug­gle in Christian discipleship, the need for discernment and resili­ence, the sheer hard slog of keeping going through adversity.

Trouble comes in many forms: it may be the challenge of living with physical or emotional limitation; it may be the struggle for integrity in circumstances where there is no ob­­vious right answer; it may be living with injustice, or battling against an addiction or the seduc­tion of self-pity. Wherever the struggle con­fronts us, it is the most obvious reality of daily life.

The language of warfare has be­­come unpopular for obvious rea­sons: we do not want to glorify war; it sounds to some ears exclusively male; it can produce an excessive interest in manifestations of evil. But the point about evil is that it is often not glamorous. Evil is banal, as Hannah Arendt said, comment­ing on the crimes of Adolf Eich­mann.

Christ went to his death for the salvation of the world because of petty jealousy, corruption, fear, tim­idity — not all of them great sins, but cumulatively enough to seal his fate.

In God’s providence, this squalid death becomes the antidote to the squalid compromises that we all make to avoid “the fight”. Perhaps we could all be more courageous. The last word of the cross is not agony, but victory.

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