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The Rules of Engagement

Kevin O'Brien on the chivalry, engagement and Much Ado about Nothing

The Rules of Engagement
Kevin O'Brien

[This article first appeared in the St. Austin Review.]

There’s that awful Paul McCartney / Michael Jackson song from the 1980’s where Jackson pipes up in that androgynous little voice of his, “I’m a lover, not a fighter!”  Well, now that you’ve got that horrible tune running through your head, forget it and see my point: loving and fighting are two touchstones for the Church.

In the early Christian era, men like Tertullian were claiming that Christ taught pacifism, that any kind of military endeavor was prohibited for members of the Church.  In like manner, regarding marriage, even St. Paul advised against it, for those who could manage to abstain.  Fighting and loving were both frowned upon.  Christ’s maxims to turn the other cheek and His approval of those who become eunuchs for the Kingdom’s sake were in a sense “proof texts” for this, especially in light of the persecuted status of the early Church and in light of the eager expectation of the supposed nearness of the parousia.
But the Church’s understanding of these things developed; the Deposit of Faith was understood more fully when it became apparent that life was going to go on for a while, and that not all Christians were called to the “better way” of Mary’s contemplative life, but most were stuck in the nasty messy business of living in the world as Martha was.
And by the Middle Ages the understanding of the Incarnation was such that men realized – with the help of the Catholic Culture that formed them – that if they had an obligation to be “in the world”, this obligation was a way of affirming the Incarnation, of bringing Christ’s presence into all that they did.  But here’s the rub – how can you fight like a Christian?  How can you make love like a Christian?  For to live in the world involves both loving and fighting.  For, as Chesterton says, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”  The two are bound together.  So how does one battle and beget in a sanctified manner?
The Church in the Middle Ages gave us the most supreme answer to this question – Chivalry.  The ideal of Chivalry was to turn the nasty but necessary business of fighting into something Christian, to baptize the role of the solider by instilling a code in which he would defend the defenseless and honor Our Lord by fighting justly in just causes.  Likewise, the Christian knight honored Our Lady in his treatment of all ladies, and in his devotion to his own earthly lady, the lady for whom he fought.  Chivalry was a way of Christianizing both warfare and wooing.
Now of course this is an ideal that, like every ideal, men had trouble living up to.  If you think about it, it’s almost impossible for fallen men to fight-without-fury or love-without-lust.  The Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 was proof of how easy it was even for chivalrous Christian knights to give way to wrath, for when the walls of the city were breached the Crusaders engaged in a wholesale slaughter, making the streets run ankle deep with blood.  And we need look no further than the adulterous relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere as proof that even the ideals of courtly love were easily compromised.
But it’s one thing to try and fall short of a Christian ideal and another thing not to try at all.  The modern world has seen warfare abandon Christian principles, even in Western countries, as civilians are targeted, as prisoners are once again tortured, and as soldiers often fight not to defend the defenseless but to destroy them.  And what has happened to romance?  You don’t even find it that much it in smarmy pop tunes anymore, like the dreadful one I began with.
So somehow we’ve gone from a pristine disengagement from the world (in the case of the early pacifist Christians) to a noble engagement in the world (in the form of Chivalry, which was always in danger of faltering) to a shoddy disengagement from the world (in the form of the objectification of others, of using people as conquests in the battlefield or as conquests in the boudoir).
This whole problem, then, is a problem of engagement – in every sense of the word.
Shakespeare, standing between the Middle Ages and us, wrote at a time that was still largely medieval and yet also surprisingly modern.  In his seemingly simple comedy Much Ado about Nothing we see a bit of both spirits at play, and we learn a lot about this problem of engagement – engagement in battle and engagement in marriage – in short, engagement in life.  
In Much Ado about Nothing the brilliant but cynical Benedick resists the only woman the audience can see he’s meant for, the acerbic and witty Beatrice.  Meanwhile, the noble Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin, the virtuous lady Hero, becomes engaged, and plans to marry her until the villain don John poisons Claudio against Hero by making him think she’s been unfaithful to him and is nothing more than a strumpet.  In a heart-rending scene at the wedding, Claudio publicly disavows Hero and quite literally “disengages”, calling her out for the “approved wanton” he thinks she is.
At this central moment of the play, we have twin romantic plots that both look to end in disaster.  Benedick all along has been railing against the whole concept of marriage as well as mocking the spunky Beatrice (there seems little hope for the two of them); and now Claudio, heretofore an easy mark, proudly proclaims in church (in front of God and everybody) his intention “not to be married”.  
But when the stage is cleared and Beatrice is alone with Benedick, he begins to proclaim his love for her.  He says he will do anything for her and asks her what she wants him to do.  “Kill Claudio,” she replies.
Though at first reluctant, by the end of the scene Benedick concludes, “Enough.  I am engaged.”
This line resonates.  He is engaged in his love for his lady, and almost literally engaged to be married.  He is also engaged in battle, or soon to be, as he challenges Claudio who has dishonored Hero.  “By this hand,” he continues, holding Beatrice’s hand in his, “Claudio shall render me a dear account.”  It is the hand of Benedick’s lady that inspires him to use his own hand to wield a sword against Claudio and right the wrong done to one who is innocent and defenseless.  

There’s much more to be said about Much Ado, but this scene serves as a moment of crystal clarity in which love and willingness to sacrifice go together, in which we see the wonderful implications of the problem of engagement, in which we are reminded again that if we are to avoid the life of the pacifist or the eunuch - and if we are to avoid the life of the cynic (such as Benedick), the disillusioned (such as Claudio) or the bored and manipulative (such as most people in the modern world), then we must look to the wisdom of the Church, a Church which knows that loving and fighting must necessarily go together, that both are great perils to our souls, vulnerable as we are to lust and wrath, and that only by imitating Christ, especially in the mode of Chivalry, can we truly be active in a way that gives glory to Him and that honors the rules of engagement.