A Saint, His Cloak, and Us
The feast day of Martin of Tours falls on Nov. 11, a date many also know as Veterans Day, or Armistice Day. As the end of the Great War approached late in 1918, the choice of Martinmas as the date for signing the armistice was profound. France, where so much of the slaughter of a dubious war had taken place, celebrated peace under the patronage of one of its greatest and oldest saints, himself a soldier who had laid down his arms and embraced peace.
Coming at the end of autumn, Martinmas was traditionally a time in Europe for agricultural festivals, for testing the new wine vintage, and for the slaughter of geese, cattle, and, in Spain, of hogs. The saying, A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín (“every hog will get his Martinmas”) reflects this custom even as it offers a fateful warning to the proud and the greedy.
Last year Martinmas fell just after a momentous election. In Berkeley Divinity School’s St. Luke’s Chapel, around the corner from the main YDS campus, I listened on Nov. 11, as we often do there on such days, to a summary of the saint’s life read before Morning Prayer, and was struck by the lessons it offers our political moment.
Martin of Tours was born around 336 in what is now Hungary, and was brought up in Pavia in northern Italy, where he became a catechumen. He joined the army as a teen and served in Gaul (now France). The most famous story about Martin comes from this period of his life: As he was approaching the gates of Amiens, he met a beggar and was moved to cut his cloak in half to share it with the poor man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the portion of the cloak he had given away, and heard him say to the angels: “Martin, who is still only a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
Martin was soon baptized, but felt that his Christian calling required leaving the army. “I am a soldier of Christ,” his biographer Sulpicius Severus records him saying. “I cannot fight.” Martin pursued the vocation of a hermit for some years until he was called, against his will, to be bishop of Tours.
During Martin’s episcopate, a Christian teacher named Priscillian, bishop of Avila in Spain, was accused of heresy. Some of Martin’s episcopal colleagues were happy to use imperial power to put Priscillian on trial and execute him. Martin objected vehemently – despite also condemning Priscillian’s teaching.
All this was familiar to me as a scholar of the ancient church, but it took on fresh power that day after the tumultuous US election.
It is often said that Christendom has ended, and that the Church should reject compromise with Empire – but many Christians of both liberal and conservative persuasions have continued to act, throughout this election and its aftermath, as though American civil religion were the center of our real allegiance.
America may have a new and acute kind of problem with its current president, but its chronic problems of injustice are rooted in assumptions shared by both major parties, and in a system on which they depend. Inequality – to take one fundamental measure of a just society – worsened under Obama’s presidency. Research published in December 2016 reveals that in 1980 the top 1 percent of adults in the US earned on average 27 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults – and now the same top group earns 81 times more than the lower half.* This is what economic reality looks like to most Americans, and many less well-off Americans voted accordingly (although misled, I suspect, as to what was on offer).
Given that laissez-faire neo-liberalism could be yoked to Democratic leadership and lead to such results, it is hard to see how choosing between the two versions of the current political establishment could really have been a first-order issue for those seeking social change, even if specific threats associated with Trump deserved to be named and opposed, and still do.
Many Christians have admirably taken part in protests since the election, such as the Women’s March, and made public their support for immigrants. These efforts are important, even necessary, for us as people called to act justly. Yet formal or institutional Christian responses to the election, and the controversies they have engendered, have been curious.
Episcopalians – my own tradition – debated the decision to hold a prayer service for the president’s inauguration at the Washington National Cathedral, itself an Episcopal church. Both sides in the arguments about liturgizing the presidency seemed to presume that faith communities function as adjuncts to the American project, even if they contest its specifics. Some, in other words, would have been happy to have a prayer service for Hillary Clinton, but were angered at having one for Donald Trump. A service held in conjunction with Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration featured prayers mashing together his campaign rhetoric, Lincoln’s second inaugural, and biblical texts. All this however makes no more sense than supporting Trump. Wrapping the presidency in quasi-Christian clothing makes no sense; praying for enemies, however, is a biblical imperative.
One of the unlikely “gifts” of the Trump ascendancy should be the realization that such buttressing of civil religion is a dead end for the churches. This does not mean that Christians should hold back from political action or advocacy. It does mean rethinking alliances and assumptions, and it does mean re-focusing on what a distinctive Christian politics would be.
This is where the example of Martin spoke powerfully to the situation after the election, and now. Martin was a Christian, and a leader of Christians, who was deeply concerned both with justice and with power. He had to negotiate the changing relationship between church and state, and consider what the integrity of Christian faith demanded or allowed. His situation came at the beginning of a Christian ascendancy, ours a well-advanced decline. Despite the differences, there are clear lessons to be learned, and I think an example to follow too.
Martin did not think military service and Christian witness were compatible. I offer no condemnation of Christians in the armed services – they must examine their own consciences – but this example shines a harsh light on all false reverence for national institutions, as well as on the specifics of sanctioned violence. The decisions necessary to defend the state may be unavoidable, but they are not ours to make as leaders of faith communities. Our challenge is to no longer pretend that the opinions of bishops or pastors matter more than those of anyone else (that was Christendom, folks), but to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” and help others do the same. Faith demands its own allegiance, and has its own commonwealth.
The famous story of Martin and the beggar places immediate engagement with the marginalized at its heart. We cannot afford to place our hope for justice on policy or voting patterns alone, or on the state, even while we must act as citizens to seek the best policies. Witness to justice must begin with personal practice, with sharing of possessions, wealth, and gifts, and with our own attention to those in greatest need. Politics, and economics, must be personal.
Martin’s refusal to join fellow bishops opposing Priscillian in using brutal justice of the state as a substitute for charity and persuasion is also a potent example. It speaks not just against the institutionalized violence still countenanced by the state (not only in legalized murder but in systematized racialized incarceration) but against compromise in using any tools of repression supposedly in the name of justice.
Last but not least, Martin devoted himself to prayer and fasting. Spiritual or ascetic discipline is not an alternative to activism, but must lie at its heart.
A couple of weeks after the election I was in San Antonio, where the strong religious traditions of the Hispanic population include significant devotion to Martin – “San Martin Caballero” – as patron of those in need. I found there some medals of Martin, which have been fastened to the lapels of my jackets (on safety pins, like those used after the Brexit experience of last year in Europe to indicate solidarity with the marginalized) almost every day since. St. Martin is for me a patron in the formation of a Christian resistance. I am not sure where this journey with him will take me, but it is now a part of my daily practice, and has made me think more clearly and directly about the commitment of the Christian in a time of violence and injustice. And occasionally – whether or not I should – I am reminded, facing the evidence of unjust and unfit leadership, that a cada cerdo le llega su San Martín. St. Martin, pray for us.
The Rev. Andrew McGowan, an Anglican priest, is dean of Berkeley Divinity School and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at YDS. He is the author of Ancient Christian Worship (Baker, 2014) and other books. Before coming to Yale in 2014, he was warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne and a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.