Hic Dracones

“Hic Dracones”.  The warning appeared on an old map and we should print it on ours, too.  “Here, there are dragons.”  Or, as Fred Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.”  And they do.  Love and cruelty.  Children and war.  Sunrise and virus.

There has never been a world without dragons, nor even a city block.  Our precious things are all the more precious because they are fragile.  As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “all good [is] a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin”; never assured, but “saved… as from a [ship]wreck.”

So, it’s a dangerous world.  Now what?  That’s the question for every culture and every generation – the question that defines us and shapes the world in which our children will live.  We are, for example, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, named for the size of the dragons they fought.

But we seem to think of dragons differently today, as if this was the kind of world in which one could simply “stay home and stay safe”.  But since Eden, this has never been that kind of world.  Safety is not to be found in quiet corners.  We may hide for a while, but our children must eat, and that makes all of our work essential.  For most of us, staying home is anything but safe.

We have been hectored into a new, touchless normal.  If we see one another’s face, it is probably on a computer screen.  We enter grocery stores looking like bandits, are vectored down the aisles, and told where to stand.  It may be the land of the free, but we obey the tape on the floor.  We cannot smile and we cannot easily speak.  We do not shake hands or pat one another on the back.  Our new ethic is distance. 

We don’t know if any of this helps.  The point is that it might help, and our fear is such that any possibility justifies a new normal.  Our fear is rich and complex; fear of the disease, fear of what others will think, fear of the government.

And clearly, there is more to it than fear.  We know who the disease targets and we want to protect them.  God forbid that we do not try to do so.  The point is that – as the thousands of deaths in nursing homes around the country demonstrate – neither fear nor acquiescence to government officials has worked.

The answer is not a new normal.  This is not our nation’s first dragon, and it is far from our worst.  We began in the right place, with a system of government that forbad the sort of overreach we see from several Governors today.  That overreach must be stopped and condemned. 

And this new, touchless normal, however well-intentioned, should be recognized as ridiculous and discarded as soon as possible.  We need to work.  We need to worship together.  We need to be in one another’s presence and meet with courage the dragons of this world.


C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age”

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb – when it comes – find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

Shoppers photo: Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The New Criminals

You can tell a lot about a culture by its crimes, and our culture has just created a new one.

This crime will take some getting used to.  Neighbors meet, a service is cheerfully provided and gratefully received, and then they wish one another a good day.  The treachery in all of this could easily be missed. 

Most crimes aren’t like this.  As C. S. Lewis pointed out, almost every culture in human history has shared a common set of values, and we instinctively know what they are.  Don’t steal.  Don’t hurt innocent people.  Tell the truth.  Keep your word.  These ideas were once written on our walls, and they are still written on our hearts.

As a nation, we took those ideas seriously.  Our many rules grew out of one Golden Rule.  Our many rulers were held to those rules.  We didn’t need rule books to stay out of trouble because we instinctively knew what was legal.  “Do to others what you’d like them to do to you.”  Crimes against our culture were, in one way or another, crimes against humanity.

But lately, we have new rules, invented by new rulers – by officials no longer doing what we elected them to do.  They, too, claim to speak for humanity, but their rules are unruly; they are not written on our hearts or reasonable to our minds, and they make criminals of the most unlikely people.

My dad was a barber, a good man who worked hard and loved his customers.   Karl Manke seems like the same kind of guy.  He is cutting neighbors’ hair in his little shop in Owosso, doing the same thing he has done for 60 years, but today it is a crime. 

Power is useful if you cannot persuade.  Our new rulers can apparently make crimes and punishments out of thin air and have shown an alarming readiness to do so.

So far, the Governor has directed policemen to ticket Karl, the Department of Health to order his shop closed, and the Attorney General to suspend his professional and business licenses.  No doubt, further punishments await this humble man if he perseveres.

The new rulers are rich in power, but it may not be enough.  Men like Karl are not gentle because they are weak, but because they are strong.  They remember the Rule at the heart of all good rules, and they bow their knee to nothing less.  They remind us what America means.

The fact that Karl continues his gentle work and that neighbors line up to support him shows us what the new rulers fear.  They are rich in power but no match for a 77-year-old barber who is rich in humanity.

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Lines Drawn and Crossed

Rulers want us to stare at the line they have drawn, hardly noticing the line they have crossed.

Once it goes this far, you can’t tell much from the photographs…  The faces are hard.  Angry, maybe, or just scared.  There is no beauty in it, no clarity.  Force changes things.

Here’s an example; a shabby guy, skinny and flea-bitten.  He’s repulsive, honestly, but then you see a soldier jerk him to his feet and drag him outside, toward the gallows.  It’s a pitiful sight, but before that – if you’d watched closely – you would have seen him scheming against the government.  That’s treason, of course, but then you see the government he was scheming against…

You could take a lot of pictures of this guy and each would seem to tell a different story.  Good man or criminal?  Loyal citizen or traitor?  When the trouble goes this far, it’s hard to tell; dangerous to even talk about.  A line has been drawn and people have picked their side.

This – the ugly, brittle, and dangerous phase of any conflict – begins with force.  Force changes things.  It ends thoughtful discussion.  It reduces to two, however many viewpoints there had been before.

The shabby guy knew that, too, (well before he was shabby) and he tried other things.  He encouraged his neighbors to think about what was happening around them, but the YouTube and Facebook of his day (called radio) cut off his speech.  He wrote and preached until the new ruler threw him in prison and finally cut off his life.

You know the shabby guy as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a middle-aged, balding, mild-mannered pastor.  You know his neighbors as the polite, intelligent, and obedient citizens who gave birth to WWII. 

Force changes things.  It makes people pick sides, and they often pick what seems the safest side.  If they guess wrong, it’s soon too late to get out.

However we feel about the current emergency, there’s no question that unprecedented things are happening in America.  Parents have been arrested on playgrounds, hairdressers in their shops.  Businesses and churches ordered to close.  Stores told what they can sell.  People told where they can go, who they can see, what they must wear…  Our government is using force in a new way; a small number of officials making up the rules as they go along.

Force always divides, and this use of force has divided us.  A line has been drawn and it’s sobering to see who ends up on the wrong side.  Not, for the most part, criminals or revolutionaries, spoiling for a fight, but people we thought harmless before all this started – barbers, hairdressers, moms, and paddleboarders; even a few middle-aged, balding, mild-mannered pastors.  Reasonable people doing normal things – the kinds of things our government was created to protect.

There are two mistakes we can make in response to this force.  The first is silence.  The second is more force.

The virus is scary and, if there was ever a reason to grant the government new powers, this might seem to be it.  But it’s not.  There is nothing the government is doing by force that it cannot do better through education and cooperation.  There is nothing it is doing by force that does not fundamentally change our system of government.

We should, by all reasonable and peaceful means, call for a reversal of our Governor’s use of force.  We are free to speak and we ought to speak, both at home and in Lansing.  If we are wise, we’ll speak reasonably, because there are reasonable people on the other side of the line who might listen.

We must not use force or the threat of force.  Some want to fight fire with fire, but let’s remember; we’re fighting inside our own house.  We want the fire put out and the damage repaired, and there is reason to hope this will happen if we don’t confuse the issue.  There may be reason to be angry, but let’s talk about the reason, not about the anger. 

We’re not in Bonhoeffer’s shoes and, one hopes, will never be, but this is how it started there, too.  The rulers use force and then want us to stare at the line they have drawn, hardly noticing the line they have crossed.

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Related: https://www.jeffjostrander.com/the-silliness-of-mr-lincoln/