The Long Defeat and the Cross

AdorationLambVanEyckBajaFew ideas contrast as starkly to our modern myths as Tolkien’s view of history as “the long defeat.” I have been very interested in the continuing comments that struggle with the perceived pessimism of such a phrase. I have refrained from commenting at length myself, for the very reason that I wanted to do so in an article. For the nature of the long defeat that is the Christian life and the Christian experience through time goes to the very heart of the faith – and a heart that most would like to avoid.

For the long defeat through time is nothing other than the playing out of the Cross through time. It is not the failure of the Church and of Christians – though our failures certainly participate in the long defeat. Nor is it a pessimism born of the modern experience as we reflect on the tragedies of our times.

The tendency of many (particularly among contemporary Christians) to relegate the Cross to a historical moment, renders that “defeat” to the past and writes the remainder of subsequent history and the coming future under the heading of the resurrection. Christ died – but now He’s risen – having taken away any need for the Cross.

But this is utterly contrary to the preaching of Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. The Cross is more than historical moment – it is a revelatory moment as well – one that makes known the way of God and the manner of our salvation – always and everywhere.

Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.

The cross to which Christ refers is improperly relegated to an individual’s experience in contemporary thought. The whole history of the Church, its path through time, has been a manifestation of the Cross. The occasional “triumphs” (as measured by the world) are very often the times of greatest unfaithfulness to the gospel. The “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” according to the fathers. We have no teaching about building on “success.”

Just as all of human history prior to Christ is seen as culminating in His death and resurrection – so all subsequent human history should be seen as a cosmic version of the same.

The vision of St. John is the triumph of the slain Lamb.

The witness of the faith points towards a coming victory. But that victory is ironic, sudden, and an intervention rather than an unfolding of an evolving kingdom. There is no Scriptural nor patristic witness contrary to this.

Tolkien understood all of this through the lens of his very classical Roman Catholicism. The same understanding permeates the thought of the Orthodox fathers as well. If there is an “evolution” or an “unfolding,” it will be of the Cross as seeming defeat.

And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Mat 24:22)

The Church is the body of Christ, and, like Him, its culmination in the world will be crucifixion. The character of a world that crucifies the whole of the Church, is the character of the darkness that has been a murderer from the beginning.

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (Joh 15:18-19)

That hatred of the light is the source and cause of human suffering. It is already present in the world, and it grows. The trajectory of that growth in the short term cannot be described. But the trajectory in the long term is nothing short of the Cross – the long defeat.

I think that some Christians are uncomfortable with a phrase like “long defeat” because the Cross has somehow lost its original meaning for them. So swallowed in the victory of Christ’s resurrection has it become, that we fail to remember its character of defeat. Our adversary understands only that our defeat means his victory. In this he is utterly mistaken and it is the resurrection that assures us and encourages us not to fear the Cross.

But the resurrection is never anything apart from the Cross. There is no Resurrected Christ who is not always the Crucified Christ. Nor will there ever be a victorious Church that is not always the defeated Church.

Those who long for a return to Christendom (in all its various forms) engage in an understandable nostalgia. But they do not engage in something promised by the gospel nor established as a theological necessity.

The promise to the Church is that the “gates of hell will not prevail.” People fail to realize that those gates are something that shut us within hell. The gates will not prevail for we will be victorious from within hell itself – even as Christ our God trampled down death by death, and not from without.

The long defeat is the path to Christ’s victory. There is no other path and no other true victory.

All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted. 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


27 responses to “The Long Defeat and the Cross”

  1. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    “Those who long for a return to Christendom (in all its various forms) engage in an understandable nostalgia. But they do not engage in something promised by the gospel nor established as a theological necessity.”

    I think definitely, on a political level at least, the desire for Christendom can be deeply antithetical to the Gospel. I think of John 18, where the death of Christ on the Cross is explicitly a conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar.

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Your words here, and in the post before concerning Tokein’s Long Defeat, remind me of my comment to my fiance when he introduced me to his place of worship. I had been raised protestant and had not been in many Anglo Catholic churches, if any that I remember. This was pretty “bare” church by most episcopal church standards and there was a simple crucifix over the plain wooden altar. I said something about that and my future husband explained that it was the truth that Christ had died on the cross and I agreed but I added “But He isn’t there anymore” — exactly the Protestant line of thought that you mention here. God is good and I am extremely happy to be worshiping with my husband of 28 years and our children in the Orthodox Christian faith where our adversary “is utterly mistaken and it is the resurrection that assures us and encourages us not to fear the Cross.” as you explain here. Thank you for your thoughtful blog, Fr. Stephen. This is a blessing from God!

  3. Raphael Avatar

    In light of this, what place does political engagement have? As I grow older I feel like proper work of a Christian man is to love God, provide for his family, raise his children, love his wife, and “feed…clothe…and visit” his neighbor. But beyond that, I wonder if there is any real reason to be political.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think political engagement is a good think – though “citizenship” is a virtue that has largely disappeared from the popular mind. The blatant lies and subterfuge on the part of almost every candidate is worthy of ancient Rome (I’ve been doing a little reading in the area lately).
    It would be refreshing to hear someone talk about genuine public virtues. I would love to hear someone championing the kinds of reforms required for a decent life in a republic.

    I think that we therefore engage politically, but without promise of success. Imagine someone doing something because it’s the right thing to do, rather than doing it to win. That would be remarkable.

    But we do not engage politically with the delusions of progress. We should quit lying to each other and admit that we would like to have “good” schools rather than the “best.” And then discuss what actually makes for a good school. Children graduating with real math knowledge and the ability to read and write at an 18 year-old level; a knowledge of history and not just some politically correct fiction. A real familiarity with the best parts of the traditional canon of literature. I’m not asking much. Any school system that does not do this much is stealing your money and spending on junk. Our local schools in Oak Ridge spend 12k per year per student – here in Tennessee. You should be able to get your money’s worth – every citizen.

    I’m voting for a democratic sheriff candidate this year (a rare thing for me) because his opponent promised that if elected there would be “no more desserts” in the local jail. That, on meals that average $1.10 apiece. What kind of a nut thinks it is somehow ok to make himself appear tough by taking desserts away from people?

    So, I will be politically engaged, if only to vote for common sense where I see it. But the republic is in such a sad shape – it’s hard to find decent people to govern us. Thank God, I’m a priest and cannot hold public office. I pray for anyone trying to do the right thing. And I pray for those who are not trying to do the right thing – that their terms will be shorter than they have planned.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, my late wife and I homeschooled our son in the hope of achieving the modest results you describe and so he could be somewhat free of the political indoctrination that passes for schooling these days.

    The result is that he is continually frustrated in inability of his peers (he is now 27) to understand what he is talking about. He has always been in the 99th percentile for vocabulary, has a working knowledge of American Literature, Plato, Shakespeare and Dante plus the ability to think a bit.

    His vocabulary alone creates a barrier as words that are natural to him, precise and appropriate are constantly not understood.

    Sometimes I think we did not do him a favor.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m one of those people who thinks education is its own reward – so your son should thank you. It is frustrating, no doubt, to be told “how smart you are,” when in fact you were only being articulate. I have in my files, a hand-written note from (then) Professor Timothy Ware of Oxford turning down an article I had submitted to a journal for publication. The letter was so articulate, written in a hand that simply does not exist in America today, that I could not throw it away. Simply pray for your son’s improved associations, that he may find those who appreciate him and whom he can appreciate in turn. A good conversation, not requiring constant explanation, is a treat for anyone.

  7. Christopher Avatar

    I confess that up until recently, I allowed myself to become unduly frustrated with politics. Now I just become frustrated 😉 It’s way too easy to become passionate about it all in a negative way. Schools and prisons are wonderful examples of sad shape we are in. Between tuition and the local Catholic Archdiocese, our school spends about $8,000 a year per student and each student gets everything Fr. Stephen asks for plus a moral and religious foundation (we of course tweak it for our Orthodox family). Between entrenched interests, indifference from the public, and of course modernist ideology I don’t see the schools improving any time soon.

    Everyone should visit a prison, or have a family member go through the “criminal justice system” as I have. Every time I see a bumper sticker asking for the humane treatment of animals, it makes me think of our prison system – we treat animals better! Of course, the average “law abiding” citizen usually simply wants revenge for the criminal. Well, they get it from our system. The prisoners defiantly need our prayers and our love (through visits and whatever else we can do), but I wonder if the average “law abiding” citizen does not need our prayers more for the way they have allowed our prisoners to be treated…

  8. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    My personal frustration with this topic is not when one identifies defeat and the cross, but when so many conservative religious bloggers see something that happens in the news and interprets that happening *as* the cross.

    No, the Supreme Court decision of the day is not the cross. No, the antics of the Democrats or the Republicans is not the cross. No, the immigration debate is not the cross.

  9. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Steve, there is Christ’s cross and there is our cross. It’s not for us to know what another’s cross might be. Isn’t it our job just to bear our own cross –like Christ bore his– and to help others bear theirs like Simon of Cyrene helped Christ?

  10. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    MichaelPatrick, I’m not judging anyone’s cross. But someone else can’t tell me what my cross is, either. People on the internet, trying to argue that “X political move is the cross for all Christian Americans” is absurd. Absolutely absurd.

  11. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Steve, on that we agree. Thanks for clarifying.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    The politicizing of the Cross is certainly wrong. But all human suffering and sin which includes even the many things we often think of as successes are encompassed in the Cross. The long defeat, I think, essentially says that in the End, everything this side of the Cross will become the Cross (else everything would not be redeemed). But the Cross should not be trivialized when we say this. The Cross is not exactly some “trial” that I need to put up with. The Cross is dying to self. That’s a very different thing. The colloquial phrase “bear my cross” has very little to do with the Cross.

  13. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    There’s no way to know whether anything particular occurrence is a success or not. In the middle of it, there’s no way to know. It may look like a defeat, but it may really be a win, either materially or spiritually. But it also may look like a win when it’s really a loss. Triumphalism and defeatism are both short-sighted. Only God knows, and I think I should love Him not for what I’m afraid of losing, and not for what He gives me, but for Who He Is, as Father Who Is Good. What happens will happen, politically, and it has very little to do with my soul unless I let it make me bitter. So many religious conservative white men end up looking like bitter old fools on the internet.

    For me, bitterness is not an option. I will hope, and I will continue to hope.

  14. Christopher Avatar

    “So many religious conservative white men end up looking like bitter old fools on the internet. For me, bitterness is not an option. I will hope, and I will continue to hope.”

    You are of course correct. On the other hand, I try not to judge them too harshly, perhaps because I too often share many of their attributes (i.e. impassioned reactionary behavior and thought, etc.). You have to remember they are “Christian Materialists” just as Father Stephen has been talking about here, although there are many who are closer to breaking out of that mold than their opposites (i.e. religious liberal men and women – or so I would argue). In the end they look no less the fools than the liberal religious. Also, politically (remembering the place of political thought and action in our lives – which is pretty low on the “hierarchy of value” in Orthodox praxis I think it is safe to say), they are usually not really “conservative” in any sensible definition of the term. They are usually a mixture of libertarianism and corporatists. A few are even capitalists, in the traditional sense of the term. They have some sense of private property, even if some of their other instincts often work against it. I would much rather live in their ideal world than the utopian dreams of their religious liberal opposites. As a friend of mine said way back in high school (who was an avowed atheist); “The right wing corporate manager has share holders to answer to, and at least benefits from protecting and improving your material prosperity. The left wing dictator has none of this”. He was in perfect agreement with C.S. Lewis who said:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. “

    So yes, the recent “conservative” victory at the supreme court (i.e. not forcing traditional Christian business owners – I fall into that category! – to fund the abortions of their employees) is not “the Cross”, it is a victory nonetheless (even if temporary). It is the right thing, and it was brought to the supreme court by “conservative” Christian citizens who are not perfect, but this was a good work…

  15. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    Again, Christopher, you have no idea if it will turn out good or not. You think it’s good now. But it may turn into a defeat in 20 years. Christians may end up winning a short-term battle and lose the long-term culture war. It’s impossible to know. Christians may unknowingly be setting themselves up, with the short-term legal winnings, to carve out protections and legal spaces for Sharia law in 20-30-50 years. Whether that is good or not will depend who you ask. I suspect that most who declare “Winning!” now would be troubled by that prospect.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are both correct…including the ambiguity of all “good works.” No work can be considered good on a utilitarian basis (on its usefulness). Things can only be good when they are in obedience to the Divine Commandments. That is not always apparent.

    The long defeat – I truly love the term – has a way of drawing us back to the true Cross and its proper meaning. We will live our lives, as have so many, and do good as far as we can see, but we cannot control the outcome of history nor hope to manage this world. It is the hubris of modernity that imagines otherwise. Our desire to control drives our anger and we become angry people instead of living people. The anger drives us to depression and to many other dark places. Christ has taught us how to live – and to live with the only true and proper hope – the Cross that gathers all of our failures into a victory (that cannot have been anticipated). It can be hoped for – but never really anticipated. And even the hope is frequently surrounded with doubt.

    All of this is contained in the gospels. We should read them as descriptive of ourselves and not as merely historical works. There will come the darkest dark – the most unimaginable defeat. And the hope (seen fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection) is so astonishing that it’s not even believed at first. It is the “great turning,” the “great reversal.” This was written into all things from before the ages.

    Tolkien thought it was echoed in the heart of every fairy-story (or faerie-story as he preferred). Only in Christ, it all actually happened.

    In Lewis, I think of The Last Battle (and of the Dwarves in particular). They refused to be fooled and as the faerie-story unfolds all around them, they cannot even see it. God give us eyes to see. It is little wonder that believers should bow before the Cross.

    Before Thy Cross, we bow down in awe
    And Thy Holy Resurrection, we glorify!

    (I rendered Proskynesis as “awe” here rather than “worship” for those who do not understand).

    The Cross is both that particular moment, but is also the whole of universal suffering and failure – all suffering and failure from the beginning of time -gathered together in one reconciling moment – in which all manner of things will be well. I do we not fall down! O wondrous Cross!

  17. Christopher Avatar

    “Again, Christopher, you have no idea if it will turn out good or not. You think it’s good now. “

    I do think it is good, for now, this hour, perhaps the next day and the few thereafter. I have much more modest expectations for my praxis in the political world then you seam to think I have – I have no expectations of this victory being anything other than a small step forward in an otherwise long defeat.

    “But it may turn into a defeat in 20 years. Christians may end up winning a short-term battle and lose the long-term culture war. “

    Oh, it’s worse than that I think – we have already lost it. But I accept the small victories (battles won in a war otherwise being lost).

    “It’s impossible to know. Christians may unknowingly be setting themselves up, with the short-term legal winnings, to carve out protections and legal spaces for Sharia law in 20-30-50 years. “

    Here I would make a distinction (that you implied by pointing out “conservative” Christians as opposed to “liberal” Christians). I think that history shows that the more robust, and fervently believed a religion/world view is the more lasting power it has (generally, there are exceptions). So I think on the whole, “conservative” or “traditional” Christianity will resist the coming Islamic hegemony for longer than the “liberal” one. So I don’t really link these small victories with ‘carving out legal spaces’ for Islam because Islam does not need these (western, classically “liberal”) ‘spaces’ because it rests on entirely different foundations. It’s going to steam roll over our legal system whether the supreme court limit’s abortion in any way or not.

    My speculative guess is that Islam will defeat what is today “western civilization” in the next 100 to 200 years, starting with France (which will be ‘Francostan’ sometime after 2050). America, due simply to demographics, will be one of the last to fall, but it will.

    But, as Fr. Stephen’s reply to both of us calls us to do, we have much more important things to busy and ‘worry’ about than the relatively little influence we have politically…

  18. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    “But, as Fr. Stephen’s reply to both of us calls us to do, we have much more important things to busy and ‘worry’ about than the relatively little influence we have politically…”

    That’s kind of the whole point of everything I’ve written. I do not worry. I hope. I just think the bloggers are silly to wring their hands and in the same gesture pretend they are eternally hopeful. It’s … unconvincing, spiritually.

  19. Jeff Avatar

    The ascetical struggle added to Divine-human communion or Eucharistic theology does engage modernity or life in general :

    “The eucharistic participants, then, must scatter into the world where they confront the stranger, who more than blood or ecclesial kin provokes a challenge to the ascetical struggle to love; above all, one rarely finds oneself loving the stranger. Notwithstanding its strangeness, politics is an arena of community of strangers and, for the Christian who cares about communion with God, the space for ascetical struggle. If we broaden the political beyond simply what legislators do to include the forms of practices in and through which strangers relate to one another, then the political is not insignificant to the Christian ascetical struggle to learn how to love. The political is one of the deserts where the Christian confronts images of demons that provoke demonization of the stranger. “

  20. […] in, I come across other things that cast new light on the subject. I found that in this article, “The Long Defeat and the Cross“. The article indicts that the cross is the Church’s destiny. Jesus’s death on […]

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is interesting, but it reads like a midrash. Everything that exists can be interpreted (theoria). But not all interpretations are true. I would want a lot more context before I bought into this.

    Frankly, the stuff swirling around Zizioulas (pro and con, etc.) has a funny way of becoming its own thing, a cypher, removed from the context of the Church. Interestingly, Z’s stuff (a lot of which I like), is also quite popular within the radical Left (theologically – and the radical revisionists even in the Episcopalians). It can be made to do lots of things. So, I’m just not sure what to make of your quote. Is this Papanikolaou?

  22. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno


  23. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno


  24. […] a couple excellent blog posts by the Eastern Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman (see here and here – long-time readers of my blog posts know that I try to read some of the best blogs from the […]

  25. Jonathan Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your posts on this topic. I was unaware of Tolkien’s quote, though it is something I have thought about a lot.

    I want to bring your attention to Nicolas Gomez-Davila, a Columbian writer/aphorist (and very traditional Catholic), who has a lot of very insightful critiques of progress & history, humanism, and the modern world. If you have time, I would encourage you to read through some of his work. Personally, it has been invaluable for me in making sense of the world, and Christianity’s place in it.

  26. Robert Avatar

    “The promise to the Church is that the ‘gates of hell will not prevail.’ People fail to realize that those gates are something that shut us within hell.”

    This was truly and deeply startling, Father. Thank you.

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