Losing Battles and Jack the Giant Killer

Not long ago,  I read another writer mocked for fighting what he was told was a losing battle.  The question concerned same-sex marriage, whether or not society, through coercive government power, ought to redefine marriage to include romantic relationships by members of the same sex. But, overall, it is not the specific question of same-sex marriage that concerns us, but the principle.  The writer opposed the redefinition, was told that society had already decided, that he was fighting a losing battle, and that he may as well give up.  This idea is sometimes expressed too in the claim that one shouldn’t be on the “wrong side of history.”  In brief, get on the bus or get crushed beneath it.

As a moral principle or motivation of human action, this is logically absurd- a simple case of bandwagoning at its ugliest.  Everyone else is doing this, supporting this, or thinking this way and, for that reason and that reason alone, we ought to as well.  It is simply a textbook case of the ad populum fallacy, that is, determining which side is right simply by appeal to the majority.  The question, however, is never if a man is on the winning or losing side, but if he is on the right or wrong one.

The “avoid the losing side,” principle, though, is even worse.  Not only logically fallacious, the principle represents sheer moral cowardice.   A man doesn’t fight because he is on the winning side, but because he is on the right side; and he fights to find out if the right side will be the winning side.  To fight on a side simply because it is stronger or winning is like a child on the schoolyard following a bully as a lackey just so he will win and be safe.  This is distasteful in a child, but contemptible in an adult.

One thinks of G.K. Chesterton’s remarks on Jack the Giant Killer (1).  The old fairy tales keep a truth forgotten by the modern world.  The giant probably considered himself on the right side of history; his was the direction history was moving in because he had power to make it so.  Certainly he would have laughed at any suggestion that he was not on the winning side.  And he probably saw Jack as a very small and backward person who was himself on the wrong side of history, which is to say, on the wrong side of the giant.  But, as Chesterton says, Jack didn’t care whether the giant was very large,  only whether or not he was very right or very wrong.  Modern nonsense stories sometimes praise a man for his courage in being on the right side of some progressive movement or other; but that is absurd.  What courage is possible if a man is simply on the side that history is moving in anyway?  What courage is there is being on the side of the giant?  But Jack was not on the winning side or the strong side.  He was on the weak side.  And so he was on the brave side.  Figuring out which side is going to be the winning side and then joining it, that is, being on the right side of history or avoiding a losing battle requires no courage at all.  As Chesterton remarked:

The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong… To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school. Nor can I imagine anything that would do humanity more good than the advent of a race of Supermen, for them to fight like dragons. If the Superman is better than we, of course we need not fight him; but in that case, why not call him the Saint? But if he is merely stronger (whether physically, mentally, or morally stronger, I do not care a farthing), then he ought to have to reckon with us at least for all the strength we have. It we are weaker than he, that is no reason why we should be weaker than ourselves. If we are not tall enough to touch the giant’s knees, that is no reason why we should become shorter by falling on our own (1).

More historically, another boy once fought another giant.  And like Jack, that boy cared nothing for whether he was fighting a losing battle or if he was on the right side of history.  The giant laughed at him, ridiculed him, despised him, and held him in contempt.  But with only a slingshot and a small, round stone, the boy felled the giant and cut off his head (1 Samuel 17).  The losing battle turned into victory unforeseen, unless perhaps by a few who might have known their fairy tales.  It might be the same today.  Same-sex marriage might be supported by all the force of powerful lobbies, coercive government power, and the might of the modern media, but such a giant could hardly matter to Jack.

Finally, there is a special reason that a Christian need never be afraid of a losing battle.  Because according to their chief story, a certain peasant carpenter once also fought a losing battle against a corrupt and powerful empire.  He fought too against corrupt religious authorities whose task it was to defy the world, but had accommodated themselves to it.  As Fulton Sheen has remarked, his battle was fought not with five stones, but with 5 wounds, and when hung from a tree by his enemies, his losing battle seemed lost.  History was on the side of the powerful, the strong, the might and imperial eagle of Rome.  But his was another victory unforeseen, as His losing battle was won, crucifixion ending in Resurrection.  And centuries later, when the world’s greatest empire fell to the Germanic barbarians, His Church outlived the empire, as it has outlived kings and empires ever since.  Losing battles can be still worth fighting, Giants still need to be slain, and there is still a place in the modern world for Jack.

(1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/470/470-h/470-h.htm#chap05

Heretics, Chapter 5.