The Athenians waived their claim in the interest of national survival, knowing that a quarrel about the command would certainly mean the destruction of Greece. They were, indeed, perfectly right; for the evil of internal strife is worse than united war in the same proportion as war itself is worse than peace. It was their realization of the danger attendant upon lack of unity which made them waive their claim, and they continued to do so as long as Greece desperately needed their help. (Herodotus, Histories 8.2)
Following the deaths of the Spartan King Leonidas and “his brave three hundred” at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the various Greek city-states decided they needed to pull together. Xerxes’ gargantuan army and navy were poised to overwhelm Greece, indeed the whole of Europe. At the eleventh hour the Greeks realized they needed each other.
Traditionally, Greece looked to Sparta for leadership on land and to Athens for leadership on the sea. But in this case there were misgivings about giving Athens command of the city-states’ combined fleets (despite Athens’ contributing the largest number of ships). Herodotus isn’t clear whether the reluctance was due to lack of confidence in or envy against Athens, or due simply to a recognition of Sparta’s moral capital.
The point is: Athens “got it,” to quip Herodotus: civil war in the face of an external threat is suicide.
Or, in Facebook-speak: mutual defenestration means self annihilation. When the enemy is at the gate, that’s not the time to be throwing each other out the window.
Rather than lobby for their traditional right to command, Athens accepted Spartan command of the navy as well as of the army. The result: two brilliant victories — one by Greece’s combined navies (at Salamis) and one by Greece’s combined armies (at Plataea) — and one huge and final retreat by Xerxes. The result: daughters of neither Athens nor Sparta were exported to harems in Persepolis.
There are times that call for a sense of measure and proportion — times when you need not to be doing a smack down on each other. Fifth century B.C. Greece it figured out. Will we?
On one front, we face militant Islamists who have declared a reverse Crusade on us, demanding we either grovel before a disincarnate cosmic monad, or die.
On another, Mormons, arguably the fastest growing religion on the planet, knock on our doors with their terminal niceness (with, as Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven chillingly recounts, notable exceptions) and their uber-Disney promise that not only can you wish upon a star but you can get your own star where you’ll be a god or goddess.
Then there are the angry atheists who grouch about the immorality and intellectual suicide of faith. And just wait until this Christmas season’s (how deliciously ironic) release of the movie based on Philip Pullman’s vision of anti-Narnia: The Golden Compass.
Meanwhile, mainline Western churches languor under the sway of pre-pagan eros and post-Christian heterodoxy, embodying in a way that couldn’t be more precise Jude’s prescient warning about “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
It’s an extraordinary time for evangelicals to rediscover the stability of the Bible’s meta-narrative of creation, fall and redemption — the one true and enduring story that puts the lie to the false stories of jihad, of self-deification, of autonomy, of faux Christianity. A stability that allows us to read each other’s odd takes on the story with sufficient grace to account for the Grace that took on flesh to cover all our inadequacies.
In the end, much more is at stake than when the beneficiaries of the sacrifice of King Leonidas and “his brave three hundred” took stock of the price that had been paid for them. Nothing less than the opportunity to embody an answer to the prayer of the Second Person of the Trinity: “May they all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you: may they be in us that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).