The Common Good
March 2007

True Believers

by Dan Nejfelt | March 2007

Historical reflections on war often lead to the conclusion that the past is prologue, that the same ones are fought again and again, from the Peloponnesus to Afghanistan, from Vietnam to ...

Historical reflections on war often lead to the conclusion that the past is prologue, that the same ones are fought again and again, from the Peloponnesus to Afghanistan, from Vietnam to Iraq. Infidel, a historical drama about the Fifth Crusade written by Roger Gregg and produced by the Dublin-based Crazy Dog Audio Theatre, spares us such explicit comparisons, but the play is laced with evocations of Iraq, terrorism, and militarism in general. The result is a clear statement about the enduring, self-perpetuating logic of violence in the name of God, which unites enemies over the course of centuries. But Infidel also shows the timelessness of Christian opposition to war through the internal struggles of its main characters and the shadowy—and historically accurate—presence of St. Francis of Assisi.

But Infidel is first a compelling work that makes skillful use of the audio medium, combining cinema's evocative power with the narrative devices and imaginative demands of a novel. The listener can hear the clashing of swords, but also the thoughts of the protagonist. The chase of a petty thief is audible and clear, but the look of the marketplace he runs through is left to the imagination. Recorded in medieval village surroundings in Ireland as well as in a studio, the sound is realistic and detailed. However, the extensive flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout the play can be confusing, especially in the first act, when the listener has little context in which to place them and is not familiar with all of the relevant characters.

Broken into four 25-minute acts, Infidel traces the journey and development of Hugh of Beauvais from the second son on a small manor in Europe to a simple knight on the crusade battleground to a captive in a Sultan's court. A reluctant warrior of more meek than bold temper, Hugh is accompanied by his brave, ambitious older brother Philip. He meets a cast of jingoistic clergymen, unscrupulous arms dealers, hardened crusaders, and condemned innocents on his odyssey to the Holy Land. But his most constant companions are the conflicting memories that refuse to leave him as he embarks upon Christian jihad in the year 1217. We hear them repeatedly as he goes to fight in Egypt. Recitation of the Beatitudes and exhortations to holy war shout each other down as Hugh struggles with faith, church, and death, and the words of his beloved Johanna remind him continually that he is no bloodthirsty fighter.

MANY OF HUGH'S compatriots demonstrate the timeless nature of the ethics and impulses of war. Philip sounds like a medieval member of a Christian al Qaeda, saying "It is the highest honor a Christian knight may attain—to kill the infidel. The church teaches this; it is the most glorious thing."

But Philip's order, the Knights of the Templar, is portrayed not as a terrorist organization but as a special forces unit, and its leader, Marshal Ricault, espouses a view of war and peace that would make a neoconservative blush. "All good kings understand that peace is the time used to prepare for war," he says. While preparing for battle, he tells Philip and Hugh of the permanent arms race between infidel sultans and Christian kings, complete with weapons research and development efforts.

The most striking statements come from a priest and a cardinal. An Irish priest who uses the book of Revelation to whip up war fervor in the first act echoes the Left Behind crowd's messianic support for the Iraq war. "You are God's chosen army," he says. "These are the last days!" Cardinal Pelagius, whom the Muslim sultan refers to as a general, offers another Christian justification for war against the infidels: "What greater love can we show them than breaking the grip of the Antichrist so they can accept Jesus and be saved?"

Infidel does not cast all Christians as warmongers. Although crusaders slaughter civilians and revel in the glory of war, the play is more about Hugh's crisis of conscience than anything else. From the beginning, he lacks the heroic, bloodthirsty enthusiasm of his fellow Christian soldiers, and in his thoughts we hear his misgivings about the disparity between the content of the gospel and the idea of holy war. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he repeats often, especially in the final act. St. Francis of Assisi, described by Ricault as "that fanatic [who] used to be a fine knight," is an object of gossip and scorn throughout the play, but in his only appearance he confounds the sultan with his wisdom, courage, and love.

Hugh ultimately chooses to be a peacemaker, which predictably does not lead to a peaceful solution to the war. But the contrast between his struggle and the violent fervor of the Christian knights around him highlights the countercultural nature of pacifism, even within a faith that calls its savior the prince of peace. This dissonance is as constant as war itself, and Infidel portrays both with mesmerizing profundity.

Dan Nejfelt, a former editorial student intern at Sojourners, is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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