Updated: Sep 27, 2020
The media-fueled campaign to vandalize and purge statues around the Western world is not limited to household names like George Washington and Winston Churchill. In St. Louis, Missouri, protesters have focused their hatred on a lesser-known target. King Louis IX—monarch of France from 1226 to 1270—gives his name to the city. An equestrian statue of the king, Apotheosis of St. Louis, looms impressively in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Protesters have called for both the statue and the city’s name to be removed.
The protesters’ exact grievances against Louis IX are not very clear. One local progressive leader vaguely told the media that Louis represents “hate and bigotry.” When a crowd of protesters surrounded and vandalized the statue, a local Catholic priest—Fr. Stephen Schumacher—attempted to reason with the mob, explaining that Louis had used his power to serve others. The protesters responded with a cacophony of complaints that ranged from the malicious to the historically illiterate.
One protester shouted that medieval French people were white. Others insisted that Louis IX had killed “Africans,” implying that he had oppressed black people. In reality, Louis attacked Arab Muslims in Egypt and Tunisia in an attempt to relieve besieged Christian populations in the Levant.
Fr. Schumacher, perhaps naively assuming the protesters’ good faith, genially invited them to “go down to the St. Louis Cathedral, and… see some of the history that St. Louis did.” One protester sneered: “Eventually we are taking that too.” Another protester chuckled. This sneering protester was more insightful than he realized. Beneath his threat lay the secret of the whole controversy: that Louis himself is not the point. Louis IX must be destroyed, but only incidentally, as part of a broader totalitarian movement which—by its very nature—cannot distinguish between one symbol of Western heritage and another. When it eventually runs out of statues, it will target churches.
Who was Louis IX?
While we should not expect anti-Christian protesters to care about Louis IX’s biography, the king is remarkably relevant to the present situation of the church. It’s worth taking a moment to explore some of the highlights of Louis’ career.
Louis descended from a line of active kings deeply intertwined with church history—and, especially, with the crusades. During the First Crusade, launched in 1095, Christians had recaptured the Holy Land from Islam, establishing independent Christian states in the Levant. Although often called “crusader states” today, these states were home to a mix of Latin, Greek, and Syriac Christians.
In 1144, however, Muslims conquered Edessa—a Christian state in the northern Levant—and committed a genocidal massacre of the population. This prompted a series of additional crusades, in which European nations who were normally enemies put aside their differences to defend the Holy Land. During the largely successful Third Crusade, Louis’ grandfather Phillip Augustus had fought alongside the English King Richard the Lionheart. Yet this Christian unity was short-lived: when the crusade ended, Phillip and Richard went to war against each other over a family feud.
Louis IX, however, was a different kind of king. Profoundly uninterested in the internal factional squabbles of Europe, he saw himself first and foremost as a Christian leader, and only secondarily as the king of France. Louis saw his reign as an opportunity to glorify God by serving others and strengthening the church, in part through patronizing architecture and the arts.
Famously, Louis routinely washed the feet of his poor subjects. He also reformed the judicial system, championing the presumption of innocence. After receiving the famous Crown of Thorns relic from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Louis commissioned the Sainte-Chapelle—one of the most awe-inspiring structures of the High Middle Ages—to house the crown. One medieval philosopher wrote that Saint-Chapelle is so beautiful that entering it is like being “rapt to heaven.”
Louis’s passion for the downtrodden did not stop in France: the king also wished to defend oppressed Christians abroad. In 1244, the Muslims captured Jerusalem from the Christians in what was becoming an exhausting back-and-forth. With six crusades having already taken place, Louis decided to try a new tactic: he would go on the offensive against Islam and attack it in Egypt—at that time, the base of its power. Although this Seventh Crusade was decisively defeated, Louis then spent four years in the Levant, helping the Christian states to build up their defenses. This last project united Louis' two key interests: uplifting the downtrodden and advancing the sociopolitical unity of the church.
After returning to Europe, Louis discovered that the king of England planned to go to war with him over disputed continental territory. Breaking with the pattern of his forebears, Louis responded by negotiating a startling peace treaty with England. Under the treaty, Louis would concede continental territory to the English king. In return, the English king would do homage to Louis and renounce his other continental claims.
The historian John Julius Norwich wrote of Louis that “peace among Christians was his first priority, and he was prepared to go to almost any lengths to secure it. Never had a united Christendom come closer to realization.” Louis’ actions made France the center of European Christendom during his reign.
In 1265, Muslims made further gains against the Christians, capturing significant territory and destroying the Cathedral of Nazareth. In the Eighth Crusade, Louis once again tried an offensive strategy to protect the Holy Land, attempting to cut off a Muslim supply route by invading Tunis. The expedition was poorly-planned, however, and ended in disaster when Louis died of dysentery.
Louis’ most visible legacy, the Sainte-Chapelle, is itself relevant to current events. In the modern era, the celestial sanctuary was massively damaged by the Jacobins, who were desecrating churches—along with all other visible symbols of Christianity—as part of their virulent dechristianization campaign. The Crown of Thorns, however, survived, and was later moved to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The Crown then survived the fire at Notre Dame in 2019 after a priest ran into the burning cathedral to retrieve it.
Lessons from Louis IX
Perhaps the most urgently relevant part of Louis’ life is the act most associated with his Christian piety: the ritual of foot-washing. In a time when foot-washing is abused and degraded, Louis reminds us of its true purpose: an expression of servant-leadership. Christ washed the feet of his disciples precisely because he was their leader—just as Louis washed the feet of the poor precisely because he was their king.
To imagine a contemporary example of biblical foot-washing, we might think of a Christian US president washing the feet of his presidential cabinet, a police officer washing the feet of civilians, or a husband washing the feet of his wife. The biblical foot-washer, like Louis, humbles himself for the very reason that he is in a position of legitimate leadership over those he serves.
In contrast, in one of the most grotesque displays to come out of the evangelical church this year, white former Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy recently knelt down and cleaned the shoes of Lecrae, a black Christian rapper, with a brush. Cathy explained that he did this to express a sense of “shame” over his race, and urged other white people to do the same. Of course, Cathy did not do this because he sees white people as the servant-leaders of black people. Instead, the ritual was a cringing act of penance for Cathy's supposed blood guilt for being white.
We can leave aside, for now, the questions of why Cathy believes that notions of racial blood guilt are compatible with the New Covenant, why Cathy does not think this blood sin was atoned for by the Cross, and whether Cathy believes that brushing Lecrae's shoes expiated his racial guilt. Suffice it to say that—when part of the Gospel is perverted by the world—it becomes more important than ever for the faithful church to reassert and to model its true meaning. Louis IX provides an example of what Christian foot-washing should be, and must be again.
Church Over Race
A second lesson from Louis IX is his firm belief that a Christian's identity group is, first and foremost, the church. In seeking to accommodate the church to the beliefs of the media, academia, and large corporations, contemporary evangelicals are now pushing Christians to see themselves—especially when it comes to sin—primarily in terms of race. In contrast, Louis sought to set aside the division between the French and the English—two nations who had been locked in bloody conflict for generations—to attain his dream of a united Christendom.
Peter wrote that Christians themselves “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” This teaching contradicts racial penance advocates like Dan Cathy in two fundamental ways. First, Christians are defined by having “received mercy” and not by guilt, let alone an immutable racial guilt requiring continuing ritual acts of public penance. Secondly, Christians are—unlike the rest of the world—one “race.” The primary cultural division for a Christian is not black-white or French-English, but church-world. The church is, as the Greek text of 1 Peter 2:9 states, an “ethnos hagion.”
Christians in the West are, in more ways than one, now being reminded that we are a “holy nation” within a nation. On the same day that Fr. Stephen Schumacher invited protesters to the Cathedral of St. Louis, Christians praying near the statue of St. Louis were violently attacked by several protesters. One of the attackers, Terrence Page, was filmed attacking multiple Christians. Page has boasted openly of his use of violence—even granting media interviews. “I don’t have any shame about it: I feel like it is something that needs to be done,” he explained. Page also added that the Christians he’d attacked were “white supremacists” for defending the statue.
What Can We Learn?
The church today faces adversaries who are every bit as dedicated as those faced by Louis IX—and Protestants are naïve if we do not think the protester who threatened to destroy the Cathedral of St. Louis would not just as happily destroy a Protestant church. Many Protestants and Catholics still act as if the Protestant-Catholic divide is the most important identity conflict in the world. Anti-Christians, ironically, know better: their distinction is church-world.
1 Peter 9 calls the church not only a holy nation, but a "house of living stones." This analogy brings to mind an image in Daniel 2, in which a stone representing the church intrudes upon the whole world and breaks apart oppressive systems of power. The contemporary evangelical church has accepted the opposite vision: yielding to a narrative promoted by the very power structures it is meant to challenge, and allowing that narrative to break apart the church. Now more than ever, we must remember what Louis IX knew: that the church is not here to be changed by the world, but to change it.