The Smart Take From the Strong

Don’t Stand for a Battle Until You Can Win

The Cinderella story of the 1996 March Madness season was the Princeton Tigers. In a low-scoring game, they defeated the defending champions and college basketball juggernaut, UCLA Bruins, as a 14-seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Led by Hall of Fame coach, Pete Carril, the underdog Tigers employed what is now known as the Princeton offense which Carril summarized in a phrase “the strong take from the weak but the smart take from the strong.”

The Princeton offense at its core is built around misdirection. The offense spreads out the defense and makes the defenders work before executing a timely backdoor cut. No player has the ball in their hands for very long, and it requires a lot of movement and passing. Essentially everything basketball is not today, and that is the point. Playing against the Princeton offense is supposed to confuse you, wear you down, lull you to sleep and then at the right moment, attack. Fundamentally, basketball is a game of runs and unlike other sports, the game is never decided by one big play but instead by a gradual victory, possession by possession. Or as my father would say on the sidelines, “To win the war, you have to win the battles.” The Princeton offense is certainly not for everyone. Frankly, it is best utilized by undersized and less athletic teams. For that reason, it can be highly effective for an underdog team to use against a favored opponent, which is why its principles perhaps could be relevant today for Christians.

Aaron Renn’s Negative World thesis posits a culture in which “society has come to have a negative view of Christianity.” Many Christians rightly have agreed with Renn’s diagnosis of the current state of affairs today in America and understand that culturally and politically speaking, Christians are now the underdog. However, it seems many Christians do not fully consider the implications of his thesis being correct. Negative World, as it is understood, means that on paper, Christians will lose in America. It means Christians largely do not have the power or strength to fight back toe-to-toe and emerge victorious. This also means, Christians are vulnerable to those who hold the power. As Renn later argues in his Negative World thesis, “Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.” There certainly are opportunities for strong displays of bravery and courage, directly confronting the evils of our day, however, the consequences will (and have) come and we must not foolishly run headfirst into danger. Does this mean we should lie down and not fight? By no means. This is certainly not a call for surrender, apathy or compromise. Rather, it does mean that we should thoughtfully consider what it will take to win as an underdog when we are at a disadvantage.

To switch analogies, we ought to recall our own American Founding. I recently took up Joseph Ellis’ biography of George Washington and found what could be a true model for Christians today in America. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the British Empire was the most powerful military in the world. Any idea of victory for the Continental Army was altogether not realistic. In Ellis’ account of Washington’s leadership during the Revolutionary War, he frequently referred to Washington as the ‘American Fabius’. Commenting on Washington’s leadership as General, Ellis writes, “Less out of conviction than a realistic recognition of his limited resources, Washington came to accept the fact that he must adopt a more defensive strategy and fight a ‘War of Posts’. Also called a ‘Fabian Strategy’ after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who defeated the Carthaginians by withdrawing whenever his army’s fate was at risk, it was a shift in thinking that did not come naturally to Washington.”

Perhaps what set Washington and the other Founding Fathers apart is that they had the character to fight a defensive war despite their convictions or own personal ambitions for American Independence. This is not cowardice displayed but rather prudence. This idea is recognizable in many contexts, like basketball, but is most easily understood when viewed militarily. I doubt anyone believes Napoleon to have been shy of conflict, and yet, consider his Military Maxim No.10, “When an army is inferior in number, inferior in cavalry and in artillery, it is essential to avoid a general action.” Ellis further explains this approach, “A Fabian strategy, like guerilla and terrorist strategies of the twentieth century, was the preferred approach of the weak. Washington did not believe that he was weak, and thought of the Continental Army as a projection of himself. He regarded battle as a summons to display one’s strength and courage; avoiding battle was akin to dishonorable behavior, like refusing to move forward in the face of musket and cannon fire. Nevertheless, he was now forced to face what he called ‘the melancholy Truths.’ New York had demonstrated that the Continental army could not compete on equal terms with British regulars on the conventional battlefield; and given the reduced size of his current force, ‘it is impossible, at least very unlikely, that any effectual opposition can be given to the British Army with the troops we have.'”

Accepting Renn’s Negative World thesis to be true means recognizing the situation fully and understanding the long road ahead. It also requires an understanding that some institutions will be sacrificed and lost along the way. Losses will occur, we will not win outright. Ellis illustrates this point highlighting the reaction from Congress to Washington’s proposed strategy, “The Congress was apparently taken aback, because a Fabian strategy meant that Washington did not intend to defend Philadelphia at all costs if Howe chose to make it his target. His highest priority was not to occupy or protect ground, but rather to harass Howe while preserving his army. This is one of several moments in Washington’s career when his decision not to act merits special recognition since another major engagement with Howe outside Philadelphia risked the existence of the Continental Army. It also marks the moment when Washington, who had been struggling with the unpalatable idea for over a year, finally and fully accepted his Fabian role, emotionally as well as rationally, along with the recognition that it would be a protracted war in which the preservation of the Continental army was the priority. These decisions, in turn, completed his transformation into a public figure whose personal convictions must be suppressed and rendered subordinate to his higher calling as an agent of history, which in this case meant that winning the war was more important than being himself.” Winning for Christians today will happen in unexpected, unglamorous ways, but the important thing to remember is to keep thinking and fighting and to not give up hope. As Napoleon said, “More battles are lost by loss of hope than loss of blood.”

This Fabian Strategy aligns well with Renn’s proposed concept of cultural insurgency. We need to find places where we can attack and win no matter the supposed insignificance. Christians in every context should be asking themselves where they can win locally. We must choose the right hills to defend and not waste our time and resources elsewhere. Each win is important and should be celebrated. Visuals are highly important in this fight, especially in the battle for the normies. The scenes emerging from college campuses over the past week illustrate this well. As one coach famously put it, “You play to win the game” but Napoleon helpfully reminds us that “winning is not enough if one doesn’t take advantage of success.”

Christians need to creatively consider what might be required in the coming years and act accordingly. Unlike the Benedict Option, the Fabian Strategy retains the military picture needed for today’s battle for America and prudentially gives a vision for Christians perhaps unlike the polemics of the Boniface Option. The true need of the day is a generation of Washingtons who not only possess the courage to act and confront evil but are daring enough to thoughtfully avoid conflict when necessary.

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Samuel Bentz is a deacon at a CREC church in Denver, Colorado and graduate of Westmont College where he played four years of collegiate basketball. You can find Samuel on X/Twitter @placeofcommon

5 thoughts on “The Smart Take From the Strong

  1. If Bentz had remembered the Vietnam War, he would have realized that what his father said, ‘To win the war, you have to win the battles‘ is not always true.

    Why does the current negative view of Christianity by the world necessitate any kind of war on our part? What is it that we hope to win?

    It seems to me that to a certain, not an absolute, extent, Christian Nationalism could also be described as a Marxist Christianity. Now the order of those words is important because Marxist Christianity is not the same as Christian Marxism. Whereas the latter would have Christian modify how Marxism works the former says Marxism would modify how Christianity operates. And just as Marx proposed that the only way for the proletariat to overthrow the oppression of the bourgeoisie was for the proletariat to use democracy to take the place of the bourgeoisie so that there could a proletariat dictatorship and they would rule over the bourgeoisie. With Christian Nationalism, it is the Christians, the religiously conservative Christians in particular, who are to gain control over society and the state from the unbelievers so they can rule over the unbelievers. Otherwise, we, according to Christian Nationalists will be oppressed by unbelievers.

    Such a view by both Marx and Christian Nationalists illustrates a black-white worldview. Both have seen the world as being the place where either one rules or is ruled over. However, under democracy with equality, we would see collaboration between the two opposing parties replace one party ruling over the other. My guess is that many religiously conservative Christians would object by saying that they can’t trust unbelievers to do anything else but to rule over us. The trouble is that lack of trust might be simple projection if Church History has anything to teach us.

      1. Ryan,
        As the article says, the smart take from the strong. But we are called to be more than smart, we are called to be wise. And the wise know what to take and what to leave. Being smart ≠ being wise.

          1. Ryan,
            All you say are negative opinions of me, but you never use what I wrote to support your opinions.

            In addition, you’re ignoring the Scriptures that tell us not to attack each other. If you showed that my statements were wrong, that would not be an attack. But you don’t.

            It doesn’t matter if I am wise or smart. What matters on this blog is whether Christian Nationalism is wise and consistent with the New Testament.

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