When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a Jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God’s son?… A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross — how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed?
Nietzsche’s criticism of the Christian “King” is fair when you think about it. Christ claims to be the King of the Universe, to be all-powerful and all-mighty, and allowed himself to be mocked, beaten, and killed by his detractors …what a joke! How utterly ridiculous that the “most powerful man in the universe” allowed himself to be overpowered by mere mortals. It is as much a scandal to the ancient pagan gods of Athens as it is to postmodern thinkers like Nietzsche.
But according to German phenomenologist Max Scheler, there’s a deep flaw in Nietzsche’s vision of the person and power. An egotistical concern for oneself, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, is a sign of “a blocked and weakened life.” The will to power, which fixates “on one’s own bodily well being, [brings about] worry and anxiety, and hampers rather than furthers the creative force.” Scheler perceives Jesus’ exhortation in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 12:24-27), in which “he tells us not to worry about … the next day … one’s physical well being,” as a call to overcome one’s “vital weakness.” If the ideal of the individual is to give of one’s life and create or contribute to new life, then the invitation to “indifference to the external means of life” is an opportunity for greater freedom and self-exaltation.
Power or Love?
Contrary to Nietzsche’s accusation that Christianity is “indifferent to life,” Scheler claims that Christianity takes into account the totality of man’s nature, which includes his original “urge to sacrifice.” This creative force “springs from a spontaneous overflow of force” which is characterized less so by standing above the “small and weak,” but instead by descending to their level in a willingness to “love, sacrifice, and help.” The maternal instinct which urges the mother to risk her life for the safety of her child, the drive of friends and lovers to sacrifice their immediate desires for the sake of their companion or beloved, satisfies a greater longing that’s at the core of our identity.
At the end of the day, we need to return to the “heart” of the matter, and by this I mean the issue of what truly makes us happy as human beings. Does the heart yearn for an overabundance of power or an overabundance of love and communion with others. Even when it’s undeserved and doesn’t make sense according to our logic?
If God were merely power–power for its own sake–then yes, the Crucifixion would mean the God of Christianity is a joke. But why did Jesus allow his enemies to kill him? Why did he empty himself of power? Either this man had no power at all (and is thus a liar), or his power was based on love. Not a sugar-coated, sentimental, weak kind of love, but an unfathomable, mysterious, and at times seemingly illogical kind of love, a powerful love which manifests in actions more so than in emotions, and is strong enough to make you be willing to die for others, including your enemies.
Both Love and Power
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in one of his sermons that secular proponents of social justice conveniently forget about, eloquently expresses how Christianity harmoniously combines the values of power and love:
“You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off-base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher, Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will-to-power, to reject the Christian concept of love … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
I experienced this “power dilemma” recently with one of my students; we’ll call him Tom. Tom has always had a nasty attitude; he often makes contrary comments under his breath and seeks attention when he is bored in class. Halfway through the semester he began making blatantly disrespectful comments toward me. Feeling my authority to be threatened, I pounced. I started a showdown in the middle of class, trying to overpower him with all kinds of threats. He stormed out retorting “you don’t know how to teach a religion class.”
So had I “won?” I ended up making him angrier and creating an even greater distraction from my lesson. What exactly did I want to win, anyway? What I wanted most was to continue teaching my lesson and sharing the beauty of the content with all of my students, including Tom. I suppose I lost sight of this desire in the heat of the moment and sought instead to overpower him. But that display of power for power’s sake ultimately did nothing for me, for Tom, or for my other students.
The next day Tom came to class, I decided to pull him aside and discuss why his behavior was problematic, and that I wanted him to act respectfully not for my sake, but for his own sake. When he acts in a dignified way, it shows that he values and takes pride in himself. And rather than deducting points from his grade as a punishment, I asked him to prepare a lesson based on the Bible passage that speaks most to him. He was baffled. And scandalized. The same teacher that he accused of not knowing how to teach a religion class was asking him to teach his class for him.
Tom’s lesson the next week moved me and all of his classmates. I was reminded once again that it’s more satisfying to embrace them with the power of love than to overpower them for the sake of self-preservation. So am I a fool? Maybe, but at least I’m a happy fool.
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