Weakness as Strength

If there’s any big thing I’ve been learning about this year, I’ve been learning about love. Well, actually, I’ve been learning about weakness. But they might usually be one thing, the one way I’ve felt more and more strongly called to live. The person I’ve read this semester who talks most frequently and explicitly about weakness is Friedrich Nietzsche. He pointedly states his mind about weakness in The Genealogy of Morals:

“When the oppressed, downtrodden, outraged exhort one another with the vengeful cunning of impotence: ‘let us be different from the evil, namely good! And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like us, the patient, humble, and just’ –– this, listened to calmly and without previous bias, really amounts to no more than: ‘we weak ones are, after all, weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong enough’; but this dry matter of fact, this prudence of the lowest order which even insects possess (posing as dead, when in great danger, so as not to do ‘too much’), has, thanks to counterfeit and self-deception of impotence, clad itself in the ostentatious garb of the virtue of quiet, calm resignation, just as if the weakness of the weak –– that is to say, their essence, their effects, their sole ineluctable, irremovable reality –– were a voluntary achievement, willed, chosen, a deed, a meritous act.”

This strain of thought shows itself again and again throughout the Genealogy. He cannot stand what he sees as the twisted deceptiveness of Christianity. If anything from the book is clear, it’s that Nietzsche is not happy with Christians. As seen above, he asserts that expressions of Christian faith like non-retaliation, deference, and submission to suffering are pathetic. He sees them as devoid of any substantial desire for life and equatable to the self-protective instinct of insect. Only, it’s all actually far worse than the insects’ instincts, because the people who live like this pretend they’re living virtuously, pretend they’re better than their strong oppressors. Nietzsche accuses Christians of deception, of hiding their disgustingly pathetic and weak selves behind a charade of virtue and strength. (Ouch.)

I haven’t heard anyone make that same argument against Christians recently, but I think the question of weakness is still a live one: is weakness always necessarily a fact, or can it be a choice? Nietzsche’s accusing Christians of lying. He’s saying that Christians deceitfully claim their weakness is a choice––that in reality their weakness is a matter of fact which they can do nothing to escape. My response to this is to draw attention to Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus makes the answer clear: even without counting his choice to leave his Godhead and become part of creation, he himself was a man who chose weakness. He chose to suffer false accusations, hatred, humiliation, flogging, and a torturous, shameful death. He chose to submit to all of that, fully able to escape it if he had so pleased.

So Nietzsche’s wrong about whether weakness can be a choice. But I don’t think he’s wrong about noticing that Christians seem weak. This seems especially true of martyrs, perhaps the people who most demonstrably prove the sincerity of their faith––they prove it by abiding peaceably even death. Passive––which, fittingly enough, comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to suffer’ (passio)––seems like another apt adjective for martyrs: they don’t seem to show any strength. They seem deferential to a fault, letting anyone and everyone walk all over them without once standing up or showing strength.

But the book of Revelation has a different way of phrasing it: “they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). What martyrs do is called ‘conquering.’ A demonstration of weakness is named a culminating act of strength. And the means by which this weak-looking strength is carried out is even stranger: Lamb’s blood and testimonial word. Hardly the weapons I would pick for a firefight. The final oddity of this description is in its final verb, which––instead of being passive in any way, like martyrs seem to be––is active: “they loved not their lives.” It rings with the sound of choice––

A choice to die, the choice characterizing Jesus’ call to follow him. The thing about Nietzsche’s conqueror is that he thirsts vigorously for immediate, pleasurable, dominating life––life that rules and rejoices in itself. The martyrs thirst for life too––the eternal kind, the kind that’s not immediate, the kind that relinquishes its desire to rule and rejoices in someone else. The martyrs thirst for this eternal life so much that they choose not to love their time-bound lives. With this love-altering thirst, they are free from the greatest fear that plagues humanity––the fear of losing our lives. And because they are free, they are strong. However weak they appear, the martyrs have already overcome the strongest foe: they don’t fear death. They are conquerors.

What if we’re not martyrs? What if we don’t face the opportunity to die literally for our king? Jesus answered that question too: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). You can’t die both literally and daily. You can only die literally once, and daily means more than once. So the call on us who believe and live to tell the tale is the same as the call on those who believe and die for it: love not your lives even unto death. For the martyrs, even unto literal death––for the rest of us, even unto metaphorical death. We’re all called to die––definitely to die to ourselves, maybe to die literally. Dying to ourselves means doing exactly what Jesus did: emptying ourselves, lowering ourselves, being weak. This weakness, the weakness of self-death, is the strongest strength.

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