(Originally published January 22, 2015)
The renunciation of power is infinitely broader and harder than nonviolence (which it includes). For nonviolence allows of a social theory, and in general it has an objective. The same is not true of nonpower.
– Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the brave men and women who served alongside him as architects of the Civil Rights Movement were people of high ideals. In every situation they strove to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of truth and virtue. Their words and actions were chosen with grace. They kept a constant eye on the quality of their witness for Christ. They cared deeply about individual integrity and collective responsibility. And yet it would be neither unfair nor inaccurate to say that their decision to make nonresistance the keystone of their social and political strategy was never a matter of mere principle. It was also a pragmatic consideration. They were convinced that nonviolence would work. They knew it could work because they had seen it work for Ghandi. They adopted it because, for all the pain and anguish it entailed, it was still the plan most likely to succeed.
The case is very different with the Pilgrim. The Pilgrim has no good earthly reason for embracing weakness. He embraces it because it is central to who he is. He gets nothing by turning the other cheek – nothing but a lashing and a cross. He has no worldly goals. His only objective is to identify with his Master. He belongs to that looking-glass kingdom where reality is a mirror-image of the kosmos and heaven simply the world turned upside-down. He shuns force as a means to noble ends. He rejects the notion that truth, in order to be true, must have the backing of the state, the validation of the law, and the endorsement of film stars. He cares nothing for the pillars or powers that be. Presidents and kings in his estimation are merely marginal. He has no network, no connections, no lobbyists in Congress. The definitions in his dictionary have all been turned inside-out: loss is gain, debility is power, failure is success, ignominy is glory, and death the pathway to life. He is the wisest of fools and the most foolish of the wise.
In the first century the oppressed inhabitants of Judea were still dreaming of Judas Maccabaeus. In their deception they looked for a hero to smash the Roman yoke. What they got was a baby in a manger. They looked for a political strongman to set the world to rights. What they got was an itinerant poet-preacher. They looked for a king to lead a liberating army. What they got was a convict on a cross. Many never grasped the point. But there were a few who eventually fell under the spell of the devastating, earth-shattering truth: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.
It was of such the poet was thinking when he wrote, “They went forth to battle, but they always fell:”
Their might was not the might of lifted spears …
Their wreaths are willows and their tribute, tears;
Their names are old sad stories in men’s ears;
Yet they will scatter the red hordes of Hell,
Who went to battle forth and always fell.*
This is why the Pilgrim, if he boasts at all, will always boast exclusively about his weakness. In contradistinction to political operatives, cultural strategists, and ambitious men and women of every stripe, he understands that to fulfill his true destiny he must learn to be content with infirmities, insults, distresses, and difficulties; for when he is weak – and on no other occasion – then he is strong.
* Shaemus O’Sheel, “They Went Forth To Battle But They Always Fell.”