Believe in Something
The newest furor has hit the internet. The controversial Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick is making the rounds. For those who don't know who that is, in short, he is a former Quarterback in the NFL who lost his career over a protest he started. During the National Anthem before games he took a knee rather than stand as a way of expressing his views about racial injustice in America.
Here is the picture that has spurred memes all over the internet the last couple of days:
I don't wish to comment extensively on Mr. Kaepernick's cause or how he's gone about it. Mankind has a long history with racial injustice. America is no different, and more can always be done to rectify the situation. Many Americans turn to activism as a way of expressing themselves, as Mr. Kaepernick has done. It is somewhat effective as a tool of power over others. But that is what politics is: the realm of exercising power over others.
Influence, control and power - these are the building blocks of government. And in a society where it is not only our right, but our duty, to actively choose those who have power over us, these building blocks become a fundamental part of our society. We begin to admire those who carry the most influence, we approve of those who can control their companies, their children and their situation. We voluntarily participate in rewarding people who are overtly seeking power by giving them more power.
This is the society that has been created for us and that we are now preparing to nurture and pass down to our own children. I'm not saying that our societal structure, our government and our cultural norms are all wrong. But often it is difficult to see your own blind spots. Every society has its own moral ills and overt evils that it tolerates and allows. So what are ours? And is there an alternative to the life we have shaped for ourselves?
When I saw the ad campaign I instantly thought of martyrdom. Martyrdom is the opposite of worldly power, it is Divine Power.
"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 2 Corinthians 12:9
When we are deprived of worldly power, when we have no earthly control and when we flee from influential positions - the power of God fills us. Jesus often went against societal norms in his day, and Christianity is meant to do the same in all times and in all places.
Christianity is supposed to find the blind spots in its local culture and society and correct them, not by forcing such correction on others, but by correcting Christians in the call to repentance. It is a constant refusal to bend to the moralities around you, while putting equal or greater effort in refusing to judge those around you. This is crucial to living the Christian life. Exerting influence on others is not the goal, it isn't even the point - the point is to exert influence on yourself. Control yourself. Do not let your passions have power over you.
There are two ways we can remove ourselves from the societal narrative of power. The first is to have your power and influence taken from you. The second is to voluntarily give up control, influence and power. The history of Christianity has thousands of examples of this that have been preserved historically. I'll mention just a few today.
The first that comes to mind is the story of Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicity. The early Christians had no power in the Roman Empire and were frequently made the target blame campaigns for things going wrong in the political realm. (Sound familiar?)
Perpetua and Felicity were African Christians. Perpetua was a twenty-two year old noblewoman, married with a nursing infant. Felicity was her pregnant slave. They were arrested for their faith.
Felicity prayed while in prison that she would give birth to her daughter prematurely so that she could endure martyrdom with the rest of her imprisoned companions. God answered her prayer and she endured an excruciating labor (premie babies are typically more painful to birth) in prison and then went straight to her death.
Not only did these women go against every human instinct to avoid pain. There was no discussion of pain management; instead they sought out suffering, rather than trying to control it. They gave up influencing their children's upbringing and future, giving their children into God's hands so that they might die.
They could have easily taken back their influence and control by publicly renouncing Christ and privately believing in Him, but they recognized that there was something better. They knew that by relinquishing control of their lives, by losing their lives, they would receive something much greater. And their children would too!
You can read the full account here: The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity.
Or there is the story of Saint Babylas the Bishop of Antioch who was martyred along with his spiritual children. He was commemorated just two days ago. At one point he was led in chains around the city as an attempt to make him suffer shame and disgrace. His response was: "“Emperor, these chains are as venerable for me as your imperial crown is for you. For me, suffering for Christ is as desirable as the imperial power is for you. Death for the Immortal King is as precious to me as your life is to you.”
There are dozens of accounts of monastics who hid themselves when their spiritual greatness was made known to those around them. They fled from the prestige and honors that came with it and hid themselves in the wilderness. Often times they would be found and would reluctantly set up a monastery for those who followed them, and then they would disappear and be miraculously found again, and this cycle went on their entire lives.
A wonderful account is the life of Saint Isidora. She was a nun who pretended to be crazy and wore a dish rag on her head instead of the typical head covering. When it was revealed to another saintly monk about her inner, spiritual greatness he came to see her. All the nuns were horrified to find out that they had ostracized a saint and changed their attitudes toward her. She couldn't take the attention and apologies and so she disappeared.
This theme of rejecting power and influence is a common thread throughout Christendom. Worldly glory, the things the world cares about, are not the things Christians care about. Christians seek to become less so that God will become more. God uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong - not the other way around.
It is a false way of life to think that if we can influence more people, if we have more control over our situation, if we could just change things for the better - that we can make the world what we want it to be. Activism might win a few victories here and there, but at what cost?
Activism isn't wrong, there have been saints who do some activism too, but when it is the sole focus of our lives, when it is what we think gives us and our message worth, when the amount of people we reach and the effect we have on others is the way we determine our success - that is not any better than defining ourselves by our wealth or our talent.
Influence, riches, comforts and abilities, these must all take a back seat to Christ. We must embrace and revel in our weaknesses in order to see God's power working in us. We must reject those things that distract us from Christ even if they are good things! Christianity's job isn't to influence the culture. That happens as a secondary effect of the reality that Christianity transforms Christians. There is more good done in changing oneself than there is in spending time and energy persuading a thousand other people to change.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov instructs us to “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” We relinquish our influence and control over others so that the power of God can work in us. When our lives are overflowing with the grace of God, it is impossible to keep it from transforming others.
In reading the lives of the saints, I have truly been able to begin seeing my own blind spots. The saints lives are road maps for our own, and in reading their stories and what they have done for Christ (things that sound totally insane to me) I begin to understand where I am falling short.
By admiring and imitating those who were running from worldly glory, by asking for their help and by allowing them to be influential in my life, I am starting to see the blind spots that I have developed. And once I know they are there, I can finally begin to remove them.