A colleague recently compared (so-called) heroic stands of faith to Don Quixote. Someone thinks they will change the world by a controversial tweet or blog post. They think themselves to be like Athanasius, contra Mundum—against the whole world! Never mind that Athanasius never stood as an individual against the world, but worked with whole teams of peoples and congregations across the Roman World.
But here the facts do not matter. The point is the heroic stand. And the kind of heroic stand I am talking about often ends up with a knight tilting at windmills, thinking himself to be slaying a giant when he in reality has done nothing at all. Worse, he might have even hurt the cause which he putatively aims to support.
Over the years, Christians have mocked or attacked trivial things as man buns and the length of hair on men. Too bad for Hudson Taylor, who styled his hair into something akin to a ponytail, or Samson, whose hair flowed long because of his Nazirite vow (Judges 13:5), or John Owen, whose flowing locks border on the comical.
Such foolhardy statements flow, I fear, from a heart desperate to be the hero of the story. In some circles, the only way to be a hero is to be against something or someone. How else can you galvanize a community, if not by being against some hated person or entity?
This againstness becomes a self-made trap. To gain followers and remain the hero, one must constantly find new dragons to slay. If the dragons die, then the story of the heroic knight dies too. No more book sales, no more conferences, no more internet fame. How can you get the amens from the congregation, unless you attack the enemy everyone already despises?
I wonder how we might survive an encounter with Jesus, who once said that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt 5:41). As historian Michael Haykin recently explained:
This text is grounded in the brutal military tactics of the tyrannical regime of the Roman Empire. The Roman army, with its ubiquitous and endless need for transport, would often force citizens to carry equipment etc. It was a vicious and an ever-present reminder of the brutality of Roman rule, or pax Romana, as the Roman ruling elite called it (did the ordinary citizen experience it as such?).
Western Christians, raised on a pervasive diet of rights, etc., react to this saying, if they truly understand it, with disbelief. Surely, Jesus, the Son of the Lord of the Jewish people who commanded the slaying of tyrannical rulers, would command a different path? Can we not resist such tyrannical commands instead of bowing to them as–to use one of our most despised cultural terms–wimps? Surely, Jesus does not want us to live out our Christian lives as wimps, as evirated namby-pambies?
A single Bible verse cannot usually account for the complexity of life. Neither I nor professor Haykin intends to say that this verse explains every response to tyranny. But the point I am drawing is that Jesus had different ideas than we do, and our ideas often make our heroic stand one of tilting at windmills.
Tilting at Windmills
Don Quixote lived in a fantasy world, a world of knights and chivalry that no longer existed. He attacked windmills, thinking them giants. He created a story in his mind, and he thought of himself as the hero.
There are real heroes, of course. They are a great cloud of witnesses, often the unnamed ministers in a congregation, that body of Christ spread abroad which quietly and faithfully accomplishes its purpose.
However, Christain heroism virtually never looks like a lone ranger standing for truth. Most stories that are told that way are, in fact, not grounded in real history. It takes the whole body of Christ. And a heroic tweet, blog post, or the like often amount to tilting at windmills, an imaginary stand often aimed at an imaginary enemy. It appeals to the base, but it will be forgotten next week.
I am old enough to remember great battles of our generation: the emergent and emerging church, seeker church, and now the social-justice church. While we must answer the challenges of the day and writing a book or two can be of great benefit, these battles largely come and go. The Spirit confirms his work. The “dangerous movement” falls apart since a house divided cannot stand, and we go on.
But oddly, these new enemies always have a hero or two battling them, selling books, selling event tickets, and gaining fame in his circle. Usually, these circles are quite small. And so one must be the toughest and meanest to get to the top. That requires even harder tweets, sermons and talks. The harder you are, the more faithful you are!
It is quite the show, one which Paul, I think, knew something of when he was confronted by the Corinthians. They loved the mighty Superapostles, who actually abused them (2 Cor 11). In contrast, they found Paul to be rather weak in person.
Paul, however, knew the truth. Christ died in weakness but rose in power (2 Cor 13:4). And we too are weak in him. “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” wrote Paul (2 Cor 12:10).
It turns out weakness —being weak in Christ — shows the power of God through us. Because it is not about us. It is not about heroism, but about God working in and through our weakness to shame the powerful things of the world. And sometimes that looks just like this:
But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess 4:10–11)
Heroism is virtuous. We need genuine heroes. But our heroism often amounts to an individual who thinks himself a knight in a dragon story, tilting at windmills to slay giants. Seen from this angle, much of the macho Christianity we see today, whether online or in-person, amounts to something that we should pity.
Jesus is the hero of our story. He died in weakness and rose in power. And so we live in weakness so that the power of God might shine through us. This seeming paradox is hard to understand. But it means we give the shirt off our back and walk the extra mile. It means we live meekly. It means we look weak to the world.
And that’s okay.
Jesus rose from the dead. That changes everything.