““Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Last month I had a grade 10 student knock on the door of my office wanting to talk. As he sat down, he cast his worried look onto the floor for a minute, then began.
“I’m tired of being pushed around by this guy – who I guess is my friend but I’m not sure…he always seems to just take me for granted.”
I sat quietly for a moment before responding, “‘Always’ tells me you feel this has been going on for a while. So, why have you let him take you for granted for so long?”
The young student tilted his head abruptly at this unexpected question. His eyes dropped momentarily, then back to me. With a tone of one appealing a judgment he said,“Well, I’m trying to be a nice guy.”
I assured him, “Yes, I can sense that. But how is that working for you – or for this friend of yours? Look, perhaps we need to look at things differently. First of all, who said nice guys have to be pushovers?”
As I said that, images starting popping into my head, like one I happened to stumble across last week on a prayer site…
I don’t know why, but too often I come across pictures like this, images that make Jesus look like a leader who suffers no challenge in his life – his hair is always perfect! – and is continually positioned in peculiarly benign situations, such as the insistent portrayal of idyllic children and tame birds at his feet.
Now, I don’t intend to judge the piety of these artists at all, for their own intentions I am sure are good. However, these images beg the question of what our true conception of Jesus really is. Have we distorted Jesus’ character portrayed in the gospel narratives? Take the familiar image of Jesus as shepherd, for instance. When Jesus spoke of himself as a shepherd of people, the people listening knew from experience that the life of a shepherd was tough and dangerous work. As Jesus declared himself the great shepherd, it would conjure an image in the minds of his listeners more like this….
For his claim to be credible, Jesus needed to display fierce courage against the dangerous elements in the world, much like the real shepherds who forged a living in the wilderness. And, indeed he did. Jesus began his life as a refugee and continued to find comfort from a ‘stone for a pillow’. He stood toe to toe in an epic spiritual battle against Satan while his physical body was spent from hunger. Jesus defied the threats of the tyrannical king Herod (Lk 13.32), he boldly threw out money lenders and con artists from the temple grounds (Jn 2.15), reclaiming a holy site that religious leaders had lost complete control over. More than anything, enduring the excruciating torture of Roman crucifixion revealed both Jesus’ physical and moral fortitude.
Why endure all this? Because his mercy for others compelled him to. Jesus refused to leave the widow orphaned, the poor unfed, the prisoner chained, the leper cast off to the side. If you want a true understanding of mercy it is this. Mercy is empathy fused with the virtue of courage. Empathy is the ability to feel the suffering of another, while mercy is the strength to lift the burden for them to move on. That implies struggle against oppression, and that struggle always demands sacrifice – and sacrifice demands courage. You simply will not find a weak person offering genuine mercy to another. At the heart of every true merciful act is a courageous person who was prepared to push back the weight of oppression for the benefit of the one suffering.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of the true nature of this virtue in his aptly titled book, Strength to Love. Himself a follower of Jesus’ teaching, King Jr. pointed out that “Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove.” King Jr. then brought that to bear on the struggle for racial equality. He went on to declare:
“A third way is open in our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted. My belief is that this method must guide our action in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence. ” (“Strength to Love”, A Testament of Hope, p.496)
Today, despite the efforts of the generation past, our human struggles endure and we still need ordinary heroes with the strength to love. Which brings me back to the student in my office. After pondering his predicament, I asked him a question,
“This friend who’s taking advantage of you, does he have lots of other friends?”
He replied, “No…and that’s why I feel bad. I’m trying to be a friend, ’cause he doesn’t seem to have anyone else…”
“It takes a lot to be a friend to someone like that. There will be times you need to stand up to him, which will take strength and courage. But in that very moment you stand strong for what is right, your friend is given the opportunity to change his ways. And by helping to change your friend, you’ve gone a long way to helping change the world.”
A smile slowly started coming over the face of the teenager, “Hmm, I never thought of it that way.” And as he stood up he looked at me and said, “Well, here I go to change the world then.”