One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s sustained critiques of Christianity was that it promoted weakness as a virtue. He argued in his book On the Genealogy of Morals that Christianity promotes a “slave morality.”(1) Looking at the Beatitude sayings of Jesus as the centerpiece of this morality, Nietzsche railed against this unique vision of life, particularly as it was embodied in Jesus as the “suffering servant.” The moral solution, for Nietzsche, was to argue for the exact opposite; the will to power by the ubermensch, serving no one and dominating all others was the virtue of assertive power.
While one might either recoil at Nietzsche’s criticism or agree with his radical vision of power, the clarity of his insights into the heart of Christianity cannot be dismissed easily. For in Jesus’s very first sermon, he declares that the poor in spirit, the meek, those who have been persecuted, and the peacemakers are blessed.(2) Indeed, Jesus extends an radical call to what Nietzsche would deem weakness: “Do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” If this wasn’t enough, Jesus elsewhere tells his followers that “whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.”(3)
It is not difficult to understand Nietzsche’s aversion and critique. The recognition of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and the implications for his followers to “go and do likewise” goes against the grain of self-preservation and a self-serving heart. Why would anyone choose the apparent weakness as taught by Jesus over the will to power of Nietzsche?
The honest answer is that most—even those who claim to be followers of Jesus—choose Nietzsche’s way of power, while the call of Jesus to lose one’s life and to put others’ first is seldom heeded. Instead, brute strength is paraded in front of the world as the means of power and attainment even as mutual destruction seems all but assured. Meanwhile, the call of Jesus to service, sacrifice, and selflessness sinks down into the hearts and lives of just a few, even as it is truly the path to life. Of course, the call to follow Jesus includes relinquishing expectations for what it means to save life. It is the call to trust that as I lay my life down, someone will pick it up again. It is to cry out to God “into your hands, I commit my spirit.”
It is not simply an historical aside that Nietzsche’s desire to gain mastery through power did not prevent his own self-destruction. Losing his mind eleven years prior to his death and having his work largely neglected by his contemporaries, he could neither master the forces of academic whim nor unwelcome mental breakdown.(4) Yet, we can learn from his insights into Christianity as we wrestle with our own struggles with what it means to be ‘powerful’ and what it means to be ‘weak.’ Ultimately, the will to power must recognize its own limits. Even the ubermensch is limited and finite.
As the apostle Paul reflected on the ‘weakness’ of Jesus, at the beginning of his letter to the Corinthian Christians, he argued that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong. In coming to encounter this God who freely chose the weakness of the cross, we can experience strength and a different quality of life in Christ. Author James Loder suggests that choosing weakness and offering our lives presents the opportunity for true self-understanding. He writes, “Christian self-understanding drives toward the goal of giving love sacrificially with integrity after the pattern of Christ. This means the willing breaking of one’s wholeness potential for the sake of another, a free choice that has nothing to do with oppression because it is an act of integrity and everything to do with Christ’s free choice to go to the cross as an act of love.”(5) And that is a will to power far stronger than Nietzsche ever conceived.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967).
(2) See Matthew 5:3-11.
(3) Mark 8:35.
(4) Michael Tanner, Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994),3.
(5) James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 308.