Frederick Nietzsche, a 19th century atheistic philosopher from Germany, broke new ground in his day by boasting that “God is dead.” Still living in what could be considered a Christian time period, this German philosopher was emboldened by something he recognized. He sensed that Christianity had begun to weaken from within. In his book, Daybreak, published in 1881, he wrote the following:
“[O]ne should notice that Christianity has thus crossed over into a gentle moralism: it is not so much 'God, freedom and immortality' that have remained, as benevolence and decency of disposition…And [when] the belief that in the whole universe benevolence and decency of disposition [should] prevail: it is the euthanasia of Christianity.”
But what is wrong with benevolence and decency of disposition? And why would it lead to the euthanasia of Christianity?
Again, Nietzsche was able to pick up on something a hundred and thirty years ago that many Christians today have a difficult time grasping. That something is this: When one set of principles or virtues are impressed upon the minds of people at the expense of other complimentary principles or virtues, an imbalance is created. Disorder sets in. As for Christians in the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche took it for granted that if the exclusive emphasis on “gentle moralism” or just “being nice” was to prevail within Christian circles, soon, other needed virtues would fall by the wayside. From there, the defenses that for centuries had preserved the mission to win souls for Christ would eventually wither on the vine.
God Uses Opposites:
You see, the strength of Christianity is the ability to juggle opposites. For instance, the Holy Spirit is symbolized in the New Testament with both the fierce image of fire and gentle image of water. Christ, too, is given the title the “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of Judah.” St. John the Evangelist is said to have “leaned back against Jesus' chest” during the Last Supper as a son would affectionately do with a father. (John 13:25) But in book of Revelation his familiar disposition towards Christ gave way to awe and reverence: “When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.” (Rev. 1:17)
As we transition from theology to pastoral practices we find the same principle of juggling of opposites as well. Not infrequently, the admonition to be gentle is emphasized by the apostolic writers. “A slave of the Lord,” St. Paul said, “should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness.” (II Timothy 2:24-25) And as for St. Peter, he said, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence…” (I Peter 3:15-16) Indeed, we can be sure that diplomacy has its place in the New Testament.
Yet, in addition to gentleness and diplomacy, there are other pastoral approaches to consider. For one, Jesus uses violent imagery to communicate our moral obligations. He said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. And as for those who might lead a child astray, he said that it would be “better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) He also characterizes his followers in a peculiar way: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12) And, when needed, a kind of forceful approach was used by the Apostles.
St. Paul, for instance, in writing to the elders at Corinth, gave them pastoral counsel on how to deal with an unrepentant Christian man who was living with his father’s wife. Evidently, diplomacy had been exhausted and the time was ripe for tougher measures. The Apostle instructed them to do the following: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (I Corinthians 5:5) And who can forget Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts? After committing their misdeeds, St. Peter informed the two of them would die as a result. (Acts 5:1-11)
Paralysis Amid Evil:
With our modern and refined sensibilities, we have a difficult time coming to terms with the taking of the kingdom of heaven by force. Frederick Nietzsche, prophetic in his own sinister way, saw what this difficulty would imply. Benevolence and decency of disposition, without their opposite virtues, leads to a paralysis in the face of evil. When reluctance to confront evil becomes normative among Christians, as it has, evil advances with very few checks while goodness is slighted at every turn.
Like Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, the Church Fathers in the early years of Christianity took this truth for granted. Taking the kingdom of God by force, they saw to it that souls entrusted to their care would not be scandalized by public evils. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote in his Pastoral Rule, public offenses were to be confronted publicly. More important, for those who wanted to be in good standing with the Church, the pastoral policy among the Fathers was always one that insisted on repentance as a precondition to living the life of Christ. Without repentance from serious sin, the good seed is bound to fall on rocky ground, thus bearing little fruit, if any.
St. Augustine was one Church Father who maintained that many Christians set out to do good but have difficulty enduring evil. As such, they stop short from doing what their duty demands of them. In his book, On Pastors, he said this was especially case when one’s pastoral duty requires them to correct the wrongdoing of wayward Christians. But he said to heal and bind up what is broken, the pastor must reveal what is hidden:
“There are men who want to live a good life and have already decided to do so, but are not capable of bearing sufferings even though they are ready to do good…Weak men, are those who appear to be zealous in doing good works but are unwilling or unable to endure the sufferings that threaten…Reveal therefore what is hidden, and thus you will open the roof and lower the paralytic to the feet of Christ. As for those who fail to do this and those who are negligent, you have heard what was said to them: You have failed to heal the sick; you have failed to bind up what was broken."
A Painting: No Longer Understood
St. Augustine, it should be said, was privileged to learn these pastoral and moral lessons from a wonderful mentor. His name was St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. It just so happen that St. Ambrose was instrumental in St. Augustine’s conversion. In any event, it was St. Ambrose who was put to the test when it came to his willingness to publicly expose the misdeeds of a powerful man. And this test of heroic virtue is captured in a beautiful painting in St. Xavier’s Cathedral in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The painting clearly shows the Bishop of Milan putting out his hand as if to say, “Stop right there!” The story goes that he was confronting a Roman emperor in front of his cathedral. It is an old and cherished painting in our vast heritage of Catholic art. But I’m afraid that the moral lesson it conveys is understood by fewer and fewer Catholics.
In 392 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, a professed Christian, killed 7.000 Thessalonians in an uprising. Having been informed of this while the emperor was still miles away, St. Ambrose wrote him a letter. In this letter he said, “I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished.”
In no uncertain terms, the saintly bishop cautioned Theodosius that “sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, ‘I am with you,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.” St. Ambrose then recounted a dream he had of the emperor coming into the cathedral in Milan. In this dream, the Lord had forbidden the saintly bishop to offer the Sacrifice at the Mass because the emperor was in attendance. St. Ambrose took this to mean one thing: If the Theodosius does not heed his warning, he had to be willing, if necessary, to publicly confront the unrepentant head of State.
A Needed Love:
Inspired by this conviction, St. Ambrose was determined to publicly call the Roman emperor to public penance. There came a day when Theodosius presumptuously attempted to enter the cathedral where St. Ambrose was presiding. However, this heroic bishop physically prevented him from entering. This is what was captured in the painting at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. St. Ambrose demanded that this powerful head of State repent from his sin of killing so many Thessalonians before partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Liturgy in Milan. This Saint was too concerned for Theodosius’ soul and the souls of onlookers to let his sin go uncensored.
The inevitably confrontation was not only an act of courage but it was the highest kind of pastoral love a spiritual father could give to a son. Amazingly, Theodosius II did public penance. A clean heart and a steadfast spirit were renewed within him (cf. Psalm 51). Furthermore, the pastoral intervention by St. Ambrose was the standard that pastors aspired to in the centuries that followed. It forever changed the relationship between Church and State. As Lord Acton said, Christ, through his Church, gave to the “civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged.”
But from time to time this truth had to be renewed and preserved through violence; that is, through the blood of martyrs and the heroic virtue of Church Fathers like Ambrose. They demonstrated that Christian love sometimes requires us to go beyond the “gentle moralism and benevolence of disposition” that many Christians in our day primarily concern themselves with. And to be sure, the forgetfulness of this truth plays no small role in hastening the realization of Frederick Nietzsche’s prediction.