Fridays With Fred: Pitiful Christians
Juxtaposed with what I’ve called Friedrich Nietzsche’s catechism, he asks: “What is more harmful than any vice?” (The Anti-Christ, §2). Most of us can think of a few ways to answer that question, but surely none of us would do so the way Nietzsche does: “Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak.” Later he adds: “I consider life itself instinct for growth…for accumulation of forces, for power: where the will to power is lacking there is decline” (§6). In a word, the modern value that Nietzsche deemed worse than most vices is pity, or sympathy. And, according to the philosopher, no single group are more guilty in this regard than Christians.
The next aphorism is worth quoting too: “Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands in antithesis to the tonic emotions which enhance the energy of the feeling of life: to have a depressive effect. One loses force when one pities” (§7). Because Nietzsche believed that anything “that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself” is good, its inevitable loss through suffering is only compounded when shared by pity. Yet he says there is another, far more damning aspect of pity: “Pity on the whole thwarts the law of evolution, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends life’s disinherited and condemned.” Thus he concludes that pity is in fact “practical nihilism.” Instead of enhancing the value of life it multiplies misery and shares in weakness.
It would be easy—but probably also a little bit lazy—to press Nietzsche’s principles to their quite terrifying conclusions. And yes, the Third Reich found plenty of philosophical support for their atrocious crimes against humanity in the work of Nietzsche. But when I read these sections from his Anti-Christ I had other questions in the back of my mind: does its critique of Christianity still ring true? Are Christians characterised by “active sympathy” for the weak? Do we truly pity those drowning in the seas of suffering around us? Are we concerned for the plight of the disinherited and disenfranchised? Is pity even a virtue that Nietzsche would identify when he looked at the 21st century church? I’m not sure.
I could pick out various examples to demonstrate the underlying Nietzschean spirit among Christians and in churches today: the celebration of tyranny in pastoral ministry, church politics, the lack of diaconal work, and our avoidance of costly friendships. But then I’d be letting myself—and very possibly you—off too easily. Because, how many of us can honestly say we’re concerned for the weak, whether they’re within or outside our churches? Precious few of us offer more than a trite ‘agh, shame,’ in the face of real hardship, pain, weakness, and suffering.
Nietzche isn’t wrong. Sympathy can be taxing, especially for borderline sociopaths like myself. Caring for the weak is usually costly, asking much more than mere material provision. Sitting with sufferers and siding with the disenfranchised is emotionally demanding. As Nietzsche says, showing pity often involves you in the misery of another. So instead of being a tonic for enhancing power or force it can be a depressant, something that robs us of strength. Such actions aren’t life-giving. In fact, Nietzsche points out that sympathy or pity can compound. It multiplies, spreading from those we pity back into ourselves. Without a doubt, “One loses force when one pities.”
At this point I might raise a few related qualms with Nietzsche. If life is a zero-sum game involving power and pity—among other things—who says the winners are those with more power? In other words, if pity involves subtraction, in a sense, then who says it’s better to finish with a surplus rather than a deficit? In Nietzsche’s formulation, others are only ever threats or means to greater power. This is why he cannot conceive of sympathy as a good thing. He never considers the benefits for those who are pitied, only what pity costs me. Central to Nietzsche’s philosophy was the accumulation of force and power. Though he didn’t necessarily think this power was to be exercised against the weak, he understood that sharing in their pain was incongruent with the will to power.
But let’s turn back to the Christian church once last time—and ourselves. Forgetting the countless problems we can identify with Nietzsche’s critique of pity, would he aim the larger critique at you? Would he aim it at your church? Are we those who gladly exchange power to love the weak? Do we care about the disenfranchised? What do you desire from others: are they only means to greater power and influence or are they opportunities to show meaningful pity, what Nietzsche called “active sympathy”? In 1 Corinthians 15:19 Paul says that Christians are “people most to be pitied,” if Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen. With him I’d cautiously suggest that we’re also to be pitied if Nietzsche’s ire wouldn’t be aimed at us, today.