By Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Theologian, teacher, award-winning author, and President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX
In 1970, the famed British writer, Iris Murdoch, wrote a novel entitled, A Fairly Honorable Defeat. The story had numerous characters, both good and bad, but ultimately took its title from the travails of one character, Tallis Browne, who represents all that is decent, altruistic, and moral among the various characters. Despite being betrayed by most everyone, he stays the course in terms himself never betraying trust. But the story does not end well for him.
On the basis of his seeming defeat, Murdoch poses the question: Where’s justice? Where’s fairness? Shouldn’t goodness triumph? Murdoch, an agnostic, suggests that in reality a good life doesn’t always make for the triumph of goodness. However, if goodness sustains itself and does not betray itself, its defeat will be honorable.
So, for her, what you want to avoid is a dishonorable defeat, meaning: Defeat you will face, your goodness notwithstanding. Sometimes you cannot save the world or even the situation. But you can save your own integrity and bring that moral component to the world and to the situation and by doing that you preserve your own dignity. You went down in defeat, but in honor. Goodness then will not have suffered a dishonorable defeat.
That’s a beautiful stoicism and if you aren’t a believer it’s about as wise a counsel as there is: Be true to yourself! Don’t betray who and what you are, even if you find yourself as unanimity-minus-one. However, Christianity, while respecting this kind of stoicism, places the question of victory and defeat into a very different perspective.
Inside our Christian faith, defeat and victory are radically redefined. We speak, for instance, of the victory of the cross, of the day Jesus died as “Good” Friday, of the transforming power of humiliation, and of how we gain our lives by losing them. Earthly defeat, for us, can still be victory, just as earthily victory can be a sad defeat. Indeed, in a Christian perspective, without even considering the next life, sometimes our defeats and humiliations are what allows depth and richer life to flow into us and sometimes our victories rob us of the very things that bring us community, intimacy, and happiness. The paschal mystery radically redefines both defeat and victory.
But this understanding doesn’t come easily. It’s the antithesis of cultural wisdom. Indeed, it didn’t even come easy for Jesus’ contemporaries. After Jesus died in the most humiliating way a person could die at that time, by being crucified, the first generation of Christians had a massive struggle with both the fact that he died and particularly with the manner in which he died. First, for them, if Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, he wasn’t supposed to die at all. God is above death and certainly beyond being killed by humans. Moreover, as a creedal doctrine, they believed that death was the result of sin and, thus, if someone did not sin, he or she was not supposed to die. But Jesus had died. Finally, most faith-perplexing of all, was the humiliating manner of his death. Crucifixion was designed by the Romans not just as capital punishment but as a manner of death that totally and publically humiliated the person’s body. Jesus died a most humiliating death. No one called Good Friday “good” during the first days and years following his death. However, given his resurrection, they intuited without explicitly understanding it, that Jesus’ defeat in the crucifixion was the ultimate triumph and that the categories that make for victory and defeat were now forever different.
Initially, they lacked the words to express this. For several years after the resurrection, Christians were reluctant to mention the manner of Jesus’ death. It was a defeat in the eyes of the world and they were at loss to explain it. So they remained mostly silent about it. St. Paul’s conversion and his subsequent insights changed this. As someone who was raised in the Jewish faith, Paul also struggled with explaining how a humiliating defeat in this world could be in fact a victory. However, after his conversion to Christianity he eventually understood how goodness could take on sin and even “become sin itself” for our sake. That radically flipped our conceptions of defeat and victory. The cross was now seen as the ultimate victory and, instead of the humiliation of the cross being a source of shame, it now became the crown jewel: “I preach nothing but the cross of Christ.” That gave us the passion narratives.
We live in a world that, mostly, still defines defeat and victory in terms of who gets to be on top in terms of success, adulation, fame, influence, reputation, money, comfort, pleasure, and security in this life. There will be plenty of defeats in our lives and if lack a Christian perspective then the best we can then do is to take Iris Murdoch’s advice to heart: Realistically, goodness will not triumph, so try to avoid a dishonorable defeat.
Our Christian faith, while honoring that truth, challenges us to something more.