Francis J. Underwood.
Jesus H. Christ.
What hath one to do with the other?
This week I wrapped up season 3 of the hit Netflix show "House of Cards." The show is set in Washington D.C. and follows the exploits of anti-hero Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), originally a Democratic House majority whip from South Carolina. After being passed over for an appointment to Secretary of State he plots an elaborate plan to gain even greater power and prestige along with his wife Claire (Robin Wright). Nothing will stand in their way, except perhaps for each other, as they ruthlessly, matter-of-factly manipulate their way into positions of power.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not here to condemn the show tout de suite. My wife and I curl up on our couch and binge watch Frank's destructive, and deplorably entertaining, will to power on Netflix with the best of 'em. Nonetheless, as we finished the latest season this week I also find myself preparing a message for Palm/Passion Sunday. I could not help but connect, compare, and contrast the two.
Like any good disciple, we will binge watch Jesus' passion next week -- taking in all the political intrigue, interpersonal drama, public conflict, and violent provocations. It will come at us in spades and spears, in backroom conversations and trials open to the public, in crowds and mocking jeers. Indeed, in many ways, the Passion of Jesus Christ is a 1st-century parallel to the spectacle of the "House of Cards."
Except for one major difference -- the protagonist. While Frank Underwood may be the consummate anti-hero (giving even Rick Grimes or Walter White a run for their money) his brand of leadership and legacy is antithetical to that of Jesus.
As Underwood slams doors and flexes his political muscle, Jesus opens his arms and spreads them across the wooden beams of a cross to give himself as a ransom for many. As Pope Francis said last week, "The house of Jesus must be open." While Underwood struts around the Beltway and into the Oval Office, Jesus comes humbly, riding on a donkey and eventually crawling under the weight of his cross. In contrast to Underwood's legal maneuvers and political schemes, Jesus comes simply, plainly, humbly to be tried, spit upon (even Frank got in on the "spitting on Jesus" action this season, but Jesus got the touché), and convicted to the cross by a kangaroo court.
Unfortunately, while we fashion Underwood as an "anti-hero," in reality Francis is the hero we all want. One with warts and all. One with flaws and a façade to maintain. One with weaknesses compensated by pride, political showmanship, and a coldhearted and purposeful will to power. Why? Because that's more like what we see in our everyday lives. Not only from others, but within ourselves.
Perhaps we'd never (SPOILERS) push someone in front of a train or let them suffocate in a parking garage to maintain or increase our grasp of dominance and control, but we certainly have our own scars from sinful episodes of wrath, lust, and greed. In the real world, these deeds lead most often to faltering failure. In the world of "House of Cards," to more power and prestige. That's why we like Frank. He is the take no prisoners, take no shit, take everything for himself type of person we want to be.
Then there's Jesus. The anti-anti-hero. To be sure, Jesus is no "hero" either. Nor is he an anti-hero. Heroes, whether they be the quintessential type like Superman or the anti-hero like Batman use violence and strength to win the day. Jesus, on the other hand, comes in humility "not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant...And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:7-8 ESV)
Instead of bolting into Jerusalem faster than Flash Gordon, Jesus saunters in on a donkey. How unconvincing is that? Instead of confronting the religious and political leaders of his day to fisticuffs he brings healing & tells enigmatic "choose-your-own-adventure" stories (a.k.a. "parables"). What a strange dude! Instead of kicking some Pilate or Sanhedrin butt or taking the seat of government by sword and force, he willingly offers himself up to be killed like a loser on the cross. That's what I call a pathetic, half-assed, attempt at being Messiah!
The disconcerting, even alarming, message here is that Jesus brings a completely counterintuitive, ridonculous, and inverted way of living and leadership. And then, he tells us to do the same, to "take up [our] cross and follow [him]." (Matthew 16:24 ESV) How dare he?!
Indeed, Jesus is the ultimate anti-anti-hero and anti-hero, all at once. His humility and sense of service to his Father and to all humanity rattles us. It confronts us. It plays tricks on us. We deny it. We try to muscularize and masculanize it. We try to refashion Jesus in the image of Superman or Frank Underwood. But it doesn't work. Because in the end, there Jesus is bloodied and beaten on the cross not really undermining the power of Rome at all. Eventually, even his church will be corrupted with the very power that crucified him.
Failure? No, it's a beautiful fulfillment of God's plan of compassion and mercy in contrast to control and manipulation. In our heart of hearts, we know that evil cannot be conquered by more evil. That's not how Jesus works. That's how the cosmos works. Instead, in a world-shattering move he accomplishes the will of his Father by doing what heroes would never do -- surrender. He achieves the Messianic goal by doing what anti-heroes would never do -- courageously facing his own destruction. He shatters the status quo, he defeats sin and death, he proclaims victory over it all and then bids us to do the same.
And so, here I sit, exhausted after my "House of Cards" marathon about to head into Holy Week contemplating how Christ calls me to think, speak, and act with compassion and humility, loving my enemies, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and praying for those who persecute me.
Maybe I'll finally decide to follow him in this path of peace, starting this week. Most likely, however, I'll just go get caught up on "Better Call Saul" or watch "Sons of Anarchy" per the recommendation of a pastor friend I know. Because, like Frank, I might convince myself that "humility is just their form of pride. Their strength. Their weakness." You know, justify my way out of sanctification.
Good thing that Jesus flips the script anyways and no matter what I do, or don't do, he's already gone and done it on my behalf. Amen to that.