During the last fifty years we have seen the cities of America crumble into race riots time and again. The problem of racism is solved by the way of the cross, by the way of the ordinary person who, filled with transcendent insight, sees a problem, owns it, then rolls up his sleeves to do what he can, with what he has, where he is.
In The Genealogy of Morality Friedrich Nietzsche proposed two opposing moralities: master and slave. The dominant and subjugated, and through the slave revolt of morality the subjugated prevail by turning their lowly condition into a system of virtues.
Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained is an apt illustration of Nietzsche’s two moralities and their more likely outcome. For those who have not seen it, the eponymous hero Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz. (Christoph Waltz) After working as a team to track down and kill some outlaws, Django and Dr. Shultz set out to find and redeem Django’s wife who has been enslaved by the despicable plantation landlord, Monsieur Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo diCaprio).
Monsieur Candie owns gladiator slaves who fight to the death while he bets on the outcome. He imprisons them and tortures them if they run away and feeds them to his hounds if they rebel. The head slave and butler at the big house is Stephen Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen is the perfect Uncle Tom… obsequious but insidious, servile but sneaky. The violence in the film is graphic, but comparatively subdued until the glamorized, gutsy, explosive finale.
How does the film portray Nietzsche’s concept of morality? First, we see two caricatures of the master. Monsieur Candie is a grotesque exaggeration of the evil master. Dr. Schultz is a sophisticated and noble example of the master as he attempts to help the slaves.
The black slaves exhibit the slave morality—always obedient, respectful and humble, they come across as long-suffering and virtuous. But does their subjugation turn into saintly meekness? Not really. The butler, Stephen Warren, shows the bitterness that truly lies beneath their obsequious exterior, and Django reveals the seething resentment that finally explodes into murderous revenge.
American Morality Play
Like a morality play for our time, Tarantino’s film shows us the master morality of white privilege—both the murderous racism of Candie and Dr. Schultz’s noble but patronizing wish to do good and free the slaves. Django shows us not only the ultimate violence of revenge but also the arrogant self-righteousness that always accompanies the vengeful.
Although his work is more nuanced than it is often presented, Nietzsche’s dichotomy of morality is incomplete.
Nietzsche would have us believe that the master morality, operating at its finest, reveals premium humanity. For Nietzsche, the übermensch-superman is not the Nazi overlords, but the courageous heroes of the classical age and the noblest minds and hearts of humanity. The slave mentality, which he abhorred, developed out of the Hebrew’s history of subjugation. Resentment (ressentiment), he postulated, was the driving force that drove the Hebrews to make a virtue out of subservience, humiliation, and poverty, and this push to find a silver lining culminated in Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount where meekness and poverty are exalted.
While this sounds plausible, the reality is that subjugation and resentment, on their own, do not necessarily create the blessedness of humility, loving service, and sweet acceptance of one’s fate. History shows that instead of submissive Christian meekness, slavery is far more likely to bring about seething bitterness, deeply rooted rage, and violent revolution. Instead of meekness, resentment brings murder and instead of goodness—genocide, the gulag, and the guillotine.
The philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) saw fit to correct Nietzsche’s facile attempt to explain the genesis of morality. In his work Ressentiment he admitted to the power of resentment within the human heart and society, but he analyzed it more expertly and profoundly than Nietzsche. He recognized the reality of resentment, and that it has simmered in the heart of man and resulted in murder from Cain onward. He also did not believe it was the motivating force to bring about what Nietzsche termed the slave morality.
According to Scheler the pious servility often evidenced in Christianity that Nietzsche sneered at was a travesty of true Christianity. Nietzsche couldn’t see another factor in the emergence of Christianity—a quality that was also present within the Hebrew Scriptures and culture, but which he overlooked. This was a quality that comes from outside the nexus of the master-slave cycle. This unexpected aspect is grace-empowered charity. It is the transcendent gift that transforms subjugation into true humility and acceptance into genuine meekness. If this gift is present, Christian virtue is not the doormat subservience Nietzsche rightly criticized. Instead it is a dynamic, pro-active, forgiving, self-sacrificing quality Christian theologians call “Love.”
A Third Way
During the last fifty years we have seen the cities of America crumble into race riots time and again. The problem of racism and resentment will never be solved merely by throwing more education, more opportunities, and more money at the resentful. The problem will not be solved by more wringing of hands, self-righteous protests, lectures about the evils of racism, and reading To Kill a Mockingbird one more time.
Neither does Nietzsche’s flawed theory of morality get us anywhere. Germany in the 1930s shows us where the pursuit of a “noble master race” brings us, and the “slave morality” example of either “doormat Christians” or self-righteous social activists show us the futility of Nietzsche’s seemingly clever but facile dichotomy.
The clash of a master morality and slave morality will always end in the blood, guts, and fire of revolution and Django’s revenge. Instead, a third way should be followed. This way is not one of domination or subservience, but a way of dynamic, outgoing, unrelenting, and uncompromising charity. This third way is both tough and tender. It may be meek, but it has muscle.
The truly Christian answer is the way of the cross. It is both gritty and glorious, and it always has been. It is Martin Luther King Jr’s path of nonviolence and Saint Maximillian Kolbe’s path of self-sacrifice. It is Dorothy Day’s angry campaign for social justice, St. Charles Lwanga’s resistance, and Saint Peter Claver’s Mother Teresa-like compassion for the enslaved.
It is the way of the ordinary person who, filled with transcendent insight, sees a problem, owns it, then rolls up his sleeves to do what he can with what he has where he is, to be part of the solution.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.