The (Anti)Gospel of Francis Underwood
"Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning ... For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule. Hunt or be hunted." - Francis Underwood
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So ends the Shakespearean soliloquy at the end of the first episode of House of Card's highly anticipated second season.
Underwood lives by a very clear code of ethics: Get to the top and do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. For him, the end always justifies the means. And so, although it certainly made me wince to see what happens in Season 2's opening episode, I was left in awe at the show’s brutal honesty of what a life purely committed to power potentially looks like.
Some scenes perhaps strike us viewers as far from reality (Washington can't really be that bad, can it?!?), but other vignettes are far more plausible. Consider Underwood’s commendation of a congresswoman for making the cold, calculated decision to “do what needed to be done” by wiping out entire villages with missile strikes.
Her “ruthless pragmatism” merely makes Underwood smirk.
Underwood and his wife, Claire — who we can almost hear at times saying to herself in Lady Macbeth’s voice "Out damned spot, out I say!" — pose us viewers with a crucial question. In fact, I daresay that it is the question: Will you follow the way of violent power or will you follow the way of self-sacrificial love (what the New Testament callskenosis)? Will you trample over others or will you empty yourself, taking the very nature of a servant? In short, will you choose the way of Frances Underwood or the way of Jesus Christ?
Underwood has chosen to embrace the life of the Nietzschean übermensch, or "superman," one who lives by his own code of ethics since he has crowned himself god. And his ethics flow from this. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, "[Anything that] is a living and not a dying body ... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power." In a godless world, nothing else is left.
Thankfully, as followers of the Jesus Way, there is an alternative narrative. In fact, I believe it is the alternative narrative to the unending cycle of violence that has endlessly raged since the Psalmist first asked thousands of years ago, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?”
I speak of the one who told Peter to put away his sword and stop playing by the world’s rules, of the one who willingly hung on a cross and spoke words of forgiveness over those who mocked him. I speak of the way of the slain lamb who alone can open the seal.
We who believe in that peaceable kingdom refuse to adopt the violence of Frances Underwood NOT because it doesn’t work – it most certainly does. Violence, trickery, ruthlessness, and the will to power can prove quite efficient if our aim is earthly power and money. No, we reject violence because, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “The truth that moves the sun and the stars is that which is so sure in its power that it refuses to compel compliance or agreement by force. Rather it relies on the slow, hard, and seemingly unrewarding work of witness, a witness which it trusts to prevail even in a fragmented and violent world.”
You’re right about one thing, Mr. Underwood: There is just “but one rule.” And, thankfully, yours isn't it.
Rev. Greg Coates is an ordained pastor in the Free Methodist Church and Ph D Student studying historical theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He is married to a wife who is a far more talented writer and two beautiful daughters who make his life worth living. He blogs at gregcoates.blogspot.com .