The spectacle of Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine heralds “the return of history”, according to Time Magazine. Among other things, President Vladimir Putin has ushered brute force back onto the world stage.
But even if the past won’t stay dead, a parallel movement has been gathering pace for centuries. It’s the surprising ascendancy of the weak: the ones who would otherwise be made to cower before the strong. And even if the weak seem outmatched by those for whom “might makes right”, they may prevail in the end. After all, they have before.
Of course, the rise of the weak has been uneven. The “weaker sex” would certainly say so, with gender equality still incomplete. But a revolution is brewing. The stories of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins have catapulted women’s experiences onto the agenda, with nationwide protests in 2021 revealing women’s rage at their mistreatment. The Guardian’s political reporter Amy Remeikis has called the movement a reckoning. And it’s not just that women are talking, but that others are listening.
There are similar developments on other fronts — like race. Annual debates over “Invasion Day” have become routine. And while reconciliation with First Nations people is ongoing, this year marks thirty years since the Mabo decision when the High Court declared that Australia was never terra nullius (empty land). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the court ruled, have an enduring right to their land.
Whether it’s the plight of women or racial minorities, our consciences are pricked. We’re conscious of grave injustice, if undecided what to do about it. In other words, we’re increasingly sensitive to the ways that the world fails those who don’t have the power to set the agenda.
Perhaps it’s premature to call this progress, when realities “on the ground” for disadvantaged groups barely seem to budge. Nor should just being aware of inequality be a meaningful substitute for action.
But I am struck by the strangeness of what we, as a society, consider our collective responsibility: care for the vulnerable and justice for the oppressed. It’s a conviction that puts us out of step with much of history, where it was taken for granted — in Thucydides’s famous phrase — that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Nevertheless, oppression outrages us — the question is, why?
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche laid responsibility squarely at the feet of Christianity. He charged it with the crime of compassion — of putting the strong at the mercy of the weak — rather than what he saw as the natural order of things. Christianity, he argued, imposed a “slave morality” on the intended masters of the universe: the powerful and the strong.
When Jesus said “Blessed are the meek”, he upheld the downtrodden, the sick, and the lowly as close to God’s heart. Jesus counselled humility and self-restraint, forsaking your own self-interest for the sake of others. For Nietzsche, this counterintuitive concern for those he saw as life’s losers would go on to overwhelm the world, such that even the “death of God” would not mean the end of Christian morality.
More recently, the British historian Tom Holland has picked up Nietzsche’s argument. Christianity, Holland contends, gave Western civilisation its bleeding heart. Ever since Jesus died a slave’s death on the cross, God could be seen in every man, woman, and child. Dignity and respect were owed to all. For Holland, this revolution in human dignity has been so complete that it no longer requires a confessional faith. It’s equally useful in naming the sins of the church. “Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive”, he writes, “derived from a framework of values that was itself utterly Christian”.
If Nietzsche and Holland are right, the irony is profound. The “cathedral” anticipated by Solnit would owe its existence to the Jesus who taught his followers to pray the Lord’s Prayer (the source of the kingdom line cited above). The defining glory of that cathedral, moreover, would be the way it centres the experience of the powerless and the weak over the strong. Witness, then, the strange triumph of the Christian revolution — and Nietzsche rolling in his grave.
Solnit observes of her invisible cathedrals, that “people outside the walls wake up one day inside them and forget they were ever anywhere else”. How right she is. Maybe this is what it looks like when the weak, to borrow a phrase, have inherited the earth.
This article first appeared in The ABC