A Bad Prince

February 9, 2011

“One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours…Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. For love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.” – Machiavelli, The Prince

We just finished discussing The Prince in my Great Books program last week. I thought the book was fascinating. It’s a sort of political how-to manual with clever (and often harsh) solutions for the inevitable problems that accompany ruling a people. And Machiavelli is convincing. He isn’t some evil dictator wanting to take over the world, but a man desperately wanting to see his city, Florence, ruled well. He is also realistic: he recognizes that people are inherently self-serving, and will be loyal only as long as they are getting what they want.

I found myself wondering about the decisions Jesus made. Was the King of Kings a good prince by Machiavelli’s standards? Of course, Jesus never aimed to be the political reformer the Jews were expecting from the Messiah. But He had followers, and He spoke of a kingdom.

Jesus’ disciple John records his words:

Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21).

And after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, John writes about love again:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. ” (I John 4:18).

How interesting that Christ chooses to be loved instead of feared. If he had made Himself feared, would he have been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter? Would he have been killed? Maybe not—maybe that’s where Machiavelli would say Jesus screwed up. But surely Jesus knew even better than Machiavelli that men are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, [who] shun danger and are greedy for profit.” Jesus could see past people’s words; he knew about the woman at the well’s five husbands (John 4:17-22), he knew Simon’s unspoken condemnation of the prostitute (Luke 7: 36-39), he knew that Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him. But still, he demands love, not fear.

As a follower of Jesus, I usually find it easier to act out of fear than out of love. Do I obey because I am afraid of the consequences of disobedience, or because I love the one I am obeying?

And then I remember Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century French monk who took the command to “pray without ceasing” literally. He knew God and he loved God, so much so that every small act he did was motivated by this love. The only thing that irked Brother Lawrence was the fact that one day he would be rewarded for all the good he had done:

“At times he had wished he could hide from God that which he did for the love of Him, so that, receiving no reward, he might have the joy of doing something for love of God and love of God alone.” – The Practice of the Presence of God

Perhaps one of the reasons why Jesus requires that his followers love him instead of fear him is because joy is only possible through love. I don’t understand joy very much, but Brother Lawrence gives me a glimpse, and I pray to have even an ounce of the love that he had.