My husband and I recently finished watching the fourth season of Arrow, a show that follows the adventures of the DC Comics superhero, Green Arrow (whose real name is Oliver Queen). We’ve been watching the show since it originally aired, and I highly recommend it. The actors are very talented, and the relationships and character development are well done. Most compelling, though, is the underlying question of the whole series, “Is redemption actually possible?” Oliver Queen has gone through a good amount of trauma in his life, and he is always trying to “turn to the light” and fears succumbing totally to the “darkness.”
Season four is spent pursuing and trying to defeat Damien Darhk, a particularly sinister villain who channels evil magic (literally, through a false idol) in order to fuel his plan to destroy the world. In one of the episodes of this season, an episode where the battle between choosing light and darkness is especially pronounced, one of the other characters muses, “Maybe it isn’t possible to be a hero like Oliver, without retaining some of the darkness?”
This question has an obvious answer (spoiler: it is possible to be truly good and in the light and still be a hero), but there is also an echo of truth to this question. It is not a touch of darkness that allows a hero to be a hero, but the presence of suffering does seem to be a prerequisite. In four seasons, Oliver Queen has made tremendous strides toward real goodness. He is not perfect, but he is clearly yearning for redemption, and is well on his way. Drawing nearer the darkness is not what has made him the hero he is – his own suffering is what has enabled him to be the hero he is.
Without giving out any spoilers, Oliver suffers from many significant losses in the course of the series. Many of his sufferings are the result of him trying to do what is right. What makes Oliver Queen no longer the playboy heir to a millionaire that he once was, is not his encounters with darkness. What has transformed him is his various encounters with suffering, coupled with glimpses of the light. His suffering has made him humble and compassionate, and it is his own suffering and weaknesses that have shown him how much he needs the help of others.
Not every super hero suffers from as much personal tragedy as Green Arrow, but many of the most popular ones do. The Flash loses his mother as a child, and his father is sent to prison (for a crime he didn’t commit). He also suffers other losses as his story unfolds. Batman loses both parents as a child, and his passion for defending goodness and justice comes in great part from that loss. Superman loses his entire planet when he is only a baby, as well as most of his race. That suffering certainly motivates him to save earth.
Were these characters only possessing of great powers or skills or wealth, we would certainly enjoy watching their shows, but we might not find ourselves rooting for them quite as eagerly. In fact, it is typically the villains who simply possess and desire power and wealth, with refusal to come to grips with suffering in their lives. It is the superheroes who suffer, grapple with how to handle that suffering, and allow it to motivate them to relieve the sufferings of others. The villains suffer and ask themselves, “How can I ensure I never suffer ever again?” The heroes suffer and ask themselves, “How can I make sure others never suffer again?”
Oliver Queen does not need darkness to be a superhero. He needs the thorn.
In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he confesses to a personal struggle (which he does not name – it could be anything but is often assumed to be some kind of ongoing temptation), and shares how he has begged God to remove this “thorn” from his side. He is surprised by God’s response – not removing the thorn, but teaching Paul to allow God to work through his weakness. Once he realizes this, he exults, “…but [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Paul’s suffering opened the door for humility. Through his suffering, he realized that it was not his strength that God loved. The greatest human strength is weaker than the greatest weakness of
God (who, by definition, does not have weakness). St. Paul realizes that this is the condition of fallen humanity – we are weak, we suffer, and we fall. All too often, things are going well for us, and so we forget how weak and helpless we actually are. But sometimes, if we are fortunate, God allows us to have an obvious “thorn” in our lives. In the theology of Martin Luther, this sort of thing proves the fact that we are worthless, and our only value is in being covered and hidden by Christ’s greatness. That, however, is not what Paul experiences, and it is not the teaching of the Church. Rather, because of the cross, our wounds can be glorified. God loves us despite our weaknesses. We do not need to hide behind Jesus in order to be accepted by the Father. We are beloved sons of the Father because of Christ, though, and he rejoices in our likeness to his Son.
But what is that likeness that the Father rejoices in the most? It is not power and glory. It is the image of suffering humbly, with a heart full of love. God does not need us to hide our suffering selves. His wisdom confounds the wisdom of the world. He beckons us to bring him our suffering, and allow him to glorify that suffering. God does not need to work through strength. He chooses to work in those who are humble and weak. Paul is right – it is exactly in that weakness that we are truly strong.
It is also not the case that when we are weak and submissive, God can just negate our evil little selves so that we can be his slaves. He works through us, in the midst of our suffering and weakness. He does not think that we are worthless. He thinks we are so profoundly worthwhile that he has a particular love for those whom the world does not deem worthwhile. Not only does he love them – he works through their weakness. God works through their prayers, through their weak attempts at resisting temptation and asking for forgiveness, through hands too weak to work or feet not strong enough to walk. The cross has completely transformed suffering to strength. For, as Paul says, “…when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Green Arrow’s and St. Paul’s message is one that applies to us as well. The absolute beauty of Lent is that we are forced to stop running from our weakness. If we do Lent right, we have to embrace the cross and turn to Christ in our weakness. True strength comes from realizing we are not entirely self-sufficient, but that our strength lies in our weakness, and our need for the love of others. Green Arrow is surrounded with his skilled and compassionate friends, St. Paul is held up by the Church and the grace of God.
Want to be a superhero? Take up your cross. It is only there that you will find your strength.