Boromir and the Ring of Power: Beyond Ideology to Incarnate Love

I often feel a bit like Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: give me the ring of power and I will use it to bring about good. How foolish. The good will succumb to power, when power is our chief means to accomplish good. In the end, the end goal will justify any means, any use of power.

The Dark Lord forged this ring of power in secret in the fires of Mount Doom. His own identity was bound up with this ring. It controlled all other rings he forged and gave to the various races of Middle Earth. The race of men was most susceptible to his scheme, since it above all other races longed for power (it still does). Boromir belonged to men.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is more than a myth. Indeed, it is a myth, but not like a fairy tale. This kind of myth addresses the depths of the human situation and ultimate reality in ways that our normal and even scientific uses of language do not. Tolkien’s tale of Middle Earth is our depth-dimension story in so many ways.

The love of power always wages war with the power of love in human hearts in great myths and in real life. The good will succumb to power, when power is what drives us, even in our effort to accomplish good. What started out as a good thing—the pursuit of justice, righting wrongs, freeing Middle Earth—became a very bad thing, when in the end Boromir (and I) tried to force Frodo to give him the ring so that he could use it for good.

Boromir did not want to share life with Frodo. The fellowship of the ring existed for accomplishing the mission for Boromir, whereas for Frodo, his hobbit friends and others in the band, the mission flowed from their fellowship. Before his death at the hands of the orcs, Boromir repented of his foolishness and hardness of heart. What about you and me?

It gets so overwhelming. Large voices. Large personalities. Large platforms and campaigns. Large hurts imposed on others as the machine marches on. These orcs are breathing down our necks. What will we do? Respond in kind?

Someone recently said to me how much he longed for a Christian leader of high rank and influence to confront the fallen powers of Christian celebrity and dismantle their linguistic weapons filled with bravado and that so demeaned and destroyed men and women. When he was told to stay in close proximity to a community of hobbits and haggard wizards and warriors, he did not respond. No doubt despondent. Inefficient and ineffective and pointless, no doubt, were his silent thoughts. What good would such communion do? What was needed was power, and a lot of it. What was needed was the celebrity with the large platform, not a bunch of little people who advance through table fellowship.

But table fellowship is what is most necessary. Table fellowship centered in Christ’s sacrifice is the most impactful platform of all, in part because it is the anti-platform. The platform is often if not always ideological.

Ideology is bound up with the love of an ideal, not persons in communion sharing ideas and life together. Ideology is skinless. Ideology as mere word stands in stark contrast to the incarnate Word who puts all his skin in the game. Jesus as the Word of incarnate love risks his own life for relationship with us because of his Father’s eternal embrace and eternal sharing in the Spirit’s ring (bond) of love.

Not only must I talk this way of the fellowship of the ring, but also I must live this way. This is the way of incarnate love, not ideology. Jesus’ incarnation moves us beyond ideology. Ideology is only words, words used to “win.” It is competitive and easily threatened. The ideologue is threatened by the possibility of others’ (“untrustworthy”) ideals, and like Boromir, this mistrust inevitably leads to schism and alienation from the community. The telltale sign of ideological “blindness” is the inability to accept a loving critique from those closest to you who share your values, and who challenge you in view of your shared values. Such engagement often backfires, for the ideologue is convinced that “everything you say is wrong because I am right.”

We too often make the mistake of fighting “ideology with ideology.” In the gospel of John, we discover a new kind of engagement. Although it is as old as the incarnation itself, it is always new because we continue to need to repent and enter anew into Jesus’ life: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). This Word calls us to share his life with him and abide in him (John 15:4, 7). God’s Word is not ideological, but incarnational; in “becoming flesh,” the Word enters into shared existence with humanity, and thereby, into the pain of relationship. In contrast, the Saurons of this world operate only in secret and become formless.

In keeping with what was said above, ideology is ultimately fleshless—there’s no skin in the game. The ideologue will not risk shedding his own blood, sweat and tears for others, only for his ideals. He is also more than willing to sacrifice others at the altar of his ideals. In contrast, the Word made flesh lays down his own life for his friends. Love is more than an ideal; it is his life in sacrificial relation to and for the ones he loves—and even those who hate him (Romans 5:8-10).

Ideology is detached speculation that is one-sided and opaque. Ideology permits immunity for TV and YouTube personalities, videographers and bloggers, and anonymity for those who want to “snipe” away at a safe distance without risking personal engagement. Ideology also says that anyone who does not say what I want said is out to get me, not out to love me. And while consumed with larger-than-life personalities, it refuses to engage personally and vulnerably.

Those who forge rings of power (or love?) in secrecy, immunity and anonymity rather than in community are to be feared. They believe their own press, and their ideology leads to paranoia and propaganda. However, rings forged in the fires of sacrificial and loving concrete community are rings worth wearing.

Whenever, and I mean whenever, movements are no longer grounded in concrete communities centered in Christ’s sacrificial love of transparency and vulnerability, they become ideological. They become consumed by power. They will still talk a good talk. They may even believe nothing’s changed. But everything’s changed.

Mind you, not all small groups and monastic communities are shaped by love. Love is never conditional, but unconditional. It always involves give and take and open and honest sharing with loved ones who have also put all their skin in the game. As described in these terms, love is communal. It is also always missional. Love is always directed toward the other. Whether or not you agree with me, such leaders of such communities will say, “I will love you still; I will win you over to the cause which is love by the power of love, not the love of power.” This all-powerful love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” just like 1 Corinthians 13:7 says. It always reaches out beyond its bounds, always breaking out to include others in its community’s embrace. The fellowship of the ring went forward with the destiny of Middle Earth on hobbit-like shoulders and in their hearts and minds, even as they shared life with one another, caring sacrificially for one another. How they treated one another in their fellowship dictated how they would treat others everywhere.

There was no forging of rings in secrecy, only forged relationships in intimacy, transparency and humility honed by sacrificial love. The Dark Lord saw right through them, but couldn’t see them. He looked past them and over them over and over again. He could not imagine that the providential path chosen for the fellowship to drop the ring of power in Mordor’s flames was to be traversed by hobbit feet. Hobbit-like leaders are the only leaders who succeed Jesus’ way in the end.

What kind of leader are you? What kind of leader am I? What kind of community do you belong to? Are we forging rings of power in secrecy in the fires of (private ambition) hatred, or are we forging rings of love visible to all in the flames of intimacy? What drives you and me?

Theopolitical platforms in arenas and coliseums, viral web campaigns and other weapon systems of mass destruction aimed at the enemy can never replace warfare waged in concrete community of fiery and sacrificial love. In fact, they can never equal their import as they continue to export good will here and abroad. They may even destroy the communities from which they emerged and those which they seek to help. They don’t listen. They just speak. They don’t sit down for dinner to dialogue with those they serve. They go to fix problems, not share life with those they serve, failing to be healed relationally in the process. They grab dinner on the run and run over people in the process—here and abroad. Eventually, they spin out, crash, and burn, just like the colonies they created.

No wonder Boromir died. While Gandalf died before him, he died for his friends, whereas Boromir died for a distant and possibly faceless cause and ideal. I am not sure what ultimately made possible Gandalf’s rising again: maybe it’s because he laid down his life for his friends.

If we are to take the ring to Mordor and drop it in the fires of Mount Doom, we will need to move beyond nameless fears and faceless loves to loving faces with names, fearing anything that would stand in the way, even a noble and good cause.

I am thankful to the New Wine, New Wineskins community. This community of friends hold me accountable—otherwise, I would give in to my Boromir ways even more than I already do! New Wine wizards, warriors and hobbits (including Chris Laird who offered invaluable input in the writing of this piece in between various drafts and first and second breakfasts), are wonderful fellow travelers. Thank you, New Wine!    

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

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