A common myth in antiquity is that of Sisyphus. He makes an appearance in classic works by Homer, Ovid, and Plato and in modern poetry by Albert Camus. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth in ancient Greece and was known as much for his achievements as the avarice which followed. Like many who suffer the blessing of success, he attempted to prolong the same by cheating death. While he prevailed in eluding death, he was cursed with an eternal burden. It was the fate of Sisyphus to lift a great stone up a hill only to discover upon reaching the summit that the stone would slip his grasp and plummet back down the path. There it would lie in wait to be carried up the hill again. And so the cycle was destined to repeat into eternity.
The meaning of the myth has been interpreted in many ways: as a warning against avarice, a depiction of human futility, or an object lesson in perseverance. It is a tragic tale to be sure, but tragedies are often far more instructive than victories. Indeed, tragedies provide context and their presence in history often forces us to redefine victory itself.
Our cover image depicts a modern American Sisyphus plodding through history and pushing the burden of liberty. This imagery is meant to evoke emotion and expand upon the contemporary American challenge of global leadership. The challenge is not new; neither is the debate which attends it. The current debate which rages is whether America is able and willing to remain at her post and carry this essential load. One side of the debate questions why America has been saddled with this burden. Another side fears that—after 17 years of the War on Terror, and 45 years after Vietnam, 65 years after Korea, 73 year after World War II, and 100 years after World War I—what ground has been gained is about to slip away.
Whether America asked for this particular burden or not, whether we view it as a responsibility or a curse, it is ours to carry, and we release it at great peril. But why should this debate concern us, and as Christian realists, how should we view this type of trial?
Christians are uniquely poised to speak into this debate and provide context for this challenge. Christianity maintains that humanity did not simply appear on the cosmic scene; it was formed and placed in creation. We were formed in the image of God, and that image was coupled with the duties of an image bearer. Humanity was no mere passive reflection of divine attributes. We were placed here in creation and given the almost godlike mandate to subdue it “to exercise dominion and rule over every living thing.” The responsibility of governing was never a curse. The curse resulting from the fall in Eden was that this responsibility would be hindered by the burden of competing agendas; the further curse from Babel would be that this governing would become seemingly futile.
For the Christian, there is nothing novel about this language of perseverance amidst futility. Four hundred years ago, the Puritan John Bunyan crafted his own Sisyphus-like character in his allegorical masterwork Pilgrim’s Progress. In this iteration of the tale, the hero Christian is seemingly doomed to carry a burden upon his back through the journey of life with little hope of relief.
Ultimately, as Christian reached the summit of one particular hill, the burden rolled away, never to return. As Bunyan writes:
Now I saw in my dream that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall is called Salvation. Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest, by his sorrow, and life, by his death.”
Among the many lessons imparted by Bunyan in Progress is that struggle is indicative of the human experience. Furthermore, it seems that God has both a purpose in the burdens we bear as well as a plan for our eventual relief. To be a Christian is to recognize the unique role humanity has as divine image bearers and to speak against the all too human tendency to quit when the going gets tough. We among all people should be acutely aware of the importance of the struggle and the equal importance of enduring to the end.
America has been given an immense responsibility, undoubtedly a heavy burden to carry. The road of history is hard, and it does seem at times as if we arrive at some success only to have it slip through our fingers and be sent back to the starting line. Christ’s costly gift to us was to display his willingness to take up an unmerited burden and carry it, even when it appeared to be against his interest. His sacrifice should give context to the struggles we face as Christians, and in turn we as Christians should endeavor to be a bulwark against belligerency.
This concerns you. We cannot lift or obfuscate the uniquely American burden of global leadership. But by staying involved and providing perspective, we may be able to lighten the load.