Achilles or Immanuel?


Achilles or Immanuel?
Brian Zahnd

I just returned from seeing An Iliad at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre — a one act telling of Homer’s Iliad — and I can’t rest until I share a few thoughts…

The eighth century BC gave the world two great poets — the Greek Homer and the Hebrew Isaiah. These two poets offer competing visions of the heroic. Homer’s epic poem The Iliad opens with these lines.

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.
(Iliad 1–5)

But the poet Isaiah sings a different song.

The boots of the warrior
And the uniforms bloodstained by war
Will all be burned
For unto us a Child is born
Unto a Son is given
And he shall be called…
The Prince of peace
His government and its peace
Will never end
(Isaiah 9:6–7)

While Homer sings of the rage of Achilles, Isaiah sings of the peace of Immanuel. The question is which hero to embrace, Achilles or Immanuel? Whose vision will we allow to form us, Homer’s or Isaiah’s? Which way will we choose to follow, the rage of revenge or the peace of forgiveness?

Throughout the centuries we’ve become quite adept at glorifying Achilles and his rage. But Achilles’ way leads only to, as Homer says, “hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls.” And though we love to lionize Achilles and his kind (American Sniper, et. al.), I’ve never heard a Christmas carol that came from The Iliad. Isaiah is where Handel found the inspiration for his timeless Messiah.

Christians are called to follow Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and John’s Slaughtered Lamb and not try to turn Immanuel into a kind of Achilles. Achilles offers nothing more than the same old dead ends. It’s in Immanuel that we find hope for the world.

The hope for peace that I see is where desire for dominance is replaced by co-suffering love, where lust for vengeance is replaced by forgiveness.

The hope for peace that I see is the Jesus way of choosing the cross by refusing the deathtrap of recycled revenge.

The hope for peace that I see is where the rage of Achilles is no longer glorified as heroic, no longer seen as compatible with Christ.

The hope for peace that I see is where the rage of Achilles is named and shamed as the curse of Cain and extinguished at the cross.

The hope for peace that I see is where the disciples of Jesus don’t just watch in admiration as Jesus carries his cross, but practice an imitation of the same kind of cross-bearing co-suffering love.

If we can become convinced that the kingdom of God is real, that the kingdom of God is possible, that the kingdom of God is here, then we can finally find the courage to abandon our allegiance to the corrupt ideas of Adam and Achilles and Augustus. Ideas of rebellion, rage and self-centered empire building. Ideas which have banished us from the garden, filled the house of the dead, and created ghastly ruins from Troy to Hiroshima.

If we can really be born again by a deep faith in Jesus and his way of radical forgiveness we can at last see the kingdom of God.

Instead of placing our faith in Pax Achilles, Pax Romana or Pax Americana we can at last place our faith in Pax Christus.

Achilles or Immanuel?
Who will we admire?
Who will we worship?
Who will we follow?


Here’s a sample of Kyle Hatley as the Poet in An Iliad playing at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Here’s Timothy Edward Kane as the Poet giving the list of wars — part of the 10,000 lines the Poet has in An Iliad.