How many of you thought that phrase was from Shakespeare or maybe Homer? It’s okay. You’re not alone. This phrase has taken on a life of its own in American culture. But before we uttered it about David Petraeus, or Lance Armstrong, or any other politician, celebrity, or religious leader, we read it first in the Bible, as David said it about King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan, in 2nd Samuel, chapter 1.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!
Of course, today it is never said sincerely with love, as David laments over the loss of Saul and Jonathan.
When we hear it said today, it is often with a sense of schadenfreude, or joy at someone’s misfortune, as a wealthy or famous person stumbles and ends up in court wearing an orange jumpsuit instead of their designer clothes, their mug shot plastered across the tabloids. How the mighty have fallen.
It can be sarcastic, something I would say, for example, were I to ever beat my husband in a sporting competition, or a game of Yahtzee. How the mighty have fallen.
And if anyone had cause to be snarky over the death of Saul, it was David. Saul had tried to kill him many times. Saul had killed everyone he could find who had helped David. Yet David refused to kill Saul on the two occasions when Saul was at his mercy. He refused to rejoice in Saul’s downfall. He refused to celebrate his own ascendancy that came at great cost to Saul.
And while there is plenty to say against David (the wife of Uriah the Hittite anyone?) in this moment, he is at his best. He is restrained. He is generous. He offers up to the people a hymn to help them frame their remembrance of Saul and Jonathan in the most positive light.
Perhaps because he knew how easy it is to go from mighty to fallen. David had a front row seat to Saul’s decline. He saw how the hero quickly lost his standing.
And so he did not rejoice in that, at least.
I invite you to listen for this phrase on the news and in your own conversation.
Is it being said with glee? Is it being said without any indication from the speaker that they could also fall? Is there any generosity of spirit for the fallen, formerly mighty person?
Because this can be a cruel world in which we live. And celebrating the downfall of others makes it colder and crueler.
While I have been hearing the news about the latest scandal involving General Petraeus, the contrast between David’s original use of the phrase, and the way we have changed it, has seemed stark. I am not always one to opine for the “good old days”, which, in my experience, were not always so “good”, but in this situation I do.
I wish we didn’t rejoice so much when our politicians prove to be humans.
I wish we didn’t take such delight in the downfall of the people who never should have been placed on pedestals.
I wish, like David in 2nd Samuel, we had more compassion for the people in our lives and on the news.
I’m not talking about the kind of compassion Pat Robertson wants to offer Petraeus. “…the man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good-looking lady throwing herself at him. He’s a man.” Let’s be clear that blaming the affair on the proximity of a good-looking woman is offensive on every level, especially from a man who would not offer the same “compassion” to a political enemy. (Did he say something similar about President Clinton? “The man’s in an oval office and here’s a good looking intern throwing herself at him. He’s a man.” No, he did not.)
But surely there is room for compassion as we acknowledge failings.
I don’t know General Petraeus. But he appears to be a man who has served our country with great dedication, intelligence, and sacrifice. Rather than demonizing him and digging through his proverbial trash, rather than looking for the reasons his mistress had for seducing him, rather than blaming his wife, why don’t we acknowledge his failings, send him home to get his life in order, and then put him back to work? His wife and family surely have the right to express their hurt and pain to him. But as long as he didn’t compromise national security, do we?
How the mighty have fallen
and the weapons of war perished!
The truth is, we are all General Petraeus. We might not have extramarital affairs, but we all fall in some way. We all let down the people we love. We all make mistakes. Fortunately, most of us have the gift of privacy when those mistakes occur. Hopefully, all of us would have the chance to seek reconciliation with the people we have harmed, and the opportunity to continue on with our lives and our careers.
So, let’s set down our joy at others’ failures. Let’s spend more time getting our own houses in order and less time in celebrating the messes of our neighbors. And for those of us who claim to be forgiven people, perhaps we could work on extending that forgiveness to others.
Marci Auld Glass is the pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church and lives with her husband and sons in Boise, Idaho. She is a graduate of Trinity University and Columbia Theological Seminary. When she’s not herding cats or driving soccer carpools, Marci plays the cello, runs (albeit slowly) on trails near her home, and tries to leave room in her life for grace to break through. She blogs at Glass Overflowing.