The Last Emperor

I hope you have seen the movie, The Last Emperor” as it is a moving film for many reasons. The Last Emperor” chronicles the life story of Pu Yi who, in the early part of the 20th century, was crowned Emperor of China when he was only three years old. The film sweeps through the years of Chinese history from the medieval isolation of the Forbidden City at the turn of the century, to the chaotic era of the warlords, to the tragic years of Japanese occupation, to the disruptive years of the Red Guard, and finally to the modern nation of China under a mollified communist leadership. 

Throughout the movie we witness Pu Yi, the Emperor, trapped by forces beyond his control — a man who wants to bring reform but who is defeated repeatedly by the march of events larger than himself and by his own self-indulgence. As a child Emperor he is hopelessly spoiled by the one thousand eunuchs who wait on him night and day but also rob him blind. After he is ousted from the Forbidden City by the Chinese warlords, he comes under the protection of the Japanese where he lives the life of a pampered playboy. Driven by the desire to rule once again, Pu Yi sides with the Japanese and becomes the puppet ruler of the State of Manchukuo. He tries desperately to use the Japanese for his own ends but succeeds only in being used by the Japanese for their own ends. 

After World War II Pu Yi is given a ten-year sentence to a communist prison for the purpose of rehabilitation training. There he meets the Governor of the prison — the one person in his life that is not out to use him. The lack of manipulation startles Pu Yi and he doesn’t know how to handle the relationship. In one graphic scene Pu Yi lashes out at the Governor of the prison, asking him, Why can you not leave me alone? You saved me only because I am useful to you!” And in those lines Pu Yi pours out a lifetime of hostility at being used by people: used by the eunuchs; used by his wives; used by the Japanese; used by the Russians; used by everybody.

And Pu Yi is sure this Governor too just wants to use him. You don’t care about me! You kept me from suicide only because I’m good propaganda for you! The only thing you care about is that I’m useful to you,” he said to the Governor. 

Calmly, the Governor of the prison turns the phrase completely on its head and turns the tables on Pu Yi by replying, Is it so terrible to be useful?” In that simple, rhetorical question the Governor of the prison touched the one-time Emperor of all of China at his most vulnerable point. Is it so terrible to be useful?” All his life Pu Yi had been used, but he had never been useful. All his life self-interest had dominated. All his life the questions of power and territorial rights had been uppermost. But here was the question stalking him in prison, Is it so terrible to be useful?” 

And, of course, it is the question that stalks us. The question that stands out bold, stark, naked, that challenges the assumptions of our ego-inflated, narcissistic culture.

We live in a society in which massive self-indulgence is the order of the day. Just below the surface of every encounter, every job, every responsibility is the question, What is in it for me?” And the Governor of that prison challenges us, Is it so terrible to be useful?”

We live in a culture where the uncompassionate accumulation of wealth is accelerating at a rate unparalleled in human history. The slogans of our day are — Make it while you can,” Watch out for number one,” Greed is good.” And so the Governor of that prison in far-away China haunts us with his question, Is it so terrible to be useful?” 

A Challenge and an Invitation

In this question is a challenge: A challenge to re-evaluate our assumptions and our priorities; a challenge to experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves; a challenge to give way to the needs of others. 

But there also is an invitation: An invitation to drop the horrendous burden of always needing to get our own way; an invitation to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice; an invitation to compassion, to community, to service. 

And so I ask you, Is it so terrible to be useful?” 

Think of St. Francis of Assisi who started out his youthful career as the leader of a carefree, happy gang. Francis knew how to lead and he knew how to get things done. But God got hold of young Francis, and he did it through a leper. Leprosy horrified Francis. Lepers were repugnant to him. They terrified him. They made his flesh creep. They made him vomit. He couldn’t stand to be near a leper and never would he touch a leper. 

But God was touching Francis: touching his heart, touching his spiritual leprosy. One day Francis was walking down a path outside Assisi when, in the middle of the path, there was a leper — ugly, deformed, repulsive.

Horrified, Francis started to run, but somehow God touched his heart and gave him an overwhelming love and compassion for that leper. Rather than run away, Francis turned and embraced the leper. After the embrace the leper disappeared, and throughout his life St. Francis believed that God had come to him in the form of that leper. St. Francis was never the same. He began to give himself to lepers, and not only lepers but all who were cast aside. And so the great impulse to serve the broken and the down-trodden that is still a hallmark of the Franciscan movement had its roots in the embrace of a leper. 

I ask you, Is it so terrible to be useful?” 

My friend, George Fooshee built up a very successful bill collection agency. But in his work he has observed the tragic effects of exorbitant debt upon thousands of lives. He has seen people working two and three jobs just to keep up with their credit card payments. In time, God led George to turn over his company to others, and he is now giving himself full-time to help people get out of debt. He teaches biblically-based financial planning seminars. He does financial counseling. He has developed an organization that uses a step-by-step plan to get people out of debt. 

I ask you, Is it so terrible to be useful?” 

A former student of mine, Mary Ashley, heard me talk about China as a great frontier for Service and Christian ministry. She studied hard and applied to a cross-cultural program that trained her to teach English. Within a year she was in Northwestern China teaching English to Chínese students and sharing her faith wherever she could. 

I ask you, Is it so terrible to be useful?”

No, it’s not terrible: it’s joy, it’s life, it’s fulfillment. And so I urge you: Deny the egoism and narcissism that plague our society. Deny the greed and avarice of our day. Deny the voices of selfishness and vested interest. Welcome others. Welcome compassion. Welcome caring. 

Suggestions for Making Our Lives Useful

But now, how do we this? How do we make our lives useful? How do we move from self-centeredness to other-centeredness? Here are some suggestions. 

First, give yourself to God. Learn to sink down into Christ until you are comfortable in that posture. Learn the prayer of quiet whereby you still all humanly-initiated activity. Take a one-day prayer retreat this month. Fast for one day this week. Read the gospel of John tomorrow. Learn to waste time for God. 

When you do, something happens inside. Gently, almost imperceptibly, your priorities change. You begin to value people more than things. You begin to pay attention to children. You find yourself interested in what others are doing, genuinely interested. In fact, people become interesting to you, all kinds of people. You love to find out their hobbies and interests and concerns. You’re glad to see them succeed and pained when they stumble. Without even realizing it, you have moved from self centeredness to other-centeredness. 

Second, give yourself to others. Take one hour each day to go the extra mile for others. Mow their lawn. Babysit their kids, shovel the snow off their driveway. The rewards of this kind of activity are great, but perhaps the greatest reward of all is that at last you are finding that you are useful. 

Third, evaluate your vocational plans in the light of the good it does for people. You may have a liberal arts college education, which means you have many options open to you that others do not have. You have been trained not for one vocation but to have the intellectual and emotional equipment to have many vocations. So why not choose the one that is going to do the most good. The Christian witness in a vocation is that we honor God in our jobs by serving other human beings.

In the first congregation I ever pastored there was a person who had given half his life to earning a Ph.D. in physics. He then got a wonderful job at a famous think-tank where he spent all his time dreaming up new inventions. Imagine his horror the day he discovered that 98 percent of his inventions were being used to develop weapons to kill others. He asked me what to do. What do you say in a tragic situation like that? But you have time to avoid such a tragedy. So look at your vocational options and see where they will lead you. See if there isn’t a chance to be useful to others.

Published in World Christian (November/December 1988).

Text First Published October 1988