Alfred Pennyworth and a Servant’s Heart
When I was a young Christian (and young human for that matter), everything was a little simpler and little more black and white. My whole life, I wanted to be the good guy. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be someone who rescued people in their time of need and saved the distressed when they were in danger. My childhood was Ninja Turtles, Batman, and Cub Scouts.
Then in my early teenage years, I became a Christian. In my zealous youth, my whole desire to be the hero escalated. It was easy to see the world in the good guy/bad guy mentality. My vision was simple as I saw the world in terms of victims, villains, and victors. Somewhere along the way I had even found this passage from David that straight up sounded like some it was from batman;
“1 I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise. 2 I will be careful to lead a blameless life— when will you come to me?
I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart. 3 I will not look with approval on anything that is vile.
I hate what faithless people do; I will have no part in it. 4 The perverse of heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with what is evil.
5 Whoever slanders their neighbor in secret, I will put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, I will not tolerate.
6 My eyes will be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; the one whose walk is blameless will minister to me.
7 No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.
8 Every morning I will put to silence all the wicked in the land; I will cut off every evildoer from the city of the Lord.” - Psalm 101
When you are looking through scripture with a biased lens, you will see a biased perspective. If you automatically make yourself the good guy of the story, it’s easy to make other people the bad guy. If you look at them as evil to be fought, you stop seeing them as people that need to be loved. Like Bruce vowed to fight crime over his candlelight, there are some people of faith that look at those in the world who don’t know God as enemies to be fought. I can kind of understand having this view when you are young and immature physically and spiritually, but sadly there are a lot of adult Christians (at least by physical age) who still hold so strongly to this us vs them (good guy vs. bad guy) mentality. Many people have suffered emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds because of this through the years.
But David wasn’t operating on some self-righteous crusade. David wasn’t putting on a costume and hanging on rooftops (David’s stories on rooftops never end well anyway). David had a desire for holiness, purity, and excellence. David carried an authority that neither Bruce Wayne nor I have ever carried. He was the anointed king of Israel and held not only the spiritual anointing of the God of Israel, but the political and judicial power for his nation. He was less Batman and more a solid combo of Azrael & Jim Gordon, but that’s not who we are called to be. We as believers have a lot more instruction on how we are to live and follow than David did. Jesus Christ displays a very different dynamic and model than the crusading hero.
My friend and nerdy associate Mike Perna made this comment years ago, and when it showed up in his Facebook memories, he shared it and tagged me in it. It sparked this whole chapter. Check out Mike’s quote:
"When will the Church start realizing that devotion to Christ looks less like Batman and more like Alfred Pennyworth?"
Alfred has long been a staple of the Batman family, the glue that held together its patriarch and all the assorted cape wearing juveniles that rotated through doors of Wayne Manor. He rarely put himself in the spotlight or made things be about himself. He loved and supported a legion of heroes through an entire generation.
In 2019, Alfred was killed by Bane under the leadership of Thomas Wayne’s Batman. It took place in Batman #77 of Tom King’s epic Rebirth story arc. The issue seemingly shows us that because of Damian Wayne’s impatience and disobedience, Alfred was murdered as punishment. We were left lingering for weeks hoping to find out we were deceived. Maybe it was part of the Knightmares that Batman had endured in other issues in the series. It was also hinted that Clayface had returned to Gotham via Batman’s instruction. But eventually, we were met with Batman #83. This was literally one of the most painful comic books I've ever read. Bruce awakens to find himself bricked in a room in his own home face to face with Alfred’s dead body. There was no escape. The pain on Batman’s face, even through a mask, was enough to tell me that my fears were real even before I turned the page. What followed was a painful 20+ pages of Batman grieving while a letter from Alfred narrated through the panels.
"I was there, observing from the shadows as you took a candle from your room. As you brought it to Thomas and Martha’s bed. As you came to your knees and made your vow. ‘And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on criminals.’ That vow saved you. It allowed you to transform your pain into hope. Hope for a better world not just for yourself but for any who were of need. It gave you purpose. And as such, I encouraged you as you went forward with your mission. I aided you as well as I could. Not perfectly and not always without objection. But to the best of my abilities. And hopefully with a dash of honor and perhaps a hint of grace.”
Alfred was not just a butler. Alfred was a former British special force and military operative. He came from a skilled and dedicated family. He was also a skilled actor and had any number of avenues he could have taken with his life and future, but he chose one of humility and servanthood.
Even more so, once Thomas and Martha passed, he had every reason to leave Bruce behind and start over, but he didn’t. He chose to put that little boy, and eventually that oddly dressed man’s needs in front of his own. That is what we are called to do as Christians. We are called to put other’s needs and well-being above our own. You can’t look at someone as an enemy or something to attack if you are humbling yourself and placing their hearts, lives, and interests above your own. The apostle Paul states,
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” - Philippians 2: 3-4
A Servant’s Heart Is Selfless
When we humble ourselves and put others first, we actually look like we believe what we claim to believe. When our Christian culture has a “me first” attitude, we look like the hockey pads Batman from “The Dark Knight.”
Alfred’s letter to Bruce continues;
“I saw you fight the worst of men. I saw you laid low. I saw you rise again. My little boy who lost everything. I saw you save the world. And throughout it all, I sought one thing. Throughout your travails and triumphs. As I sewed your wounds, and endured the worry of your chosen profession. As I stood by you and with you. As I never wavered in my support. I sought merely to see you smile again. I pursued this as relentlessly as you pursued your war. In that way, Master Bruce, I learned from you. One may put an ideal above all else. That one may sacrifice every given moment for that one true hope.”
Alfred had been a constant in Batman’s life since 1943. He provided tech support, costume repair, food services, childcare, mechanical support, cleaning, emotional support, correction, discipline, and love. He was a constant source of support and encouragement through everything that was endured. He provided the strength and support that allowed the frightened boy inside the costume to rest and breathe. Alfred didn’t have to put on a costume (although he occasionally did) to be a lifeline to Batman, he just had to be there and be a constant support.
Alfred had been the one person Bruce could count on for his entire life. Alfred was his rock when his parents died. Alfred stayed by him when his back was broken. Alfred stayed through 2 Robins leaving (Dick & Tim), and Alfred loved him and held his broken heart and spirit together through 3 Robins dying (Jason, Steph, and Damian). He also provided the voice of grace, forgiveness, and tenderness when Batman’s heart grew too cold and calloused. He wasn’t just there idly standing by. He actively engaged him in the ways he needed to. He gave him the support he needed in practical ways, but also gave him the emotional support and confidence to get back up every time he was broken.
We give Batman all this credit about being the one who always has a plan and who can overcome any obstacle and accomplish anything with prep time. The deal is, those things are made possible because of the support and encouragement Alfred has provided over the years. Alfred embodied the nature of edification. His character and actions are what scripture calls us to model on so many levels.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” - Hebrew 10:24
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” - 1 Thessalonians 5:11
A Servant’s Heart Encourages & Supports
This is why it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Alfred’s well-being was in the way of Gotham’s redemption, he would knowingly lay down his life.
“Which brings us to today. To Thomas holding our city. You with the brilliant plan to take it back. The only obstacle between yourself and victory and peace...being me. I’ve just signaled to you that I have run. That I am safe. That you might execute your plan. You believed me. I am, if not much else, a talented actor. And soon you will come. But I am not safe. I, unfortunately, could not find a way to run. I expect now that Thomas will kill me. And so you must ask, why the lie? The answer is as you might suspect. I am again putting my ideal above my current need. I choose not to be an instrument of your downfall but to be a cause of your salvation. I will die here. I choose to die here. There is such joy in you, Master Bruce. I know who you can become. I have seen it. And, no matter the consequences, I will not allow anyone to break you. I will not be there, but the day is coming when you shall smile again.”
Alfred knew that Batman wasn’t just up against a criminal he could easily take on or a situation he could simply outsmart. He had a plan in place, and all the pieces on the board were set to go. However, Alfred was trapped. He knew that the only way he could help Bruce to save his city and defeat two of his toughest foes was to lay down his life. Laying down your life for others is an essential concept of Christianity. Jesus said there is no greater love than that.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” - John 15:13
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” - John 10:17-18
Jesus laid down His life for all of us and stated that’s the greatest kind of love there is. True, He believed that He would be raised from the dead, but the act of sacrifice and surrender isn’t made less painful or difficult with the hope of resurrection. Alfred wasn’t concerned with anything but laying down his life so that Gotham could be saved, and Bruce could be free. I’m not telling you to run out and find someone to die for or even to aspire to do that.
In reality, we lay down our lives in smaller ways when we allow our desires and plans to be sacrificed for the good or blessing of others. When you sacrifice your time, your resources, and your opportunities for others, you are laying down your life. When you take your desires and literally let them be sacrificed to make other people’s possible, you are laying down your life.
A Servant’s Heart Sacrifices
A servant’s heart sacrifices because a servant’s heart is Christ’s heart. He doesn’t just call us to make some one-time action of redemption, but he calls us to live it out on a regular basis. Alfred was sacrificing himself so that Batman could live, and he wanted the life that he had to be lived well.
“You asked me once, as you fell from the sky... Would this be a good death? Would your parents be proud? At the time, I gave you the answer you needed. As I did today, I lied. But now, please forgive a man at his end a touch of truth. There are no good deaths. Not for parents. Not for Children. But there are good lives. And you my son, are living one.”
Alfred’s words would serve as an encouragement that not only was he proud of Bruce, but he needed to keep going in who he was and to live in that manner after he was gone. He wanted Bruce to be the hero that Gotham needed and the hero he loved. Jesus left us with similar encouragement and goals, but with a different heart.
We Are Called to Be Servants, Not Heroes
When Jesus had one last night of freedom on Earth, he washed 24 disgusting crusty feet, including 2 that would betray Him. He was laying down His life then, too. That is the life that Jesus calls us to.
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” - John 13:12-14
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Matthew 20:25-28
We aren’t the heroes of this story. People who don’t know or follow Jesus aren’t our enemies. We aren’t going to save the world with some crusade against it. Jesus has done all that needs to be done for the world to be saved. He is the hero, but he has called to be servants of Christ. We are called to be servants selflessly serving, supporting, encouraging, and sacrificing for the people that Jesus has died for. It’s not as glamorous as brandished logos on everything we do, or running around with a cape hurtling metal objects at people’s faces, but as Alfred stated: “There are good lives,” and being a servant is the greatest of them.