Behold the Man
by Jonas Kyratzes
There will come a day when my name will recall the memory of something formidable — a crisis the like of which has never been known on earth, the memory of the most profound clash of consciences, and the passing of a sentence upon all that which theretofore had been believed, exacted, and hallowed.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
It is one of the strange ironies that the Lord is fond of peppering history with that I, who spent so many years studying the works of the Venerable Bede, should end up living in a place not unlike a monastery, writing an account of times long gone. But it so happens that I once knew one of the chief architects of the new world that is being born, and perhaps better than anyone else has known him; so while others, I am sure, will write better histories of the economic and political matters that led us here, I am one of the few who can say something about matters of the soul.
Tobias West and I were both born in the year 1990, in the city of Tuskegee, which lay in the eastern regions of the state of Alabama, which was part of the great empire known as the United States of America. Our families were poor, but in those days there was a profound feeling of hope. The greatest enemy of our nation had been defeated, and it seemed like the world was about to bloom with freedom and prosperity.
By the time we were boys, this sense of promise had vanished. The world was mired in economic collapse and endless war. There were no jobs except the kind that got you killed, or those that slowly ground you down. Governments had stopped caring about our rights, corporations ruled most aspects of our lives, and freedom - let alone prosperity - seemed impossible to reach. For people like us, born in a place for which most had nothing but scorn, the future seemed to hold precisely nothing.
Tobias and I had one thing in common: we were not popular. In my case, it was that I had found Jesus at a young age, and made the unfortunate mistake of actually reading the Lord's words, unlike so many others who called themselves Christians. I believed in turning the other cheek, in loving your enemy. I soon discovered that it was a fine thing to be meek in the eyes of the Lord, but in high school it amounted to painting a target on one's back.
But what was it about Tobias that made him a target? It is true that at this time he was small and not very strong, but there was more to it than just physical inferiority. Tobias had an intensity, a seriousness about him that the boys in particular despised. Their lives revolved around the here and now, the small dramas of everyday human life. Tobias, like myself, had his eyes turned elsewhere, and that unsettled them. But where I looked to God, Tobias looked to the future.
He had a notebook in which he scribbled pages upon pages of ideas in tiny, neat handwriting (in later years, this was replaced by a phone). It was this habit, of standing apart from the others and scribbling, that provoked the others into some of their meanest pranks. I find myself wondering, now - would it all have been different if we had at least tried to fit in? There is an arrogance that comes with youth which is sadly not lessened by intelligence. If we had tried to join in at least a little, if we had been less judgemental - because surely, in our own way, both of us were - perhaps things would have been easier.
But as were children, and children cannot be expected to be wise, the pranks continued to escalate, until one day a group of boys snatched away the notebook. Although we barely knew each other at that point, I tried to help him get it back, but was punched and shoved to the ground for my trouble. The bullies doused the notebook in gasoline and set it on fire. As all his precious notes burned up in front of his eyes, Tobias helped me get back up. His face was cold, expressionless.
Later, in my room, I told him that we had to forgive these boys, even though they'd hurt us. Violence would only stain our souls. Tobias nodded, seeming to genuinely consider my words.
"But they will continue to do the same thing," he said. "We will not be able to live our lives as we want to. Years will pass before we finally get out of school and can get away from their constant disruptions. Why should we sacrifice years of our lives just because they can't leave us alone?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," I said, weakly. My knowledge of Christianity was more shallow than I realized; I knew the dogma, but I did not feel the truth of our faith in my bones.
"Why is it the right thing to do?" Tobias said with great intensity. "Why would it not be better to take action to defend our freedom?"
There were moments such as that, when we did not speak as boys, but almost as two young, ignorant philosophers. But they were just moments, and even Tobias was not beyond levity. We spent the rest of the day playing games on a device called a console; such things were common then.
Two days later, the leader of the bullies, a boy called Billy, was severely beaten with a metal pole as he was going home from school. Both of his knees were broken, as was his wrist and several of his fingers. He had to be taken to the hospital, but when a police officer asked him who had assaulted him, he said he couldn't remember. The bullies never touched us again.
I remember my reaction vividly, because years later it was to be mirrored many times over in the reaction of the world to Tobias West. I was unnerved, outraged, and thrilled at the same time. Part of me felt that what had happened was wrong, but I was too glad to be free of the bullying to really care.
Tobias never said anything to me about this particular event, but somehow a bond had been forged between us that was to endure for decades. Even though our belief systems were radically different, our status as outsiders made us friends. Even after high school, when our interests took us in different directions, as I lost myself in the study of history and theology and Tobias pursued success through business and technology, we kept in touch. Sometimes we wouldn't speak for months, but then one of us would always reach out, and it would be like in the old days.
Another thing we had in common, I suppose, was a belief in humanity. This may seem odd, given what I have described of our childhood, but it is true. I believed, and still believe, that the story of Jesus Christ is not about sin and damnation, as many have made it out to be, but about hope. The Son of God died on the cross like one of us, and He did so for a reason. He believed in us. He thought we were worth saving. And if He thought human beings are that wonderful, who am I to argue?
As for Tobias, his beliefs were rooted deeply in individualism. What he believed in was the human individual and its limitless potential. Some theologians consider such a belief narcissistic or sinful, and they might well be right, but it was hard to doubt the sincerity with which Tobias spoke about all that human beings could achieve. I always felt that he had tremendous goodness within him.
But there was also tremendous anger. The world he found himself in did not provide a level playing field. Banks failed and got bailed out by the government, but as an ordinary citizen you stood little chance of success if you had no capital to begin with - and to the people who might have been able to finance his ideas, Tobias West was just a dumb redneck. I believe that this is how he first got involved in certain types of shady business. We never talked about what exactly it was that he did, but I do remember us discussing the philosophy of it. Was it immoral to break the law when no-one was harmed? Was it immoral to sell a product that others wanted, when they sought it of their own free will? When no coercion was involved in any way, what right did the state have to interfere in the business affairs of private citizens?
Slowly, he began to accrue money and power, although these things were secondary to him; what mattered was having a chance at realizing his potential. His people were fiercely loyal to him, in great part because he did not care about their origins. The notion of someone being prevented from the pursuit of happiness merely because of their race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation absolutely infuriated him, as did the notion of favoring anyone because of some accident of genetics. He cared purely and passionately about finding the very best of humanity, and never judged anyone except by what they did.
I saw the beauty of that, and the virtue of it, but also the terror and the inhumanity. In many ways, it was the very opposite of what I believed. The value of a human soul is not determined by its ability, I told him, but is innate. I quoted the Gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
He considered this, never one to simply reject an idea.
"But this kingdom of heaven," he asked me, "how will it come about? You are waiting for some external force, for God himself, but all I can see in this world is us. If there is a God, we are the instruments of His will, the manifestation of his power. And then who but the best among us are up to the task of building the kingdom of heaven? And if there is no God - then how much longer can we wait?"
But the more progress he made, the angrier he got. The system was rigged far more than he had expected. He might be a self-made man, but the upper class he found himself part of was nothing like him. Supposedly brilliant young innovators turned out to be trust fund kids stealing ideas from programmers; powerful businesspeople turned out to be degenerate would-be aristocrats who had inherited all of their wealth. The politicians he backed ran on reducing the role of the state in individual affairs and ending wasteful and immoral wars, but when they came to power they did more of the same: less privacy, less freedom, more wars, more corporate monopolies.
He called me late one evening, after a politician he'd had real hopes for had decided to continue the strategies of his predecessor, despite having spent the last four years lambasting them.
"They say it's pragmatism, but what it is is corruption." There was something frightening in his voice, a kind of nihilism. "Everything is corrupt. Everything. Everything is corrupt to the very core. And the more we play by the rules, the more corrupt we become ourselves, because we subject ourselves to this sick morality, pretending to be free when we are slaves of a dying world. We have to reject it. Not heal it. It can't be healed, my friend, it can't be healed. It's like a cancer, eating away at us from the inside. We need something new. And I think I have to build it."
After that call, I didn't hear from him for some time, and strange stories started circulating. He was becoming involved in some truly terrible things - illegal arms deals, private armies, even assassinations. His company, Vanadium, acquired a very unpleasant reputation. Those who opposed him, including journalists, had a tendency to disappear. As global tensions rose and ecological catastrophes began to spread, Tobias West became one of the richest men in the world.
Yet when I finally spoke to him again, his contempt for every side he was selling weapons to was evident. They were all the same, as far as he was concerned - all part of a broken system that would bleed out with or without his help. All he cared about was making sure the human species survived the coming disaster.
This was one of the few times when I lost my temper with him. I sent him a link to a video, leaked by a whistleblower, showing his troops slaughtering civilians in the Middle East.
"They were human beings too," I shouted at him. "With all the human potential you love so much! What about them? They didn't do anything to anyone! Half of them were just kids! What about their pursuit of happiness? You may want to let go of corrupted morality, but does that mean letting go of ethics altogether? What happened to the Tobias West who had principles?"
Then I broke off the connection.
We never spoke about this outburst again, but somehow my words affected him. According to what I heard from others, he spent weeks in his office doing nothing but watching every single leaked video, watching his men shouting obscenities while they tortured and murdered innocent people who just happened to live in the wrong country. He'd never seen any of this material before, never cared. He, who had been obsessive about hiring only the best, had allowed his standards to slip, had lost touch with his own company.
Insiders called what followed the Great Purge, or the Night of the Long Knives. It was a turning point for Vanadium, earning Tobias West bitter enemies and loyal friends.
Watching the videos, pausing to identify each face, he carefully prepared lists of every one of his employees involved in the atrocities. Then he made sure these people never found work again. In some cases that just meant firing them and putting out word that they were unreliable. In other cases - particularly those who killed for pleasure - it meant a bullet to the head. At a different point in history, this approach might have caused problems, but the world was on the brink of global war. The suspicious deaths of a handful of war criminals didn't amount to much.
My words caused those deaths, though of course they may have prevented many more. This paradox troubled me, as did the fact that the changes caused by the purge in no way altered the purpose of Vanadium. Had I accomplished nothing more than making a killing machine more efficient?
When the world finally plunged into madness, with deadly mists rising from the sea and the nations of the Earth at each other's throats, he invited me to New Jericho, and then I began to understand what he'd meant in that late-night call. All this time he had been building something, preparing to shape the new world. A new society, free of corruption, in which those who embraced their potential would be lifted up. A society built on principles of excellence, of meritocracy, where policy would be shaped not by the masses or by bureaucrats, but by those who earned it.
As he told me about what he was building, I saw in him the sincerity and intensity he'd had as a boy; and in New Jericho I saw every wonderful and terrible contradiction that I saw in Tobias West himself. The pull of his vision was strong, the clarity of his beliefs intoxicating. Here he was, the philosopher-king, ready to build his kingdom. I realized in that moment that I would not be surprised to be told that he was chosen, that he was a prophet of the Lord; and neither would I be surprised to be told he was the Antichrist.
I might well have joined him that day, if I had not already chosen a lord to serve. So I have ended up here, in the mountains, far from New Jericho, writing this humble chronicle. And Tobias West continues his campaign to build a new world out of the ashes of the old. I think of him often, and with great affection. I pray for him daily. But I do not know whether to hope that he succeeds.