Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lent Three: Exploring Power

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”Matthew 4:8-10 
I’ve been thinking and praying about power: the way it plays out in relationships, economies, politics, churches, “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”.

What would it mean to fast from power?

Or is the harder task to learn to use power wisely?

I’m not sure anyone would see me as a powerful person. I have trouble opening jars with lids too tight, hate schlepping anything heavier than a sleeping bag.

I have no impressive title, no official authority.

Definitely not rich or famous.

Yet, like anyone breathing, I do have power.

Power to build up or tear down, disrupt or support. Offer words of harm or healing.

And yes, my own power goes way beyond that. I can speak to the other side of the globe with a simple tap on a button.

I can finance a college education on the other side of the globe, provide clean water for an entire village, encourage a young entrepreneur, double a waitress’s salary for the hour or two she serves me.

I can vote, advocate, answer questions well or poorly, open doors of interest and learning, undercut growth with a simple “you will never.”


Richard Foster, in Money, Sex, and Power, (retitled The Challenge of the Disciplined Life) asks:
Have you ever noticed the number of times Jesus refused to use power? He refused to dazzle people by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple (Matt. 4:5). He rejected the temptation to make more `wonder bread' to validate his ministry (John 6:26). He refused to do many wonderful works in his own hometown because of the unbelief of the people (Luke 4:16-27). He said no to the Pharisees' demand that he give a sign to prove he was the Messiah (Matthew 12:38). At his arrest, Jesus reminded Peter that he could have summoned a whole army of angels to his rescue, but he did not (Matthew 26:53). 
This self-limitation, according to Foster, is an important mark of spiritual power.  

Yet there were many times when Jesus demonstrated unprecedented power: healing the sick, feeding the thousands, calming the storm, speaking of things he had no human way of knowing, bringing the dead back to life.

He insisted the power he used was accessible to any human who chose to follow him: “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these," these things you will do, and more” (John 14:12).

But his use of power was always supportive of a greater purpose. Foster suggests that spiritual power, “the power that proceeds from God,” is a creative power that restores relationships, sets people free, produces unexpected unity. 
Love is the first mark of spiritual power. Love demands that power be used for the good of others. Notice Jesus' use of power---the healing of the blind, the sick, the maimed, the dumb, the leper, and many others. Luke, the physician, observes that `all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all' (Luke 6:19 NRSV). Notice in each case the concern for the good of others, the motivation of love. In Christ, power is used to destroy the evil so that love can redeem the good. 
Other hallmarks of power from God, according to Foster: 
  • Humility: “Humility is power under control. Nothing is more dangerous than power in the service of arrogance.”
  • Self-limitation. “The power that creates refrains from doing some things---even good things---out of respect for the individual.”
  • Joy “To see the kingdom of Christ break into the midst of darkness and depression is a wonderful thing.”
  • Vulnerability: “The power that comes from above is not filled with bravado and bombast. It lacks the symbols of human authority; indeed, its symbols are a manger and a cross.”.
  • Submission: “when, with humility of heart, we submit to others, vast new resources are opened to us. When we submit to others, we have access to their wisdom, their counsel, their rebuke, their encouragement.” 

It’s not hard to find examples of power claiming to be from God yet used in ways that cause great harm.

Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Selma
My reading yesterday morning was in Acts 21, where the religious leaders turned their power against Paul. The Encounter with God note (written by my husband, Whitney Kuniholm) said “when religion becomes a means for human control, it is one of the most dangerous things on earth.”

The news is full this weekend of power misused for human control, in evil, ugly ways: bloody Sunday, a half-century ago, when self-righteous white Alabama state troopers and police beat unarmed protesters crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge en route from Selma to Montgomery.

The Department of Justice report, released this week, describing police dogs attacking unarmed teens, taser use, “swift, and at times automatic,” as a regular means of control.

I find myself wondering about the troopers and police who failed to speak up. Those uneasy with misuse of power who chose to remain silent.

I think of the words from Yeat’s Second Coming:  
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
My fellow parishioner, Andy Crouch, in his own study of power, Playing God:Redeeming the Gift of Power, talks of the danger of pretending we are not all called to the use of power. He describes power as a gift, given to us all, intended for human flourishing.

Both Foster’s and Crouch’s books are well worth reading.

They describe the ways power can become selfish, coercive, destructive.

But they also suggest the joyful possibilities of power used for the good of all: parental power used to help children grow and thrive; institutional power used to address injustice and create safe spaces for real community.  Relational power, that brings wisdom, healing, encouragement, room for growth.
A discussion of Playing God by sociologist John Hawthorne offers an interesting summary framework ( put in my own words, not his):

  • “Make it so” power: this is power as control, a power that squashes anything in its way, a zero sum power that envisions no alternative but its own. Ferguson, Selma, Isis – the list could go on and on.
  • “Let there be” power: this is a power that opens room for expansive expression of realities already there: “teeming — varieties of outcomes flowing from creation in all sorts of wonderful ways. The creative power of God is expressed by setting things free to be.”
  • “Let us make” power: this is something totally new, the point where we become true image bearers of God himself, creative forces collaborating to generate new realities beyond anything we could imagine on our own.  
When I read through scripture, I see many examples of power misused, exerted as coercive force in efforts to control, but I also see the constant call to live in God’s creative “let us make” power: calling forth unexpected gifts, offering healing to the broken, pouring out life-giving compassion, singing songs of unity and joy in barren, desert places.

My prayer as I continue on my  journey through Lent is that we grow in discernment: able to see and reject destructive power that breaks down the weak and holds “the other” captive, strong enough to provide “let it be” space for others to grow into what they’re called to become, open and available to God’s creative, collaborative live-giving power that yields gifts beyond our imagining. 
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious richeshe may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  Ephesians 3

This is the fourth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:


From 2013:

     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan