Friday, May 18, 2012

Watch out for Power 3

... continued from Wednesday.
Jesus addressed a specific context in Galilee, although the Gospel of Matthew presumably wanted its audience to see this teaching as applying to them as well. However, we at least have to ask the extent to which Jesus' teaching on non-violent conformity was local or timeless and universal. What exactly might Jesus say--or Paul for that matter--if he were addressing a democratic society or one where the state at least seemed less evil? This is the difficult task we face together of working out faith in a world that is much different in many respects than that of Jesus, and we have to "test the spirits" carefully when people like me make suggestions.

The first thought that occurs to me is that Jesus would probably tell us to be very, very careful when we try to wade into the world of politics and power. You've heard the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  It's not in the Bible, but it fits the sense we get in the gospels that the vast majority of the humans in power in the story--except for Jesus--are morally questionable. The high priest, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, they are not the ones to model oneself after.

Sure, there are some with power who are true seekers.  Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the centurion, they are the exceptions. But in general, "it it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24), where wealth is a form of power.

Christians believe that although Christ had all power, he "emptied himself" of that status and willingly took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). Paul says that we are to serve each other this way as believers.  And we should not too quickly dismiss Jesus' instructions to the rich young man when he told him to "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor" (Mark 10:21). How easy it is for us to slough off this statement as just something for this one man, while obsessing on more peculiar statements like "Women should remain silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34). Jesus' trajectory away from money and possessions was completely consistent throughout his ministry. [1]

Yet we do see individuals with significant resources and possessions in Scripture. While we need to linger longer on the warnings of Jesus and the New Testament against wealth, it is true that this trajectory is not absolute. Those with power can do good in this world and in the kingdom. God can use a pagan king like Cyrus to accomplish his will (Isa. 45:1). There is a time for the Christian statesman and the Christian patron.

I think of the curious statement Jesus makes in Matthew 10:16 to be "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." A snake has power. Surely that's why we fear them so much, especially in places where the primary snake is a rattlesnake, a cobra, or a black mamba.  The dove has no thought of harming others. It hardly has any sense of its own danger.

The two images together are striking, to have the power to harm but to be harmless. Surely this is Jesus' philosophy of power. There is a rare person who can have immense power and yet use it for good. We may all think we would be the exception. The ambitious Christian will no doubt gladly smile, raise his or her right hand and say, "Yes, yes, I seek power only to do good." But it will not be true in the vast majority of cases...

[1] By contrast, numerous women ministered in the early church from Priscilla, who led the way in discipling Apollos (Acts 18:26), to Phoebe, who was a deacon (Rom. 16:1), to Junia, who was an apostle (Rom. 16:7).


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Your suggestion of our fear of snakes and their power reminded me of the African tribes and their superstitions, and "snake handlers" where the test of spirituality is the ability to handle the danger of snakes!

You write and teach to those "inside the Church" and the thinking of the Church, under Tertullian's convictions of martyrdom and "Paul's value" of Christian submission.

Ken Schenck said...

I personally don't think of a fear of poisonous snakes as superstitious.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

True, I meant the superstition of animism. Snakes being an incarnation of a "spirit"...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have an aversion to deceptive means of manipulating others. And those that want to create man in "god's image" have to be "upfront" about their intent in using political power in undermining another's right to choose what they value and IF they want to be "formed" into the "conforming standard" model of "person". I don't find that such "conforming" discipline is palatable to human nature, in fact, it subverts "human nature" to present a "sacrificial lamb". And "sacrificial lambs" are for the "Church's appetite"! Has the Church, then, become the image of Satan, in Dante's "Inferno", chomping away at the sacrificial "souls" to further their own cause/end? Or is man to be his own "end", thus allowing for political liberty, and not some "formed imagery" that conforms man in its "own image"?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this series. Junia an apostle? I had missed that!