Repost from April 22, 2007. It’s fun reading some of these posts and tracking how my gospel vocabulary continues to morph.
Power comes in different forms. We are all familiar with power-over physics. As a civilization we have excelled in developing and deploying huge cause and effect mechanisms by which we can shape and control this world according to our desires. We have devised amazing networks of our machines, corporations, governments, societies and other tools to achieve a level of power and control greater than the world has ever know. We’re into power.
Even though we exalt our power-over physics, there is a greater power still that we seek. Power-over physics is excellent, but power-over people is even more sought after. Why should this be? Because after the angels the human heart is the most powerful force in creation. Why would I say this? God throughout scripture exercises power-over physics miracles with regularity. He makes the sun stand still, stops up rivers and seas, brings plagues and can wipe out enemy armies. These things for God seem fairly elementary and rudimentary. What do we find God struggling with throughout that long book we call the Bible? The human heart. Only the human heart has the capacity to put God’s heart into agony, torment, remorse and regret. Why is power-over people so highly prized? Because it is so much more difficult.
Humanity has made power-over people one if it’s chief goals and civilizations throughout human history have achieved it to one degree or another. It is usually done, however, through predictable means: carrots and sticks or as Jesus calls it “the sword”. Power-over people isn’t necessarily that difficult. Pavlov figured out how to rule a mammal. Reward compliance, punish non-compliance. We have immeasurable degrees and measures to employ this. Jobs, laws, rules, prisons, etc. Human life in this broken world would be impossible without power-over people mechanisms.
Because all of us have grown in a world of power-over we are all believers in its efficacy. Power-over simply works.
In the Gospels we find Jesus doing a number of miracles, but few as astounding as stilling a storm. For all of our amazing power-over physics technology today this is one miracle we, like Pharaohs magicians, have been unable to duplicate. Jesus, the carpenter, stands up in a boat full of seasoned boatmen who are scared out of their wits by the storm and tells the storm to be still, and it does. This intense, efficient, amazing display of power-over physics yields a predictable response from the disciples. I don’t quite know what they were expecting from Jesus when they woke him up to help them but this was not it. This was way over the top! They were filled with “great awe” and wondered “who is this!”
Immediately reading this should give us great comfort. This is the best example of the spiritual efficacy of “power-over” and its power to change the human heart. This is what we’re looking for in church. If we can just give them a powerful enough experience of “power-over”. Maybe we need to bring in a faith-healer. Maybe a new organ, a new worship leader who played in some drug band and is cleaned up with his guitar skills intact. Maybe that preacher who can really, really preach. THEN they will hit the floor and everything will be well.
This solution to empty seats in church only lasts if you stop reading here. If you keep reading you’ll find that somewhere along the line the effect, even after this most audacious display of power-over melts like manna in the midday sun. We respond begging and pleading with Jesus to quick, do something else so that we will feel the same way, see the same thing, make it stick, make it last!
Our belief in the ability of power-over to fix this world seems boundless. Most of us secretly believe that God somehow is either negligent or dim in resolving the mess we have made on this planet. The solution is obvious. If God has all that power-over his publicist says he has, then it shouldn’t take long at all. Maybe if God would streak across the sky, show up like a great eagle, and old man on a floating throne or a stone giant and just show himself and speak clearly. One word of endorsement for Jesus and all the other religions would have to give it up. Why doesn’t God do this? What is he waiting for?
He’s supposed to have all these angels, let’s put them to work. What if he would put an angel on every street corner. What would that do? Crime would stop. Gangs wouldn’t terrorize neighborhoods. Militias would have to lay down their arms and wars would stop. See, simple.
But what about all of the misery that happens inside of homes, the abuse, the neglect, the violence. Let’s put an angel in every home. No more need for alarms or guard dogs. No more abuse, neglect, violence in the home. Solved.
But what about addictions, the kinds of things people do behind closed doors? Assign an angel to every person. Drunks would have to sober up because angels would find and dump their hidden bottles. Every secret sin would be banished as angels make sure we all behave.
What about thought sins? Let angels read our minds and give us stun guns and stop us from thinking those thoughts. THEN the world would be fixed, and humanity as God desired it to be also eradicated. The Genesis flood was a God sized power-over solution to human sinfulness, but because he spared Noah, it too failed.
Power-over is an insufficient vehicle to address this broken world.
This hasn’t stopped Christians from giving it a shot. We’re hooked on power-over and so we keep working that lever hoping to get different results. Constantine thought it was a good idea and lots of nice churches were built and lots of people went to church. Did it fix the world? Europe tried it. Lots of state churches and governments to support, protect and promote the church. How did that go? Even Christians fled and helped start a country that would try put up a fire-wall between church and state.
This hasn’t stopped us in churches, however. Many successful churches use power-over to get the job done. Fear, guilt, nagging, threats of hell and damnation can motivate people to be obedient and compliant. It really works, at least for a while.
For all of us who have great faith in power-over, the devil tempting Jesus is a sobering chapter. If you were Satan and you wanted to tempt the Son of God, you’d make sure you brought your best game. What does the devil use? All three temptations are about power-over. “You’re hungry. Make bread! You know, you’re going to waste a lot of time up there in the Galilee and lots of folks won’t believe you. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Dive off the top of the temple where all of the really important people are and let them see angels come to save you. You’ll be known immediately as the promised Messiah and they’ll be eating out of your hands. They’ll do as you say and you’ll be set. But why stop there. Look, I’ve got power-over all the kingdoms of the world. Bow to me, just this once, and I’ll give you power-over all those kingdoms. There, we can wrap up your work today. Just acknowledge that power-over is the ultimate power and it will all be yours.”
In the story of Jesus’ arrest and trials it becomes abundantly clear that something else is going on. They come at Jesus with all their power-over tools lined up, assuming he’ll respond in kind, just like every revolution the world has ever seen. Jesus rejects power-over. It is an insufficient vehicle to change the world the way it must be changed. He won’t take up the sword and won’t let his disciples do it, instead healing the wound his disciple made. When they question him using power-over laden titles like “messiah”, “son of God”, and “king of the Jews” he defers to the much more audacious title of “Son of Man” who shares the throne of God! Jesus is bringing about a revolution of a different kind. Every other revolution simply uses all the same old tools to try to put another king at the top of the power-over structures. Jesus says that power-over as the dominant means of ruling the world is now dead. It will be finished when he walks out of that tomb.
If you begin to see through the passion narratives what Jesus is saying about power-over structures you’ll find he’s been preaching power-under all the way through the story. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, blessed are the poor-in-spirit, the meek, the peace-makers. The greatest in the kingdom of God is the servant of all! Power-over is still real, but pales compared to power-under.
If power-under is so powerful, why don’t many people use it. Some people try to appear to use it but if it is just manipulation it gets exposed pretty quickly. There is always a line for power-over positions. Look how many Democrats and Republicans are lining up to be “leader of the free world”! There is never a line for power-under positions. We all, every day have opportunity to practice it with everyone around us. Why don’t people use it?
It’s costly. I means not defending yourself, not being defensive, it means giving instead of holding on or taking. It offers no immediate assurance or guarantee of success or payoff. It requires faith, hope and patience. It also requires a belief in the resurrection. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no reason to believe that power-under is anything more than a suckers game and those who practice it are the worst kind of dupes and losers.
If however Jesus was right, then it reveals something deep and powerful about the universe we had not known, that this in fact is the heart of God. That God in fact loves us beyond what we can imagine, and is acting at infinite cost to himself to save us from ourselves.
CS Lewis said it well in his imaginary dialogue between a nephew and an uncle demon.
To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.
Screwtape letters, pg. 46