Exposing the Fantasy of Converts in Power

Americans express their aspirations through their celebrities, and attempt to live vicariously through them. Our religious tribes works similarly. Dalai Lama and Richard Gere? Do you Tebow? Is it Cat Stevens/Yusaf Islam? Do the new atheists turn you on?

This happens in politics too of course. A generation ago the presidency of Jimmy Carter, an outspoken post-WWII evangelical brought hope to many Christians about what it would mean to have a Christian like them in the White House. Others a generation later felt the same way about GW Bush. If you don’t appreciate what the candidacy of Mitt Romney means to Mormons then you’re not paying attention.

Why does this work this way? Because success and popularity in this world speaks of validation and vindication regardless if the success or popularity are explicitly for the aspect of your greatest concern. 

The Dream of Missional Visibility

Themes of validation, vindication and visibility run throughout the Biblical story in a number of ways. Moses attempts to be a savior of his people by killing an Egyptian taskmaster and it proves ruinous. David rises and falls on this metric. He’s first overlooked as being too small and too young. Then he’s worshipped and adored by the nation for her heroism. A younger, better looking son then supplants him for a time and he has to flee his royal city only to be mocked and berated at his lowest point.

David and Solomon will be praised as being leaders of a great nation, and later the kings of Israel and Judah will be pawns in the political ambitions of larger world players.

Daniel and his friends will ride the roller coaster of exaltation and humiliation in the courts of world powers. Esther will be sought and used for her beauty and eventually recognized for her courage.

When Jesus comes, born to a poor family, coming out of a no-place like Nazareth, one of the things the devil tempts him with is visible exaltation by suggesting he prompt an angelic rescue above Jerusalem for the powerful within his world to see and recognize. This temptation is always with us.

Jesus of course will be scorned for not showing the proper deference to Pilate, Herod and the Sanhedrin. On the cross he will be mocked and spit upon.

Paul’s Strange Journey to Rome

Paul’s “missionary journeys” are famous. He travels into Asia Minor and Greece preaching in synagogues, establishing churches, doing miracles, getting into trouble and getting kicked out of cities. Paul’s journey to Jerusalem sparks a riot and he is rescued by the Roman officials trying to keep a lid of the Jewish populous which at this time is getting increasingly close to boiling over in full scale revolt of the Roman occupation.

The book of Acts is energized by the command of Jesus, it’s really a Lucan “Great Commission” of Acts 1:8 “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In Acts 23:11 Jesus appears to Paul to encourage him and commands him “just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem so you must also testify in Rome.”

Paul will now appear in a series of trials before kings and governors and beat witness before them. Is this a mission to convert the powerful?

We should remember that Theophilus, the person or persona to whom the book is addressed is either a man or an audience of persons of status. Does Luke believe the gospel will somehow be advanced if he can tell stories of people of position, privilege and power embracing it? Will this lend the kind of vindication necessary to the gospel that will propel it to become popular and successful in the empire?

Paul Before Felix

What little we know Governor Felix isn’t flattering. He obtained his position by virtue of his connection to his more famous and powerful brother who like him was a former slave. Tacitus, the Roman historian commented about him

“Felix practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of a king with all the instincts of a slave” (History 5.9; Annals 12.54).

Witherington, B., III. (2001). New Testament History: A Narrative Account (301). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem secured the services of Tertullus, to try to secure the condemnation of Paul. Paul makes his own defense, showing how he was not guilty of doing anything unlawful in the temple, how he was an observant Jew, and declaring that what he’s really on trial for concerns the resurrection of the dead.

Felix with his wife, a Jewish daughter of the Herod family wanted to hear more from Paul. Luke records the topic of the subsequent conversation being righteousness, self-control and the coming judgment. Felix didn’t like where this was going and dismissed him.

Felix’ job is to keep order in his region and he did so in a violent, brutal way. He slaughtered those who might revolt against Rome, but neither was he a friend of the aristocracy in Jerusalem that wanted Paul done away with. he was familiar with “the Way” according to Luke and so it seems, rather than risk irritating the leadership in Jerusalem by freeing Paul, or pleasing them by executing Paul, and in this case there being no money or advantage for him in executing justice, he held onto Paul.

WITNESS before the Powerful

We like to indulge in the fantasy of super Christians. It’s important to recognize that thousands of people saw Jesus in the flesh, heard him preach, saw him do miracles, argued theology with him and left unconvinced.

Here the Apostle Paul is presented as an orator, making a passionate plea not primarily for his own liberty or comfort, but rather for the truth of the gospel and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In speech after speech in the book of Acts Paul makes his best case, and just like with Jesus, most leave unconvinced.

Witness means a presentation of the truth, it doesn’t mean an overwhelming power that convinces all.

Witness before the POWERFUL

All powerful people in this world are powerful within a system and their power is a function of that system. In most cases the reasons they have power are deeply tied to that system.

Felix had power because of his political connections. Even though he had been a slave, he was brothers with a man with imperial connections, while too being a slave, and when his masters obtained power within that system, these former slaves were given power within that same system.

Power is never a neutral thing, and the power they were given to wield was understood to be wielded in service of that system. Felix used the power given to him to brutally maintain and perpetuate the Roman system of power.

The witness that Paul presented was a witness to power but a witness to power of a different system. Both Lysias the Tribune, and Felix the Governor understood that the religious dispute that prompted the riot and brought Paul before them was of a different system than the Roman system of power and there was no just reason for Paul to be justly held under their system. They held him partly because there was also no motivation to release him within their political system. Why should you spend chips on external justice when you will have to take a political hit for it. There wasn’t anything in it for Felix.

It is easy to understand why Felix would not convert merely on the basis of the words of Paul. Felix was deeply entrenched in a particular system, and embracing Paul’s system would threaten his status, achievements and security within the Roman system. It is very difficult indeed to switch systems and Felix was clearly not intent on endangering his political and economic prospects. He had been a slave and had no interest in taking a demotion.

Witness to Another System

The subsequent conversation with Paul which disturbed Felix was however a conversation between systems. The topics of discussion between Paul, Felix and Drusilla, Felix’ wife were noteworthy: righteousness/justice, self-control and the coming judgment. Felix’ response is noted by Luke. He was troubled. Why?

Paul apparently was a potent enough witness to a different system, a different universe of power, and within the conversation Felix felt it and didn’t like it. Felix had spent his life investing in the system of Roman power and had banked on riding it until the end. Paul suggested to him that there was another system of power that was impinging itself on Felix’ world and that those two systems intersected in some important places.

Justice/righteousness. Felix clearly, even after multiple meetings with Paul, felt more bite in his system of power and self-interest than he did even in their system of Roman justice. He would not serve justice at his own expense.

Self-control. This is tied to the first. What little we know of Felix is that he was reactive, violently so to any threat to his system or his position within the system. He brutally preserved his system and himself at the expense of others. This is the ultimate witness to self-control or the lack of it. His ego was his lord.

It may also well be that his appetites had something to do with it. By the time we meet him he’s on his third wife, having always had the “good sense” and fortune to marry daughters of royalty.

The coming judgment. Felix would hold Paul for two more years, until he was removed from power. What happened after that to him we do not know.

What we do know is that he died. What we do know about Judea is that it would revolt and be brutally put down and destroyed by the Romans. What we do know about the Romans is that their empire would flourish for a time and then crumble. The age of decay would take them all.

One thing we do know about people is that we use our power within the logic of the systems we find most real. Felix used his power within the logic of the system he found most real, using whatever position and advantage he had within the larger Roman system to get for himself what he wanted, whether that be an advantageous marriage, a position of political and economic power, or whatever his appetites demanded. We also know that all of this would be taken away from him, but during the time of his conversations with Paul, these losses were not real enough to him to disadvantage himself by doing justice.

Logic Within Your System

Felix’ System: Felix I’m sure know the limitations and ends of his system. He had acquired great power and wealth in it, getting the marriages he wanted, getting positions of power and wealth he desired, getting what he wanted from it. He also knew, I suspect, that his system was limited and his ability to secure for himself would end. He must have known that his ability to prosper within the system would some day come to an end. He had what he had by out hustling other other, and he I’m sure know that there would come a day when someone else would be stronger, more powerful, better positioned than he and all that he had worked for would crumble around him.

Celebrity Tribalism: Celebrity tribalism, seeking validation and vindication in the success of celebrity idols is an extension of Felix’ system. We imagine that power can be leveraged between systems, and that if we manage through one system to gain power, this can be transferred to the next system for our advantage. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Power, status and privilege are always a function of the systems which contain them. The currency is non-transferable. We know this and hear about it commonly in the imagined wished-for pure ruler. What we usually recognize is that in order to gain power within one system, you often have to compromise your values in other systems.

Paul’s System: Prominent in Paul’s system, for which he was on trial for, was the resurrection of the just and the unjust. Paul likewise operated within the logic of his system and was willing to sacrifice advantages in the other system, parallel yet opposite the situation of Felix.

System Investment Through Life

This week there was a piece in the New York Times entitled “Why Am I Back in Church?” The baby boomers haven’t been a particularly religious generation but it seems some are wandering back in. Why?

Then there is that other little matter: mortality, said Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has written extensively about baby boomers.

“They have all been through it, or are in the middle of it,” he said. “Their parents are dying off. So the reality of mortality has hit them. When they were young, they thought they would live forever. But they know better now.”

Who Cares if Denzel Washington is a Christian?

ThinkChristian.net had a thought provoking piece asking this question. It exposed the systems we have bought into and don’t even know it.

For starters, we must combat the false assumption that God’s kingdom works in a top-down kind of way with the most influential people, such as celebrities, being most valuable. We make this mistake, in part, because we assume that the most visible people in our society are those who make the most difference in moving world history the direction it should go. Celebrities, politicians and sports stars – according to this mindset – are the ones doing big things and therefore making a big difference.

But perhaps part of why we focus on celebrities is because that focus lets us off the hook. We can tell ourselves that they are doing the things that really matter, so perhaps our own role (or even our own sin and unfaithfulness) is not that important. In his essay “The Gift of Good Land,” Wendell Berry argues that it is harder, not easier, to pursue faithfulness in ordinary life, noting that “it may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for 50 years.”

You Will Be My Witnesses

We are witnesses to a different system, a system that lays claims on all other systems within the world. Although we must live in the midst of overlapping systems, this one must get priority.

This system is not like the systems around us, it works in a strange reverse way. Many of the first in the systems around us will be last, and visa versa. The meek inherit the earth.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Exposing the Fantasy of Converts in Power

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