Sunday, October 14, 2012

Power

Looking back at the blog, I realize that it's been a month since I posted last. Whoops.

My second year teaching at my current location has, in many ways, been busier than my first: I know my job responsibilities now and so I'm working on both short-term and long(er)-term projects at the same time; I'm spending more time tweaking my projects and grading carefully than last year, where I spent some nights scrabbling to stay up with lesson planning. What this means is that I've had less time for blogging. Last week, however, was rich with thought-provoking material begging for a blog post.

Realization: At the heart of most of the world's religions (including Christianity) is the search for power. As in Lord of the Rings, men and women desire power above all else, and they have learned to exploit beliefs about moral behaviour and about the after life to supply this power.


Consider the biblical example of Simon the Sorcerer: Paul showed up casting out demons, and Simon tried to buy, with great sums of money, what he thought were Paul's professional secrets. It's easy to misread this gesture as Simon thinking that casting out demons is 'cool' or Simon misunderstanding the gospel. In fact, the gesture is somewhat more manipulative: To command the spirits was, at least in that day, to command people as well. The visible displays over power over unseen elements likely would have sealed Simon's political control of the island. To Simon, religious practice was simply a doorway to unimaginable power.

Besides Simon, countless other religious people have confused faith with a power source. Kings claimed to be gods in order to secure the people's loyalty: It is easier to die in a war that you believe is for your god than simply a quest to gain a few more acres of land. Ancient priests, including those in Egypt and South America, held the power of life or death over their citizens; they could spare them or sacrifice them with a word. In The Prince of Egypt, the Pharaoh's priests sing of the power they hold over Moses and the power they (think they) hold over Moses's God. Medieval Catholic priests pulled all the strings of most of Europe's governments, and not until the Renaissance did the kings finally start to break free of this control. Especially in a poverty-stricken feudal system, the priesthood was one of the few tickets to wealth and comfort, and the influence that comes with lots of money.

Mixing religion with power is not, of course, something that died out with the Knights Templar. There are, of course, the more egregious examples: Jim Jones, fundamentalist Mormon sects repressing women, extreme Independent Fundamental Baptist churches demanding a long list of strange moral and social responsibilities from its members. In each case, religious power is simply a method by which the leader bends the people to his own will and so secures from them whatever he desires. Yet the thirst for power runs deep, and other less obvious examples abound. In some circles, believers share "messages from God" with specific brothers or sisters: While well-intentioned, the divine intervention gives the messenger a certain prophetic power over the recipient. In other circles, worshipers suggest that to walk with God and believe His promises of happiness is to take the first step out of hardship towards wealth and comfort. A conservative variant of this belief suggests that God may punish his children physically for some egregious sin (a car crash, for instance), and so good behaviour and religious practice becomes not a matter of loving Christ but of taking control of life, at least in some degree.


Yet the faith authored by Christ is not a faith of taking power; it is a faith of giving power. Luke 5 records that "the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick". Yes, Christ had all the power of God. This power, however, was not used as the Pharisees used theirs: to demand honour and respect, to control the behaviour of those around them. Instead, the power of Christ was used to give power to others, in this case by restoring the sick beyond hope to a normal and fulfilling life. Indeed, the New Covenant itself is about the distribution of power: Whereas the Old Covenant kept men restricted under law (as a child, in Paul's analogy, is kept restricted under a tutor, the New Covenant removed the law and gave men the power to make their own decisions and hopefully the power to act for good, as an adult has power to do much good by virtue of making their own decisions. Even in His death Christ gave power to others: He who could have called down ten thousand angels gave human beings power, in order that they may kill him and salvation be accomplished.

A speaker at the college where I teach recently pointed out that the Christian God is not a glory-taker but a glory-giver: I would add that our God is also a power-giver. I see two possible applications from this fact. First, we who follow Christ must be on our guard against forms of our religion that seize power in any way whatsoever. Any form of religion that is about control is not derived from Christ; it is dangerous and must be avoided or at least reformed. Second and more importantly, we who follow Christ should also follow him in giving power to other people, of enabling them to live richer and fuller lives. To give other people power does not, of course, mean to agree meekly with others' opinions and to go along with all their ideas. I think it was C.S. Lewis who once pointed out that it is more polite to have and express an opinion about an activity than to submit, martyr-like, to an activity that you do not like; he suggested that such politeness inevitably ends with a whole bunch of people doing something that no one really likes.

Yes, to surrender the power of choice to people around us is to imitate Christ, but that is not the only way to do so. Indeed, there are many ways to grant power to others. Consider secrets: To tell someone a secret, something about our spiritual walk or our struggles or our frustrations, is to grant them power over us. Yet sharing secrets is essential for our psychological and our spiritual well-being. So, we take a step towards godliness and give a trustworthy soul this power over us. Consider too how we enable other people: Even in situations that do not involve power struggles we may still be Christlike by helping people live a better life. As a teacher, when I present my lessons in a way that enables my students to master the material and (hopefully) develop into clear, loving communicators, I am enabling them to live a more complete, Christian life and thus I am being Christlike in my job. An administrator that frees up his employees to make their own decisions (and then stand or fall by those decisions) is a Christlike step. A parent that lets her children assume responsibility for their own actions is also taking a Christlike step. In short, wherever we can resist the allure of having power and instead responsibly give that power to others, whether power over ourselves or over life decisions, we are behaving in a Christlike manner.


As Christ gave the ancient Jews certain powers, so He also gives us the power to know Him and walk with Him and live righteously in a way that we could never do on our own. It is a good step in us to grant such power, of similar kind though not degree, to others.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The desire for power is all through modern Christianity, whether it's the power that comes from political involvement, the power to live "your best life," or the power to become healthy, wealthy, and wise. Jesus idea of power was not power over, but power under. The greatest disciple is the one who is servant.

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