A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The power of love versus the love of power

The will to power destroys the power to will.
The weapon made, we cannot help but use it;
it drags us with its own momentum still.

The power to kill compounds the need to kill.
Grown out of hand the heart cannot refuse it;
the will to power undoes the power to will.

Though as we strike we cry, “I did not choose it,”
it drags us with its own momentum still.
In the one stroke we win the world and lose it.
The will to power destroys the power to will.
- Judith Wright
The Bible presents such a vast array of ideas about and understanding of God. Take Psalm 29 and Isaiah 42 as an example. The theologies behind these two passages are jarringly different. Psalm 29 speaks about an all powerful God whose mere voice breaks down trees and strips the forest bare. The concluding verses describe God as enthroned above all the chaotic violence of his creation and the psalmist asks God to bless God’s people with this kind of strength as well.

Then we have Isaiah 42. In this passage God is speaking joyfully and tenderly about a servant leader that delights God’s very soul. This servant leader is characterized by his tenderness and his will for justice. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” This passage concludes speaking about old things passing away and new things springing forth.

So Psalm 29 offers us an image of a God who revels in majestic power. Isaiah 42 presents a God who loves the leader who works compassionately and tirelessly for justice. Let’s go ahead and stir some gospel into the mix as well. Matthew also offers an interesting contrast.

In the third chapter of Matthew we have John the Baptist on the banks of the River Jordan preaching a fiery message of brimstone. In verses 11-12 he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is immediately followed up with the baptism of Jesus. But given John’s description of Jesus, this baptism text is a little disconcerting. Jesus appears at the river, with no pomp or ceremony. He isn’t even preaching. John is clearly taken off guard and tries to finangle the situation so that Jesus can baptize John, rather than vice versa. But Jesus won’t have any of it. He requests that John baptize him in the same manner he’s been baptizing everyone else.

Next we have heaven opening and the spirit of God descending. But again, according to the text, this is not the majestic and otherworldly scene we like to imagine. Matthew indicates that Jesus was the only one who noticed God’s entrance. And God’s spoken words take us right back to Isaiah 42. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus heads off into the wilderness and faces temptation. And what does the tempter offer Jesus? Power. A power that manipulates and controls. And this kind of power Jesus will have nothing to do with.

So on the one hand we have God as presented by Isaiah, and we have Jesus as presented by Matthew. On the other hand we have God as described in Psalm 29 and we have John the Baptist. What intrigues me here is the differing understandings of power. Power as embodied by God, power as understood by people. Almost always, implicit in humanity’s grasp of power is the idea of “power over”. This is a glaring and troubling motif throughout the Bible. But I am convinced this is not God, but rather humanity’s version of an avatar for God. Because there is also an equal and opposing view of God and power that emerges again and again throughout scripture and this understanding of God’s power is the polar opposite of people’s take on the word. There is a timeless divide here and one the church has lived out since its very inception.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes, “When I ask myself the main reason for so many people having left the Church during the past decades in France, Germany, Holland, and also in Canada and America, the word “power” easily comes to mind. One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power--political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power--even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are. The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all. We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power--provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings--is a good thing. With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; Episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in. Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church, such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.”

What power struggles do you contend with? In what ways do your desires for power shape you and your life? We all struggle with issues of power and we all like having power in some way or another. I can’t speak for all of humanity, but a desire to have “power over” does seem to be an endemic trait among people of more privileged societies, straight across time. Maybe when you are born with “power over” so much of the world, as most of us are, the taste of power then grows addictively sweet. But our practice of power is not God’s power at all.

Jimi Hendrix once said, ““When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” I don’t know much about Jimi Hendrix, but I like how the quote, perhaps unintentionally, names God. God is the power of love. That is God’s power. And God’s love isn’t some feel good, Hallmark emotion. The love of God can very well strip trees bare and leave the wilderness shaking. In this way, the Psalmist is correct. God’s love is terrifying in its sheer force and magnitude. Yet paradoxically, God’s love is also tender and gentle. "A bruised reed he will not break." But this force of love is never used to overpower or oppress, never. God’s love is the most powerful force the world will ever know, but instead of embracing God’s idea of power, we seem to prefer to stick with our own notions.

Why? Because love requires so much more of us than power does. Power allows us to be distant, removed, in control. We get to be seated on a throne above all the chaotic mess in the trenches. On the other hand, love requires engagement, trust, vulnerability, surrender, messiness, servanthood. Love is so much more difficult than power and so, as a civilization, we keep right on allowing the love of power to overcome the power of love. Despite the fact that this is about as contrary to scripture, and to God’s nature as you can get.

I find John 21 very telling. This is the final chapter in the gospel of John, verses 15-16 -“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

Now this might seem as if Jesus is commissioning Peter to take charge, to have power over this community if it weren’t for the words which follow in verses 17-19. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

We’ve seized on these verses as a beautiful description of what it means to grow old and it certainly is this, but that wasn’t quite what Jesus was expressing. Rather, Jesus indicated the shift in our understanding when we mature. When we grow older and wiser we realize that true leadership isn’t about “power over” others, but is instead servant leadership and the empowerment of others. And so Jesus, resurrected from a horrible death on the cross only days earlier, turns to Peter and says, “Love me. Teach others how to love me and follow my lead.” Servanthood, that’s where all the real power lies.

I think for most of us, what I've written isn't anything new. We know all this.......on a head level. But it takes a lifetime of learning to begin to comprehend in the deepest parts of who we are, exactly how all-encompassing, all-empowering and mighty God‘s love really is. May we find ways, each day, to open ourselves to the most powerful love of all, that love who came near so long ago in the form of Servanthood.

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