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“I’ve Got the Power”: October 4, 2015
I’ve got the power!!
Like the crack of the whip, I snap attack
(Beat) Front to back in this thing called rap
Dig it like a shovel
(Beat) Rhyme “devil”
– On a heavenly level.
Bang the bass
Turn up the treble
Radical mind – day and night all the time
Seven to fourteen: wise, divine
Maniac, Brainiac, winning the game –
I’m the lyrical Jesse James
I’ve got the power!!
So says the rap group “Snap.” And they’re right; words are powerful. And, according to the church, the words of scripture are the most powerful of all. And we expect a lot from them. We base a lot on them. Wars have been and are being fought over them. The words of scripture are supposed to give us courage, grant us wisdom, and, above all, demonstrate the power of God.
Sometimes that power comes through our identification with the stories we hear. The tale of Job – poor, long-suffering, patient Job- is one of those tales. Because the Sunday school version of Job’s story is relatively simple: God and Satan make a bet that Satan can’t corrupt everyone. God chooses Job as his representative because God knows that Job is upright and blameless and will remain steadfast. God allows Satan to take everything Job has – including his wife, ten children, home, and livelihood – and make him miserably sick – to see if Job will curse God. He doesn’t, and because he is faithful through his suffering he gets everything back – sort of. He actually gets a new wife and children, but, hey, a wife’s a wife. Or maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.
And maybe that’s because when we teach the Book of Job we tend to skip the middle thirty chapters of – the ones in which Job and his friends debate the nature of good and evil, faith, God – and power. And in the end we are brought to a surprising conclusion – and it’s not the one we learned in Sunday school: Job is not reconciled to God because he remained faithful in his suffering. Job is reconciled to God because he recognizes that he can’t be saved based on his own righteousness – that there is actually nothing he can do to end his own suffering. The only thing he can do – and finally does do –is to put himself at the mercy of God. It isn’t his actions that save him; it’s his understanding that thinking he deserved justice – that he earned fairness – that he was justified by his own blamelessness – were what truly cursed him. Job thought he had the power. But he didn’t.
Just like us. Our society is full of its own forms of “wisdom” about how we can gain power over the things that trouble us. Do you snack too much? There’s a product to help you control your appetite. Do you feel powerless at work? There’s a book to help you move up the corporate ladder. Are you losing your memory? Spending too much money? Fighting with your significant other? There’s an app for that. That’s the promise of the technological age: no matter what the problem is, we have the power to fix it. Despite the fact that such power often comes at the expense of other people.
Some of the powerful people in Jesus’s world were the religious officials, the Pharisees. Although they are often presented as being the equivalent of ordained clergy, they were not church leaders so much as politicians. And just like in today’s politics, the questions they asked were designed to elicit a certain response – a response that would be very unpopular with the people. That’s what they were doing in today’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks out against divorce. This passage has been used in both religious and political circles as proof that divorce is not Christian – but to understand what Jesus was really saying about divorce, we need to remember where and when he said it.
In Jesus’s culture, marriage was not about love. It was an economic and political union between two families. If a couple divorced, it meant, in effect, that the families did too. For this reason, divorces could upset entire communities – causing feuding and economic instability. Women in this society had very few rights. They were considered first the property of their fathers and then of their husbands. So if a man committed adultery, he insulted not his wife or the woman he was with but the woman’s husband, because he was poaching the other man’s property. Men could divorce women who turned out to be bad investments – by committing adultery, being unable to bear children, or other similarly solid economic reasons. Under Roman law, however, women could divorce men without societal repercussions. So when the Pharisees asked Jesus what he thought about divorce, they were asking Jesus a political question, not a moral one.
But instead of taking a political stance, Jesus told them that they were looking at marriage the wrong way. According to Jesus, marriage is not about politics or economics; it’s about family. That’s why divorce shouldn’t be allowed for political or economic reasons. Marriage, Jesus says, is of God and has the same status as a family relationship. And, unlike economic partnerships, family ties cannot be legally broken simply for political expediency. In other words, what God joins together, only God can separate. That means that marital relationships – like family relationships- are between God and the people in them. The true power to join – and to separate- is God’s only. The Pharisees thought that human beings have the right – that we are entitled – to impose human laws on Godly matters, but they were wrong.
And our belief that we have the right to exercise power at the expense of others is also wrong. Because that belief can lead not only to regrettable but ruinous behavior. The kind of behavior exhibited by a gunman who on Thursday shot and killed ten people at a college in Oregon. News reports suggest that the shooter felt lost, unwanted, and powerless – that he looked at our society and decided there was at least one guaranteed way to feel powerful. In a blog post attributed to him he wrote:
“I have noticed that so many people…are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
For this young man, power came from holding a gun in his hand. And he’s not the only one. As President Obama poignantly pointed out, this is at least the eighth time he’s had to make a statement following an incident of gun violence in our schools. And while it’s true that there are a variety of idols currently being worshipped in our society – fame, fortune, and beauty among them – one of the most concrete symbols of appropriated and destructive power in this country is the gun. The Reverend Dr. David Gushee compares the strength of belief in the power of weapons to a belief in God. “O Gun Almighty… Mighty are Your deeds. Awesome is Your power. There is no one like You. In You do we place our trust. With one press of Your trigger, we unleash Your power, a power almost too great to imagine…Who can fail to bow before Your great power?”
But the power experienced by holding a gun is an empty power – because it may give you immediate power over the people around you, but it has no power over what its victims think or feel. Or believe. The Oregon shooter may have thought he was mocking his Christian victims by telling them that, “after a few seconds you will see God” before shooting them, but, because he did not have the power to change their beliefs, I believe that after he shot them, they were – and are – with God.
But what about the people that are driven to use such weapons? People who are angry. People who are confused. People who are afraid. People who feel powerless. These people, like so many of us, have been taught to expect certain things. That they can do anything or be anything they want to be. That there is a solution to every problem – as long as you can afford it. That they are entitled to fairness, kindness, and understanding. But few of them have received it. Because the truth is that the world is not fair. The truth is that the world is not just. The truth is that the world is broken. And not one of us has the power to fix it.
At least not alone. And not if we keep trying to take – and keep – and have the power. The only way to fix the world is do the exact opposite of what our society teaches us to do; we have to learn to give up power. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus, who was “the exact imprint of God’s being,” who was above the angels, and yet was not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers. Who gave up his seat at the right hand of God to kneel at the feet of human beings. Who willingly suffered so that he could stand with us when we suffer. Who died in a painful, violent, and degrading way so that when we see others die in that way we can know that they now share in his glory. Jesus knew what Job had to learn – that human beings have no right to share the power that is God’s alone. And if we think that’s unjust, it is. Because, lucky for us, God is not about justice. God is about mercy. And accepting God’s mercy and offering it to others is the only power we really have – and the only power we really need.
Human power may make us rich and beautiful and strong, but it will not make us good. It may make us happy, but it will not give us joy. We must struggle with the fear that comes with giving up individual power and seek out the peace that comes from the power of mercy – the power of community. We must, like little children, enter the kingdom of God with our hands empty and our heads bowed – without power, but also without shame and regret. And because God has the power to love us even in our unjustness, unfairness and brokenness – to offer us good when we have earned only evil – to extend mercy when we have earned malice – he will take us in his arms, lay his hands on us, and bless us. AMEN.
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University
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