Whoever welcomes this child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One Who sent Me; for the least among all of you is the greatest. (Luke 9.48)
In the crosscurrents of social media, Grant, a longtime S-F reader and supporter, has frequently referred to Gregory Boyd’s The Myth of the Christian Nation. It’s a book I highly recommend, now that his enthusiasm spurred me to read it, not only for its acute insight into how ascribing God’s will and purpose to human politics constitutes a Bridge to Nowhere, but more importantly for its breathtaking clarity in differentiating the kingdom of this world from the kingdom of God. Long before he makes the logical case that faith and politics don’t mix, Dr. Boyd, a devout Evangelical pastor, stuns the reader with scriptural evidence that the two realms are diametrically, intrinsically opposed.
Dr. Boyd describes the operating principle of human politics and governance as power over—i.e., leveraging majority rule, military force, and privilege as means of exerting control. In best-case scenarios this dynamic achieves its highest objective of serving the common good. Yet imposition of might over weaker groups and individuals is exceedingly vulnerable to abuses that perpetuate social inequities, oppression, and violence in service of the dominant group’s beliefs and preferences. In the United States—which, despite its prodigious rise on the global stage, has yet to mature as a republic—“power over” holds tremendous sway. Debates about social equity, citizens’ rights, and public safety allegedly seek the common good. Yet their tenor and tactics belie one group’s desire to overpower the other. As a result, a dangerously warped crusade mentality has gripped American discourse, with all sides waving religious flags (albeit some more brazenly than others) as imprimaturs of righteousness.
The problem with this, according to Dr. Boyd and anyone who understands the Gospel, is that exertion of any kind of force for any purpose, good or bad, directly conflicts with Jesus’s teaching. To emphasize the polarities between human politics and Christly endeavors, Dr. Boyd defines obedience to Christ’s laws of unconditional love, service, and sacrifice as power under. It’s the conscious resistance to self-serving attitudes and actions for the sake of others, whom we love as no less deserving than we. It’s letting go what we may determine as our best interests to seek what’s best for others. It’s creating a force for good in a world that’s bigger than us—a good that establishes God’s kingdom on Earth at the expense of worldly and/or personal agendas. From the Sermon on the Mount to His dying request that God forgive His executioners, Jesus personified power under. That His life and teaching have outlasted centuries of human injustice and hundreds of power-hungry regimes indubitably proves that power under works.
When reading big-idea books like The Myth of the Christian Nation, or Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or Jonathan Haidt’s recently published The Righteous Mind—books that vault us high above the fray to consider the gorge that divides human politics and religion from godly ideals—it’s abundantly evident that “power under” is how we should go. The question is how do we make it work. And that’s where we confront the sloppiness of daily life, where “power under” plays out in much subtler, far less conspicuous ways. As followers of Jesus, we know everything He taught and did exemplified a power-under lifestyle. His words, life, death, and resurrection are all of a piece, a concentrated effort to model the servant’s lifestyle. Paul explains how Jesus accomplishes this feat in Philippians 2. He writes that Jesus chose against leveraging divine authority to enforce His teachings and God’s will. Instead, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (v7-8) How do we do that?
Jesus emptied Himself. While we rush to romanticize the notion—the image itself is overwhelming—I’m not sure we hang on long enough to get our arms around what Paul means. We make the mad dash to the cross, where we gaze at selfless love and sacrifice in their ultimate forms, never considering that Jesus lived as He died. He approached every person, situation, and opportunity from a state of emptiness, without preconceived expectations. Common wisdom and stereotypes were uncommon to Him, which explains how He exerted “power under.” He saw people for who they were, not the roles that society assigned to them. “Being found in human form, He humbled Himself,” Paul says.
Jesus confronts the sloppiness of daily life by disavowing social conventions that tidy things up and keep everyone in place. His agonizing death and the liberating resurrection it brought about are the natural conclusions of a life governed by service to others. Early in his book, Dr. Boyd points out that even as Jesus stares destiny in the face, He compassionately heals his arresting officer, whose ear Peter has severed in a fit of anger. It is Jesus’s last miracle as a human and a most fitting act for the Teacher Who routinely prefaces His “power under” teachings and parables with, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Thus, from start to finish, Jesus goes beyond showing us why “power under” works; He becomes our model for making it work.
In Luke 9.48, we hear Jesus say, “Whoever welcomes this child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One Who sent Me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” As He says many similar things in a variety of ways and situations, this principle of embracing children—the least powerful people in first-century Jewish society—weighs heavily on our understanding of Jesus’s least-is-greatest, last-shall-be-first theology and ethics. “To welcome” in ancient parlance means “to serve.” Thus, Jesus instructs us to set ourselves beneath the least powerful and important people we know in order to serve them. Yet we must be very clear that He’s teaching service, not subservience; humility, not humiliation; and, most of all, assumption of power through moral agency, not resignation by passive disregard. Our work in this world isn’t defined by how the world works. It’s mandated by operating principles that define God’s kingdom, a realm governed not by the principle of power over, but by power under.
Conscience and Convention
In The Righteous Mind, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents startling scientific evidence that moral conscience emerges in children at or near the age of five, when they recognize certain actions and attitudes inflict harm. As they mature, they pick up social conventions that reflect community preferences for dealing with moral issues. Thereafter, it takes some doing to distinguish innate morality from acquired conventionalism, as political and religious leaders regularly cloak social agendas in moral terms. Indeed, as we’ve seen far too often, our leaders show no reluctance about fabricating outlandish potential harms they predict will result from pursuing justice and equality.
Taxing the wealthiest among us at a just rate will eliminate jobs for the working class. Legalizing marital equality will create moral and social havoc. Ensuring all women equitable access to birth control will destroy religious freedom. These and untold other moralistic Maydays are nothing more than one group’s devious attempts to exert power over dissenting groups. They press for adoption of social conventions that, in the press, exhibit no concern for morality’s primary concern: harmlessness. They’re demonstrably unwelcoming and unlike the service Jesus instructs us to give by placing ourselves beneath the lowest. They enter the debate rife with preconceptions and prejudice. And, although many of these agendas come wreathed in Christian credos, they evidence none of the emptying out that Christ models. They cause harm, rather than avoid it.
The Subversive Nature of Our Calling
As followers of Jesus, we heed His guidance to the first disciples: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent [or, “harmless”] as doves.” (Matthew 10.16) Today, He might tell us, “I’m sending you into a world where the strong concoct ridiculous narratives to justify overpowering the weak. Know what you’re looking at, but don’t buy into it. Do no harm.” In this warning, it’s incumbent on us to recognize the subversive nature of our calling. Virtually every social institution—from government to academia, from religious bodies to the family dinner table—reserves its best seats for alpha figures, the wielders and brokers of power over the weak. Yet Christ has placed in our hands a greater power, a power under, to subvert the kingdom of this world. It is the power to embrace the sloppiness of life by emptying ourselves of social conventions and prejudices. It’s the power to serve justice and righteousness by humbling ourselves in service to others.
And so, as Lent’s journey draws us ever closer to the cross’s power-under paradigm, we pray that we too follow Christ in emptying ourselves of all pride and presumption. May we arrive at Calvary wholly free of self, primed to serve without hesitation, committed to love without exception, and prepared to go forth into the world as true ambassadors of God’s kingdom.
We follow Christ’s “power-under” example by first emptying ourselves of all pride and every presumption. Rather than rule, we serve.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/03/21/overunder/.
Postscript: New Questions
What rational concerns and irrational fears must we overcome to pursue a power-under lifestyle?
Does Christ’s call to selfless love and service ever require us to defend our decision to answer it?
What sorts of people and situations might endanger our commitment to the power-under fundamentals of God’s kingdom?
Can we embrace the sloppiness of ordinary life without succumbing to urges to overpower it?