Monday, June 16, 2008

A New Paradigm of Power: Redefining the concepts of dominions, kingdoms, and lords

Yesterday’s New York Times homepage was a terrible thing, covered with stories of power. We saw the violent power of governments – “Karzai Threatens to Send Soldiers Into Pakistan” sat immediately above “Iraqi Forces Mass Outside Southern City of Amara”. The power of nature rested below that – “Iowa Continues to Cope With Floods.” On the Opinion page, Nicholas Kristof spoke to psychological and sexual power, or rather, abuse of power, in a powerful column called “The Weapon of Rape.” When we think of power, this is what comes to mind – war, sex, abuse, negligence, destruction. I remember a class discussion at Dartmouth where a classmate attacked Genesis merely for its single use of the word dominion; in a later discussion with the professor, I spoke about trying to use gender-neutral terms like "Lord" instead of "Him" or "He," and she pointed out that "Lord" is still a violent word bringing to mind warlords and fiefdoms.

I wonder how she would have reacted had I said that power is actually a beautiful thing, that dominions are places of rest, kingdoms places of glory, and lords figures to be praised? The negative connotations we have attached to these words and the way we exercise these concepts are not accurate reflections or definitions, but corruptions and distortions wrought by evil men, corruptions that can be fixed and distortions that can be straightened if we look to the true Biblical text.

There is an element of randomness in our planet, but it is only an element, not a spectrum. Even after catastrophic events of natural power occur, we can usually use hindsight to figure out the science behind them. Hindsight isn’t even always necessary – although our most informed scientists cannot tell, at the beginning of a hurricane season, precisely how many storms the year will see, they can look at air currents and make a pretty good guess. Hurricane Katrina was not God’s wrath on our society for tolerating homosexuality or civil libertarians; it was the inevitable result of warm Gulf waters and shoddy infrastructure.

What is impressive is that Katrina could just as easily have been God’s wrath, but wasn’t. An omnipotent and omnipresent creator God can do whatever he or she pleases. As I write this in a little coffee shop on 2nd and F in northeast Washington DC, I look at blue skies and white fluffy clouds. It could begin raining at any moment, but the weather forecasters tell me the storms will not come until tomorrow afternoon. They certainly will not be accompanied by earthquakes. (Editor's note: this was written Sunday, edited/posted Monday, whilst the storms were pouring, right on time - and without earthquakes.)

If God wanted to ignore our weather satellites and swirl in some hail and lightning at this very moment and open up the ground beneath this coffeehouse, nothing could stand in the way. If God wanted to make us robots, to demand complete submission and leave no room for freedom, we would have no choice but to be spiritual slaves. Yet this is not the God we know. God shows us the proper way to use power – give the weak their liberation, the freedom of choice, and even power of their own. We should marvel at the power God has, and at the ways in which that power is used. We would do wise to learn from this example. God could use omnipotent power to destroy us, but instead uses it to create beauty, the beauty in trees and in children, and to share that beauty with us.

If we play by and respect the laws of nature, gravity, and physics, we are far less likely to encounter harm. It is not that hard, given the marvels of modern construction and transportation, to avoid nature’s wrath, instead accessing only its beauty – the tall forests of the Rocky Mountains, trails through Appalachia, a fresh fallen crisp stunning, quiet, white snow on the previously gray trees of New Hampshire, the breathtaking fingerprints of creation the Basin and Range, the calm scenic lakes of North Idaho, the grandeur of canyons from Arizona to Idaho. This is as true of our communities as it is the world at large – if we behave ourselves, we are less likely to be mugged and more likely to receive a smile, to touch someone’s day and have them touch ours, to notice the glee of a small child riding an escalator for the first time.

The snows, lakes, and toddlers are but the tip of the iceberg. God’s power was only indirectly behind Katrina, but its presence was incredibly direct in the resolve of the people who picked through the rubble, cried over their fallen sisters and brothers, and began to clean up with a song (a jazzy song, no doubt). God’s power created the minds that disastrously swept through Europe in the late 1930s, yes, but it also created Oskar Schindler’s heart, and whispered in his ear, inspiring him to save thousands. Man corrupting God’s creation created the Indian caste system and political repression in China, but God’s power and the Holy Spirit’s strength flow through the hearts of Mother Theresa and Nicholas Kristof.

There are people today who look at the world, and when they think of “power”, they think of what Robert Mugabe does with his power in Zimbabwe, of the powerful Sudanese government bankrolling mass murder and rape, of companies polluting rivers and the government refusing to stop them, or of George W. Bush seizing unconstitutional executive authority, invading foreign countries, and denying fair trials to men the Red Cross says are likely innocent of the terror they are accused of spreading. When they hear the word “lord,” they think of Somali warlords, or the medieval feudal system with its oppressive landowning lords and the poor peasants who worked their fields with no way to improve their lot in life or find better health care. Words like power, lord, and strength convey only images of oppression, injustice, and stripped dignity. When they hear Christians using similar words about their own Lord, their minds turn to the Inquisition and the Crusades, and they think, how dare these religious hypocrites worship lords and dominions!

I can’t blame them. That image of power dominates the world we live in today; it has controlled the world humans have lived in for thousands of years, since time immemorial. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The power of God is not the same as the power of a corrupted dictator, of broken man-made institutions and structures. God could oppress us the same way, but does not, showing us instead a different way, a new paradigm of power. God creates love, and sends Jesus Christ to show us nonviolence, to stand with the poor and correct the powerful, to call out the systems that created the poor, and to demand a radical love, a love that forgives enemies and debts and reaches as much to the poor as it does to the privileged. This is what power can do; this is what a dominion can be. This is what the word “lord” should mean, and when our modern lords, be they CEOs, clerics, or Presidents, do not live up to that standard, it is they who have failed, not Christ. If our self-created powers behaved the way they should, then words like power, dominion, and lord would be beautiful concepts, not destructive forces.

Let the Bible define power, not the dictators the Bible condemens. When we think of Christ the Lord, we should not compare him to the lords of war. We should reverse this thinking – we should compare the lords of war to the one true Lord they have failed to follow. God could use omnipotent power to destroy us the way John Hagee and Tim LaHaye envision; God could control our minds the way Southern plantation owners controlled black bodies once upon a time and evil hearts control young women worldwide today. Yet instead, we are given love, liberation, sustenance, and opportunity. Let us realize not what power is, but what it could be, and demand more from our leaders and our brothers. Christ pulls this world up; not the other way around. The kingdom of God is the only kingdom, and the dominion of love the largest dominion. All others are but corruptions, and we are foolish when we consider them the standard. Christ’s teachings, actions, and love are the standard.

If a leader asks you to surrender your free will to him, you know he is a false leader, a viper following in the footsteps of Rome and Herod. It is precisely because Christ does not ask for that surrender that I know He is divine, and that I give my will to Him. That's one regime I can get behind. In the name of God who is Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer, Amen.


Jordan said...

I've always preferred the definition that power is the ability to destroy something. Without that ability you have no real power at all. However, an equally valid definition would be the inverse of that statement substituting the word destroy with create.

Perhaps it is a combination of the two that defines real power, and that itself defines the ability of God. As it says in Job 1:21,

"The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

So is there any particular cause for this celebration of lords and dominions? Also, next time someone doesn't like the word dominion just mention Canada's full name (though not its official one):
The Dominion of Canada

Nathan Empsall said...

Power can be used to destroy, yes, but my whole point is that the Gospels show us that that is precisely the wrong way to use such power. Just because one can does not mean one should. To prey on those weaker than you is the very definition of evil. Christ used his power to lift up the lowliest, it's right there in the Magnificat, and anything else is a corruption of our gifts. As it says in Luke 12:48, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."

No special cause. I often reflect on Jesus's relationship to Rome and to the poor and oppressed, and on the general theme of liberation throughout the Bible. I don't blog about it as much as I should, but these things are at the heart of my theology and my person. You can see what few musings I have posted on the subject here.