On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, I came home for an early lunch and started flipping through the channels to see what all was being talked about leading up to the event. I stopped on NBC that had Brian Williams speaking with an African American scholar about what the day meant for the black community in America. He was going over some of the history of the black experience in the US, speaking about how blacks have become accustomed to being on the outside of the power structures, and how this has played a significant role in African American culture and black churches, many of which have taken on a prophetic role in calling the nation to act more justly. He then said something that I thought was a perfect summary of what so many must have been feeling and continue to feel about Obama’s presidency. He said, “Black people aint used to being ‘the man.’” “The man” is the bad guy, the one holding you down, the one who carries the weight of responsibility for the messed up system that keeps harming people. The powerful against the powerless. So what do you do when one who identifies so closely with your own tradition is now “the man”? What happens when the prophet becomes the king? This scholar was celebrating Obama’s inauguration, and also adding a note of humility in saying that he really didn’t know what this meant.
Consider: power. Power over. The power to control outcomes. Decision making power. Power to change laws, to guide institutions, to shape media. Power to influence people of influence. Power to purchase, to consume or not to consume. Power to give and to take, to bind and to release. The power of having options.
Christianity, as Anabaptists have understood it, carries with it a dynamic, paradoxical notion of power. We take note that at the time when expectations were the absolute highest for the dominating kind of power people expected Jesus to display, he taught his inner circle of followers: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them; and their great ones are tyrants over them. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves. Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (from Mark 10 and Luke 22)
The way that we understand church history says that the early church, for the most part, got it. They weren’t perfect. It wasn’t some glorified golden age when everything was as it should be, but, for the most part, as an overall principle, the church got this teaching. The absolutely revolutionary idea that a crucified man could be an expression of ultimate power, the triumph of God over the powers of evil, rippled out from Jerusalem into the far reaches of the Roman Empire, with these rapidly growing number Christians making the outlandish claims the Jesus, rather than Caesar, was Lord – that this Christ had overcome the principalities and powers, not by violent force of arms, but by nonviolent force of truth and love. That the lamb was worthy of honor and worship and that the beast of empire had been defeated. The entire New Testament — Paul’s writings, John’s Revelation and his letters, Peter, and other writers — is, in very large part, the beginnings of trying to work out just what in the world all this could mean. Trying to put words, language, metaphors to this reality that was only beginning to take hold in the human imagination. Paul refers to it at one point as “the foolishness of the cross.” The weakness of the cross becomes the symbol of power, rather than the supposed strength of the sword. Power is turned upside down, or, better yet, that which had been turned upside down, distorted and disformed, has been turned back onto its feet.
The point at which much of this changed for the church was in the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine, the one who held the reigns of the beast itself, was converted to Christianity and began a pattern of emperors claiming the Christian religion. Over the next century the church made the dramatic shift from being a persecuted minority, to a tolerated minority, to a persecuting majority. At low points in this history the cross became synonymous with the sword, carrying banners with crosses on them into war to conquer the unbelieving heathens. The church did not do well with its first taste of ruling power. Forced baptism at the point of a sword is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said to go and make disciples of all nations.
As I understand it, the reason our denomination is working through this National Identity Resolution is that we find ourselves living in a precarious situation. We find ourselves occupying two worlds at the same time. On the one hand, we are followers of Jesus, the one who taught us to carry our cross, figuratively, and sometimes rather literally, in that we recognize the difficulty of this life that we are called to. That all this so often goes against the flow. That we believe that love and truth does carry power, and we submit ourselves to that power. On the other hand, we are citizens of a super power nation. Whether we like it or not, ask for it or not, we occupy a privileged place on the global scene. Our actions are felt, directly and indirectly by other people, other nations, the planet itself. In other words, we’re trying to navigate our way through a dual identity. We are the servant, and the one who sits at the table. We are the prophet and the king.
The Anabaptist Mennonite tradition has done fairly well in the first area. We have a developed theology of the cross. We emphasize service, loving our neighbor, doing good even if it is costly. We are a martyr tradition, from the underside of the power structure. We don’t have such a strong theology of power. How to live with power. How to use power. How to accept the opportunities of power, with the responsibilities that that brings. We could do better in developing our understanding of how our power is an extension of God’s power in the world and how that shapes how we use power. Power is not inherently evil, otherwise that puts God in a pretty rough place. Power is inherently… powerful, and humanity often exercises the twisted upside down power rather than the power that Christ displayed.
This summer the Mennonite World Conference, which happens every six years and is a gathering of Anabaptist related groups from around the world, is being held in Paraguay. So the Mennonite Church in Paraguay has been a topic of various articles and essays recently. One of the things being talked about is how the wife of the recent President of Paraguay was a member of a Mennonite Church. The President asked a number of Mennonites to serve in his cabinet, and, when they showed reluctance, he told them that they were good at criticizing the government, but now he was giving them a chance to help make the government better. A number of Mennonites ended up serving at cabinet level positions under this President Nicanor Duarte Frutos between 2003 and 2008, and helped stabilize that nation’s economy. This conference is something I’ll be attending and I’m looking forward to learning more about these experiences of the Paraguayan Mennonite community and how this experience of political power has influenced them.
Even though we tend to emphasize the theology of the cross, New Testament, part of the Bible, Scripture contains both a theology of the cross and a theology of power. At it’s core, the Bible is very much a story told from the perspective of those on the underside of power, and a recognition that waxes and wanes throughout the story that the God of the Universe, the Creative Breath of Life, is working on the underside. If the formative event that brings the Hebrew nation together, and sets in motion the story of Israel, the Exodus were to be told from the standard perspective, from those in power, we would hear Egypt reporting about the slave rebellion, the curses they brought on the land, and how the economy of the empire took a temporary nosedive when a mass of slaves escaped in the night. But what we get in scripture is the story from the perspective of the slaves – that they have been liberated, that God had delivered them, and that they are given their own laws which are intended to teach them and future generations how to live in a way other than the ways of the empire. And the rest of the story is one of that struggle, whether it be a struggle of peasants, prophets, priests, or kings or queens.
This is part II of last week’s worship theme and sermon and the reading from this week is a continuation of the Daniel story. Daniel is one of those characters in scripture where these two identities are held together into one, and Daniel does this quite well. He is an exile, a victim of forced migration due to military conquest, a member of a people with little political power. And he is an educated, well-trained, skilled person who finds himself in the inner circle of the most powerful government in the world at that time. He is negotiating his way through this reality of both/and.
In today’s reading Daniel the student, principled vegetarian, wise-man in training, takes on the roll of Daniel, the top advisor to the king and interpreter of the king’s innermost thoughts and dreams. And these innermost thoughts and dreams have everything to do with the nature of power.
After the high drama of King Nebuchadnezzar making the ridiculously unreasonable demand that his advisors not only tell him what his dream means, but what his dream was in the first place; and after the advisors’ protest that this is out of his mind for asking this of them; and after the king decides, on a whim, to completely wipe out all the magician class in the empire by having them executed for not being able to fulfill his command, Daniel comes into the picture to provide some sanity. Unlike the magicians, Daniel is one who understands the inner workings or kingship, the thoughts and musings and fears and dreams of the king. The nature of what a kingdom is. And, after giving the preamble that the words he is about to say are more from God than from him, Daniel proceeds to tell the king his dream, and the meaning of his dream.
The image Daniel paints of the dream is rich in metaphor and symbolism. This king, this kingdom of Babylon, is like the head of a great statue made up of other parts that ultimately has feet of clay. After Babylon, the head in this image, will come another empire (the chest and arms), followed by another empire (the thighs), and finally another empire (the legs), which is the Greek empire that would have been contemporary to the first readers of the book of Daniel. All of these great empires, Daniel says, will rise and fall, and ultimately will be struck and shattered by a stone not made by human hands that will become a great mountain and fill the whole earth, the kingdom of God that is the only kingdom that will stand forever.
We recognize this language about a different type of kingdom that has greater power than other kingdoms because it is a theme directly picked up by Jesus. In his teaching Jesus adopted the language of empire, framing his teachings around the nature of the kingdom of God, in order to illustrate the ways that God’s power differs from that of monarchs.
Daniel’s lesson that he teaches the king on power dynamics and the temporary nature of our kingdoms, ironically gets him a promotion to an even greater position of power. He will continue to try and make his way as someone carrying the dual identity of being aware of the frailty of power, all the while holding a position of power.
This is part two of two, but it really has an opening ending. The place that we end with here is the place where we are at. Our National Identity Resolution calls it a position of both promise and peril to be a follower of Jesus in our nation. We are being called to become deeper and deeper rooted in the way of God’s kingdom, even as we live such that God’s kingdom come on earth, in the midst of our kingdoms. The choir sang a song honoring Nelson Mandela, someone who has been working at this for a long time, a Daniel type figure. He is one of many in our lifetime who are also operating in this vein.
One of the most important things we can do in all this is to recognize our identity for what it is. We hold two worlds inside our experience – the call of the cross, and the position of power. May we grow in wisdom, in humility, and in love as we make our way through the promise and the peril of our place in God’s story.