edited version of talk given at WYSOCS Conference, Leeds, 14/5/2016
Christianity is two billion people going to Church on Sunday? Correct? Not exactly. Sometimes it might seem like that with clergy dressing up, hymns, prayerbooks and notices, but it is not really like that at all.
Let us look at Jesus and Power. Christmas is “When Jesus is born King of the Jews.” and we know he was born in a stable and laid in the manger. But stop at the word, “King”. King is not our ceremonial figurehead, Elizabeth Regina, but the central powerbroker – King Henry V, William the Conqueror, Charlemagne, King Herod the Great and, of course, Caesar. So Jesus, king of the Jews, is vying immediately with Herod the Great who had already killed his two favourite sons because they might usurp his place. The power battle is on. Jesus was born and carried with his parents to Egypt, because they were warned in a dream that if he stayed, he died. And so the innocents die in Bethlehem as Herod with cancer in his gut and going mad tried to wipe out every rival to his kingship. If you rule by might, you trust no-one.
You cannot avoid the titles. “King of the Jews”. It is a threat to Herod the Great and later to Herod Antipas. It is also a threat to the Roman Imperium. Pilate was to come to know that Jesus was no threat to him, but should be set free, but the agenda of the Zealots was to banish Rome and reinstate their king. The hope lurked in Judea, Galilee and Samaria whenever a Roman soldier whipped another Jew. But it went further, “Jesus, Son of David”, Israel’s greatest king, but “one greater than David is here” says Jesus, not blowing his own trumpet, but putting the truth on the table and playing with his listeners. The claim is to power, central power in the Kingdom. But the claims are bigger still. To take on the title of the Son of Man was apocalyptic, set in the midst of the great Babylonian and Assyrian empires. There is the vision of the Ancient of Days with a hundred million people standing before Him, and then comes the Son of Man. “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all people’s, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” To wear that title was no little thing, as one would say with the stiffest of upper lips.
And then there is Messiah, also God’s chosen ruler, the deliverer, the One rooted in a long Jewish history back to Isaiah and beyond. “Blessed are you, Simon, Bar-Jonah, for this was not revealed by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt:16,7) Messiah is, of course, a Jewish term, but “Christos” is not Jewish. Paul in Romans makes clear that Jesus Christ is the world’s deliverer or ruler. He is the rival of Caesar. He will rule with power. This is entirely in keeping with all that Jesus was and taught before and after the resurrection. These claims are so big, they impinge everywhere. But, of course, anyone can make big claims. Indeed, people who make such claims are usually mad and or dangerous. People have been bringing Hitler into debates a lot these days, but, let us say these claims and titles are up there is the Examine My Armpit league. C.S. Lewis’s point; Either he is mad or this is true, begins to come into view.
And the Gospels show quite clearly why the madness line does not work; a modern sociological term is most useful in describing why. “Deconstruction” is what it says, a process whereby a commonly understood term or cultural construct is demolished and left in a heap. Jesus deconstructs Messiah. He has the chance to be the great popular leader. We tend to ignore the fact that at least 5,000 people, many of the armed, rushed round the north of Galilee shortly before Passover and were seeking to make him king by force. (Jn:6,15) He turned them down and deliberately reduced them to a grumbling, disillusioned group, happy to desert this leader who did not fit their image of Messiah as national liberator. We could look at this and other deconstructions in detail, but we must now get to the point. It is one of the most intellectually demanding in world political history, so we must try to do it some justice. For Jesus deliberately throughout much of his life and teaching transforms the meaning and focus of power. We are dealing with the greatest teacher ever, and we need to try to keep up.
So, what is power? Aye, there’s the rub. The seeming dominant view is that power is the ability to require others to do, think, be what the powerful want. Power is control, the ability to impose. Max Weber’s definition of power is “to realize their own will in communal action, even against the resistance of others.” Historically, this model of power seems to have been world dominant – the power over people to enslave, tax, pillage, dominate and use them. It reaches out into imperial power, capitalist power, gender control, political power right down to the present day. Rulers throughout the world have laid hold on resources, taxes, industries, systems of government and law to accumulate resources at the centre of government, in palaces, in glorious capitals and in tax havens, to be in control. As you approach London from the edge of the Thames basin, the towering buildings say this is the centre of power. You visit the Tower of London and know it has been so for a thousand years. This kind of power dominated most of history before Christ and is still widespread today.
Yet, already Jesus had faced the temptation: He is offered all the kingdoms of the world by the evil one. The devil, as he claims, can give it to anyone he wants, if they will worship him, and here is the choice. Nod to the devil and it will be yours. A bit of killing, imprisonment, domination, new weapons, turning the screws, cosying up to the already powerful. Ultimate power but using some evil? No. “Worship God and serve him only” says the Christ. So can there be only good power, uncorrupted by evil? Well maybe. And so the battle is joined. Power as domination is faced. The temptation is faced down. The battle is joined.
We do not have time to look at good power in depth, though that is one of the most important things we and all people could do, but here are some headlines of Jesus’ worldchanging view of power which gives rather than takes, which is power to all rather than the few, which is the will of God rather than the will of the power-monger. This understanding of the radical distribution of power to all Jesus joins at many levels throughout his teaching. The kingdom, or the gentle rule of God, has this necessary shape.
1. Power as service of people, not as being served, what we call democracy or government for the people.
2. Power as recognizing that all are equal before God and in the state.
3. Power as giving the law to all to form law-abiding societies and live justly.
4. Power as care and healing for all.
5. Power as truth and witnessing to the truth.
6. Power as distribution of wealth and income.
7. Power as forgiveness and reconciliation.
8. Power as peace and the healing of nations and the ability not to have enemies.
9. Power as freedom from slavery and freedom to do good work with fair payment and rest.
10. Power as not worshipping Mammon or coveting.
11. Power as the elimination of fear.
12. Power as the freedom of all to be educated.
13. Power as the victory of love and neighbour love.
14. Power as personal responsibility before God
15. Power as the ability to defeat sin and evil in one’s own life.
16. Power as honouring God’s creation and being good stewards of it.
17. Power as distributed in the areas of family, education, church, work, politics, the arts, communication and community.
This summary list, of course, does not do justice to the teaching of Christ, probing all of these issues from many different angles. “Blessed are the meek” How so? “for they shall inherit the earth”. So the humility with which we must approach the earth is laid before us, unexpected, turning from the landowners, unfurling horticulture and attacking the lording people. We could follow through these world transforming principles and the centrality of God in all of them, God the all-powerful, giving power and work to humankind having provided all the raw materials, tools and means of fruitfulness. So, the great alternative is opened up, the gentle, subversive power that actually works to our good, the power of the Holy Spirit and Truth, the power to blessing ourselves and others.
But the power requires a fight. There has been a two thousand year battle for power in principle. As Paul said, “ We do not fight against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” We fight against fighting. The powers of this world and the power of Christ, the Lamb on the throne, are in contention, oh, the irony of the lamb. It is easy to miss this fight, spiritual, self-examining, loving, forgiving, fair, fighting beneath the battles of self-importance, making history into not one damn war after another, but it is there. It constantly goes on and it wins. There are the great military head to heads, where controlling power wins for a time, but then people get on, have doses of humility, are free to learn, become a little more democratic, lift the injured man on a donkey and he heals and have holidays with the French instead of fighting them. Women and men hunger and thirst for justice and also receive it. The humble are lifted up and the mighty are brought down from their thrones. Hitler says, “Sich Heil” and Jesus examines his armpit.
There is a long history of this fight against fighting. Consider two points. First, the Vikings were bloodthirsty raiders practicing predation on Britain each summer for a century or more, bringing dread, and exercising control but then they are slowly converted to Christianity and Scandinavia has become one of the centres of peace on the planet. Second, the greatest and most beautiful building project in Britain is the medieval church in every village. Think of the gratitude to God and the co-operation in hamlet after hamlet which went into that project which is the architectural glory of the British countryside.
But the greatest outbreak of Christian insight, the greatest convulsion in the understanding of power, occurred during the Reformation of the 16th and 17th century. It was there where the ideas of Common Wealth, Democracy, Horticulture, Science, Technology, Pacifism, Animal breeding, Quality control, Regulation of market fairness, Freedom of Conscience, Redistribution of Wealth and Income, The Rule of Law, Modern University and popular Education, Reformation Art and Music, Discovery, Astronomy, Biology really look off because God was the centre of the picture and not the ruling elite. It was a massive intellectual and educational transformation. The vote was to be for each person, and not the possessors. Cromwell, flawed man that he was, signed himself, “Your most humble servant” and believed it. Many looking for power on Christ’s terms people went to America. Pacifists like Bunyan were put in prison. There were Levellers and Diggers, looking for radical equality. The Fifth Monarchists looked to the Kingdom of Christ, through with limited understanding, and killed four people before fifty of them were hung, drawn and quartered in 1661. It was an outburst of thought and action that changed the culture of western Europe and North America.
But we tend to ignore the extent to which Christianity is suppressed because it threatens the controlling rich and powerful. And it was suppressed in politics by the Restoration in Britain. The aristocracy and landowners do not want this kind of thing which threatens their position, and even kicks them out. In France the Huguenots were expelled, the Catholic Church sided with the aristocracy, and then eventually the French Revolution proclaimed an atheistic reaction. In Britain, too, the Church tended to go along with the aristocracy and be vicars of Bray. Broadly, Jesus rule was controlled and tamed by the elites, and enough Christians compromised to allow it to happen.
A proper history would see many victories and losses – the end of formal slavery, the reform of work, the growth of universal suffrage, matched by empire, the suppression of dissent and the growth of statist powers. Each age faces its challenges. At the turn of the twentieth century much was happening which was great in the kingdom. Abraham Kuyper had spearheaded the great reformational revolution still little understood yet in Britain. There had been other reform movements carrying forward the British and American Evangelical awakening. There was the international missionary movement, revivals in Wales, the States and elsewhere. At the same time Rerum Novarum was setting a similar process going in the Catholic Church. Tolstoy and others were proclaiming pacifism and disarmament throughout the world, Christian Socialism was vibrant, but the kingdom was for a while defeated. We Christians have got to understand when we lose and why we lose.
The Great War, the First World War, occurred because there were four arms races in Europe. One of them sparked and the others, largely because there had also been a concerted campaign of fear, fired into a World War. France feared Germany. Germany feared Britain and Russia. Russia feared Austro-Hungary and Britain feared Germany. There were supposed threats in invasion both ways to keep the British and German arms companies humming. They set up a system where they were in control, the merchants of death. They were part of the power as control system, with Krupp linked to the Kaiser and Vickers and Schneider exporting to the Tsar, and suddenly the old system was rampant. Kuyper kept the Netherlands out of the Great War. He didn’t trust Britain after the Concentration Camps of the Boer War, or the Kaiser. The USSR Communist Party withdrew from the Great War after the Revolution, but it was sucked into its own militarism. So Christ’s kingdom was defeated and even discredited by “God is on our side” religiousity. The old model of power was back – armies, weapons and war, political control and slavery, indoctrination and capitalist economic power. It was to appear in the even cruder form of Fascism in Italy, France, Britain, Germany, the United States, Spain and elsewhere. We now deride Fascism because it created and lost the Second World War, but a lot of people, especially elites who distrusted the little people, were close to Fascism, as they still are. World War Two was another defeat for the Kingdom of God and still they come in Iraq, Libya, Syria and the controlling power of the rich.
So the question is, Where do the people who say, Thy Kingdom Come, who know that Jesus, the Servant King, will rule, who know that all areas of life stand open before God, where do we stand now? First, we stand to fight – to fight against fighting, to fight against controlling power, to fight for only good power, to fight for all, to fight for the planet and to fight for justice. In this battle withdrawal is not an option. We must be wise as serpents and know how the counterfeit powers work, so that they are exposed and wither. We fight in the armour of God and resoundingly not with the weapons of control and intimidation. We fight with our feet shod with the Gospel of Peace against militarism and fear mongering. We seek and thirst for truth and justice. We fight knowing all are equal. We live in grace and not self-righteousness. We focus on Jesus Christ, so that people may understand him. Above all, we seek to follow Jesus faithfully and show him to others. We live in the kingdom of Christ on the terms of the king, and disown the shallow view of power which would rule over us. We cannot be sedentary. We must know what we are about, be ready and alert and understand the times, for all power and authority is given to Christ, the good power, the real power, the gentle power of God.