Outside my local convenience store, most days, sits an elderly woman. Toothless, wizened, filthy, and threadbare, she hunches over a cardboard sign that says simply, “Need money.” When I see her I ask myself, “What can be done about this situation?”
Income has grown fantastically in the wake of the Great Recession—but mostly among the very wealthy.
America is in the grip of an opioid epidemic.
Add to this the difficult balance between gay rights and religious freedom and debates over the rights of transgendered persons, and it is clear that we face a culture beset with problems that need solving.We face a culture beset with problems that need solving. #jesus Click To Tweet
Solving Problems with Power
At such a cultural moment, I fear that the church will respond by seeking power. “The long painful history of the church,” says Henri Nouwen, “is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.”
Consider these extracts from a speech that then-candidate Donald Trump gave in Sioux Center, Iowa, in January of 2016 (with power language emphasized):
“I’m a true believer. And you’re many true believers — I hope all — is everybody a true believer in this room? I think so. But Christianity is under tremendous siege…
“The power of our group of people together, I mean, if you add it up … it could be 240, 250 million. And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have…
“But you know the fact is that there is nothing the politicians can do to you if you band together. You have too much power. But the Christians don’t use their power. We have to strengthen. Because we are getting — if you look, it’s death by a million cuts — we are getting less and less and less powerful in terms of a religion, and in terms of a force…
“I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president … Christianity will have power, without having to form. Because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else.”
This is not at all to criticize President Trump. He is simply doing what generations of American politicians have done: wooing the vote of Christian Americans by offering them political power.
Surely, we are tempted to think, if Christians have power then we can make America what God wants it to be.
A Misunderstanding of Power
But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what God has accomplished.The #resurrection shows that it is #love that is the ultimate #power. Click To Tweet
Consider: why were the disciples of Jesus so discouraged by his crucifixion? Luke says that as they walked the road to Emmaus were discussing the strange report of the empty tomb, and Jesus, who disguised himself, asked what they were talking about. Luke reports that, “they stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17).
“Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’
[Jesus] asked them, ‘What things?’
They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
–Luke 24:18-21a, emphasis added
The disciples were so despondent because Rome, in its crucifixion of Jesus, had shown that it had power over him—the ultimate power: the power of death. If Rome had power over Jesus, then whatever he was (so their thinking went), he couldn’t have been the messiah.
But the resurrection of Jesus showed that political power, most profoundly expressed in the power to kill, isn’t ultimate power. The resurrection shows that it is love that is the ultimate power. That is, after all, the reason God gave Jesus in the first place: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son” (John 3:16, emphasis added).
That means that we Christian must not be seduced by the lure of earthly power. We have been redeemed from lawlessness, not for the purposes of wielding political power, but to be “a people for God’s own possession, zealous for good works” (see Titus 2:11-14).
Love, Not Power
It is love, not power, that characterizes the people of this vocation: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
It is love, not power, that motivates this vocation: “we love, for he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
And it is love, not power, that is the content of this vocation: “love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And … love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).
This was revolutionary, in a world living under the shadow of Rome’s power, and as N.T. Wright observes1, “[the cross] has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries.” The gospel calls us to forsake the path of power, and, as Wright continues, to “celebrate the revolution that happened once and for all when the power of love overcame the love of power.”
All of this brings me back to the homeless woman at my local convenience store.
The Christian vocation, rightly understood, does not reach for the levers of political power when confronted with problems like these. Rather, it reaches out to all the problems it encounters in the spirit of love that God offered the world first through Jesus, and continues to offer the world, through him and through the ministry of the church.
Also published on Medium.
- In The Day the Revolution Began, 416