I have been thinking about power, that squirrely thing, that trickster that hobbles its most infatuated suitors. Power, which we both fear and need. Specifically, I ponder: how are progressive Christians and other people of faith to approach change-making when the avenues of democratic engagement seem increasingly barricaded? How are we to speak out when our voices don’t carry across broadening canyons of inequality and misinformation? How are we to proceed when months of journalistic exposure of the President-Elect’s disregard for Other, the Earth, and the democratic process didn’t dissuade a sizable electorate from voting him into office (in fact, it rallied support).
Even the old bulwarks of power seem to be cracking: power of legislative bodies, power of the press, power in numbers or mass demonstration, the power of education and experience. Official, or state-sanctioned, power has become a more concentrated substance, like mercury capable of inducing a coma after contact with one drop, or when used well, like a tiny flame capable of lighting a room. This kind of power is available only to the few. And the number is shrinking. The same could be said in the world Jesus traversed, where social inequality was extreme. In first-century Palestine, a cadre of religio-political elites congregated in cities, with a limited artist and merchant class assembled nearby to meet their needs. The vast majority of the population were impoverished by our standards, including the Nazarene Jesus and his mostly rural group of followers. This majority population supported the wealthy through taxes, fees, and other forced offerings.
Yet Jesus did speak often to social problems and injustices, which were as convoluted in his day as they are in ours. He talked about power. Employing royal terminology to metaphorically denote the highest-level of power humans could apprehend, he taught about a “reign” or “kingdom”—yet one of God, not of humans. Jesus’ teachings are peppered with sayings about “the kingdom of God,” and he seemed to view its proclamation as an essential part of his ministry. He taught it through story and metaphor. I believe understanding how Jesus talked about and embodied power can be instructive in living an engaged life of faith today. The power of the faithful lies with the reign of God. And as Jesus said, the reign of God is in us. It is now.
The author of the first gospel drew upon Isaiah to describe Jesus’s way of change-making. He would bring “justice through to victory,” yet would not quarrel or cry out. He was so gentle, a fragile reed would be safe in his hands, and a smoldering wick would go on smoldering. His power came from Spirit. And Jesus’ teachings and actions certainly speak to counter-intuitive values: Spirit power is both gentle and transforming; it is both fiery and compassionate.
We do not call down this power from above, and we certainly don’t access it in Washington or on Wall Street. It is the power within us. It is the cosmic Christ incarnated in Jesus and inherent throughout all creation, that can be incarnated also in you. Christ in us and through us, as Paul liked to say. This power is yours. I don’t care who you are. The only difference among people is that some have a dawning awareness they are a part of God’s embodiment in the world, and some do not. Some allow it and some don’t. What made Jesus unique is his eventual and full awareness. He knew he was the embodiment of God—perhaps was somehow chosen to know—and he lived out of that awareness with power and astounding wisdom as a full participant in the multi-faceted, interrelating God we symbolize as “trinity.”
What Jesus did with his power was this: he taught, he healed, he challenged, he built relationships, he accepted people and refused to see an Other. And ultimately, as he was executed for the challenge he leveled, he showed us the nonviolent, loving nature of God, and just as importantly, the pattern we all must follow toward redemption: descent before ascent, death before resurrection. On the road to redemption or wholeness, none of us can escape the death of the False Self or birth into the Spirit-self, True Self, or self “in Christ,” to use traditional Christian language. Not one. Jesus revealed a power that transforms lives as people come to a deeper understanding of God and themselves. And as he went about it, he demonstrated kindness and compassion.
So how do we “do something” with the power we have as part of God’s embodiment in the world? We proceed fearlessly. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). With our power, we practice loving kindness right where we find ourselves. We practice self-discipline, as Jesus did, who took time to retreat by himself to listen for God’s guidance. Then we do whatever the Spirit guides us to do in our very particular lives. This can include a thousand, thousand things, and may involve calling your senator, voting, attending a march. But don’t confuse government power with the power of God’s reign.
At times, our individual lives and actions may not seem powerful enough when we look at the extreme damage being done by state-sanctioned power. But that is why Jesus described the reign of God with the analogy of yeast in dough. Yeast appears infinitesimal and insignificant, and the work it does is invisible. But leave a batch of dough unattended on the counter for too long, and you will see how powerful and transformative it is.
So as we observe what is happening in our government now, with the election to highest office of a man representative of values we oppose and resist, take heart. We are not powerless. As we become aware of our power in Spirit, we can be as powerful as the yeast in the dough. Admittedly, I sometimes strain to see the reign of God, the “yeast action,” at work in my country these days. Even many who name themselves Christian incarnate values of denigration, domination, greed, division, baseness, and every form of oppression, mostly notably racism. White supremacy is deemed a Christian movement. I call this out as the Orwellian double-speak that it is. But the reign of God knows no boundaries and is active wherever people allow the fullness of God in them and wherever the contours of God’s reign are lived: active love, forgiveness, mercy, humility, tenacity, compassion, where “the first will be last and the last will be first.” It can be hard to see, but I believe it is growing. I believe Spirit is finding open doors.
I end with the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped the Nazis in Poland and lost most of his family to the Holocaust. He writes: “This world, this society can be redeemed. God has a stake in our moral predicament. I cannot believe that God will be defeated.”
And neither can I.