Unlordly Power

Sermon: Unlordly Power

Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45

Date: October 28, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


          The worship theme today is “Healing Power.”  While hearing that might lead you to imagine supernatural powers for healing illness, the theme is actually about healing the social structures that create and distribute interpersonal power.  So let’s think together about power, what it means, how it may be abused or used faithfully.          

There was one particular moment in the recent hearings around Brett Kavanaugh that seemed to me a crystalizing moment, a moment of bracing revelation and unexpected truth-telling regarding the state of contemporary American politics.  Senator Lindsey Graham threw a little tantrum aimed at his Democratic colleagues in which he said, “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.” 

          His snarling remark implied a philosophy of power that is limited and must be guarded and wielded only by responsible parties.  It sounds like “Power” is a meaty bone guarded by a pack of Pit Bulls who will go to any lengths to make sure the German Shepherd pack doesn’t get it away from them, because God only knows what they will do with the power, but it probably won’t be good.   One of my process theology books says that this kind of thinking is based in a “substantialist view of reality;” that is, a world view that sees reality as constituted by discrete, isolated substances.  If that is true, and you either consciously or unconsciously think there is only just so much of a substance known as “power” to go around, it makes a certain kind of sense to grab and guard the limited supply.  The consequence of such a view of reality, according to theologian Leslie A. Muray, is that “power is a ‘one-way street,’ the ability to affect, to influence another.  Its exercise is the manifestation of unilateral power.  Anything that is its opposite—allowing oneself to be influenced by others, as exemplified in receptivity and sensitivity to others and to one’s world—is seen as a sign of weakness.”[1]  A great deal of theological thinking envisions God in this frame of unilateral power, power as a one-way street, in which God wields omnipotent power and shares it with Jesus, who makes it manifest in healings, exorcisms, and miracles. 

          In the reading from Mark, the Zebeedee boys are jockeying for unilateral power. They have separated themselves from the other disciples in their quest to become leaders.  I’m not sure if their phrase “in your glory” means they were still hoping for a worldly throne for Jesus or were skipping ahead to a heavenly throne; either way, they wanted the seats of power next to the throne–they wanted to be distinguished as Jesus’ right and left hand men.  As we have seen in most of our readings from Mark’s gospel this fall, the role of the disciples in the story is to Not Get It as Jesus, over and over, upends worldly values.  Here they go again, not getting it.  They are hankering after that meaty bone of power.

          The other disciples somehow found out about their request and were angry.  Jesus sees what we call a teaching moment in this episode.  “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 it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:42-45]  He is critiquing the model of power as a limited resource that is to be grabbed, grasped, and lorded over others for good or ill.  He is refusing that type of power himself, and calling the whole paradigm of unilateral power into question.

Power is not the easiest thing to talk about.  It’s a bit like what Supreme Court Justice Potter once said about pornography—it’s hard to define it but you know it when you see it.  It’s hard to define interpersonal power but you know it when you see it.  I have an excerpt from a book on the abuse of power that helped me get some perspective.  Author James Newton Poling wrote, “Power is a complex term with personal, social, and religious connotations.  At a personal level, all persons have some power by virtue of being alive, along with an inner drive to use this power to become all they can be.  Some are denied the chance to exercise their power because of oppression.  Others use their power for destructive ends.  Society dictates how power is distributed.  Institutions and ideologies determine who has privilege to be dominant and who must defer.  Some persons are given great power to make choices for themselves and other people and are protected from the consequences of their choices.  But many are denied the power to control even their own bodies and minds, and their choices are circumscribed by others.  These inequities create the occasions for abusive behaviors and unjust power arrangements.  Religion serves to define the nature of power and legitimate its uses.  Religious leaders must choose whether to collude with the dominant culture as sanctioning agents of abusive power or to be prophetic critics of the way power is distributed and defined.”[2]

          I believe that is what Jesus is doing, acting as a prophetic critic of the way power was defined and distributed in his day.  It’s fascinating to me that he asks the circle of disciples to think of themselves as the least powerful persons in that society: servants, slaves.  Slaves are the epitome of powerlessness, what Poling has described as those who are “denied the power to control even their own bodies and minds, and their choices are circumscribed by others.”  Why on earth would anyone voluntarily put themselves in this position, even in imagination?   

          I’m guessing it has something to do with rejecting one kind of power—power over—and choosing another kind of power—power with.  The servant or slave is compelled to understand the desires of those whom they serve, and to put that person’s interests over their own.  Compelling someone to be a slave is clearly an abuse of power.  But to put oneself in a position where one is volunteering to serve is different.  It is voluntarily concerning oneself with another person’s life, their joy and pain and interests.  I think of the question the servants in Downton Abbey always asked when they were meeting the owners of the Abbey: “How can I help?” 

          When one is voluntarily taking the position of a servant, one is accessing a different kind of power.  Process theologians have spelled out another way of thinking about power that contrasts with the worldview that sees power as limited and a one-way street.  They speak about the concept of relational power, which has both a receptive side and an active side.  “Power is not only the capacity to affect, to carry out a purpose, but also the capacity to undergo an effect, to be acted upon.”[3]  The process theologian’s vision of God includes the idea that God—unlike the concept of the Unmoved Mover of some classic theology—is actually affected by what goes on in the universe, and is changed by the events unfolding in creation even as God is guiding the creation.  There is a profound sense of relationality and mutuality in this understanding of divine being, divine power.  There is openness to the experience of those with whom one has relationships, and a capacity to be affected by that experience.  Whereas the concept of unilateral power naturally feeds into hierarchical, authoritarian and dictatorial styles of leadership, a concept of relational power may lead to a civilization in which power is shared rather than hoarded.  Power may be multiplied, not just divided. 

          There’s a catch, of course, to embracing relational power, to joining Jesus as one who chooses not to be served but to serve.  To be affected by others’ experience is to open oneself to their suffering, whatever that might be.  Jesus questioned James and John about whether they knew what they were asking for, whether they could share in the trials and tribulations he was about to suffer.  I believe he was also reminding them that one who is a slave to all also has to be prepared to understand and absorb whatever distress the person before them was experiencing.  They could no longer distance themselves from the woes of others and use their power or privilege to insulate themselves from others’ pain. 

          Pastor Thom Shuman penned a poem titled “Do We Know What We’re Asking?” that gets at this.  Listen: “We leave our box seats/ at the symphony or ball park,/ and pray you won’t catch our eye/ as we pass by the homeless; / we wait for a few minutes/ at the doctor’s office/ to get a $10 shot/ so we won’t catch the flu,/ while half a world away/ you sit for a week/ hoping medicine /that will cost you a year’s wages/ finds its way to your village;/ we sit in our home theaters,/ watching the newest ‘reality’/ on our plasma screens,/ while you sit in the darkness/ rocking your child/ as she cries herself to sleep/ from hunger./ Lord Jesus:/ when,/ like James and John,/ we want to be at your side/ in glory:/ remind us where you sit./ Amen.”[4]  Remind us where you sit: not with the one at ease, lording power over others, but with those who are suffering, oppressed and afflicted.  Jesus stands not for a lordly power but a distinctly unlordly power.

          There’s a good reason why the Christian church looked back at Isaiah’s depiction of a mysterious figure named the Suffering Servant and connected that tradition with Jesus.  The text we heard from Isaiah this morning is usually read on Good Friday as Christians remember Jesus’s crucifixion and contemplate its meaning.  Those who believe in Atonement theology—the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion amounted to an atoning sacrifice for human sin—find a rich resource in the Suffering Servant texts, especially this one.  We can’t un-hear or unlearn that long history of interpretation.  But let’s not jump to the conclusion that the text in Isaiah was somehow predicting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that paid for our sin.  That’s just one interpretive framework for this scripture.  Peel it off and set it aside for a moment. 

          As we read the Old Testament texts about the Suffering Servant it’s important to keep in mind that the identity of the servant is ambiguous.  The servant is not named.  It is quite generic in some cases: the servant just means “one who serves.”  It’s less generic in other contexts.  The Suffering Servant may be the prophet, or a king or other leader, or a longed-for Messiah.  Most often the Servant is seen by biblical scholars as a figurative way to talk about Israel as a nation, which had undergone great suffering in the form of conquests by foreign powers, which the prophets usually blame on Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.  Israel as a people had a hard lesson to learn about suffering the natural consequences of their own sins; they had to learn the hard way that being God’s chosen people did not exempt them or protect them from suffering.  That’s the way their history is interpreted by the prophets, anyway.

          In Isaiah 53 we see the servant who has suffered grievously.  One of the commentaries I read points out that the whole servant song in Isaiah 52 and 53 is framed by an understanding that the suffering is going to reveal something about the way God works in the world.  The author examined what the text might have meant when it says “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”  The scholar turned back a few pages in Isaiah to a description of foreign gods in chapter 46: “In Isa 46:1-2, a polemical passage against foreign gods, we read how the statues of Bel and Nebo, two Babylonian gods, were carried on the backs of beasts and cattle, presumably in religious processions through the streets. The statues were so heavy that the beasts struggle under the weight. The words describing the action of the beasts are ‘carry’ and ‘bear’, the same words used of the servant carrying and bearing the sins and diseases of the people in 53:4. In contrast to the Babylonian gods, whose statues are borne by beasts, Israel’s God goes on to say in 46:3 that all the remnant of the house of Israel has been ‘borne’ and ‘carried’ by their God from birth. In this light, the people witness the suffering of the servant and recognize that he bears and carries their sins etc. They see in the servant a model of God’s own bearing of the people all their life.”[5]  Their shock of recognition of the way God has carried/borne them and their transgressions opens the way for them to accept God’s gift of healing. 

The same commentary calls attention to the voice of the one describing the servant; the verses are in the third person.  The one who is looking at the suffering servant in the verses we read realizes that the suffering of the servant is connected with the sins and transgressions of the one who is seeing him.  “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”  Curiously, the onlooker connects the servant’s suffering with the healing of the whole people of God.  As I’ve thought about this without the layer of Christian atonement theology added on, I’ve been thinking about how it could be seeing the suffering that leads to the healing.  And not just seeing the suffering, but seeing that another’s suffering is linked to the transgressions of the people, the nation of which the observer is a part.  It’s as if the watcher sees the unjust suffering of the servant and finally understands that the suffering is a consequence of the watcher’s own sin and the sins of her or his people.  Powerful people are often protected from the consequences of their choices; rich people don’t live next to the toxic waste dumps their businesses created, to use a simplistic example.  But if the powerful person saw the suffering of the people who can’t afford to move away from the toxic waste dump (from Love Canal, say) and connected it with their own wrongdoing, the way is open for repentance, healing, reconciliation.  That powerful person could stop distancing herself/himself from the suffering of those with less power, allowing themselves to be affected by the pain of another in a way that could lead to restoration for everyone. 

           I know this is all kind of Bible-geeky but it helps me understand more deeply how disciples of Jesus might still learn from the model of the Suffering Servant.  First, we understand that God is affected by the suffering of God’s people, burdened by their suffering even though they brought some of it on themselves.  God is moved and changed by the creation because God is in a genuine two-way relationship with these creatures.  The same goes for Jesus, representing God’s way of living on earth.

Second, we see that opening ourselves to understanding the suffering of the little, the last and the least is an important aspect of discipleship, especially when we’re able to own up to our own part in the suffering of the powerless.  The way is open for healing and reconciliation when we hear another’s pain and also—at least some of the time—acknowledge how the power we’ve enjoyed may have contributed to an unjust situation.  By taking the position of a servant or slave rather than guarding our power and comfort, we open the way to a shared relational power that is far more potent than the old hierarchical and unilateral arrangements. 

          I dipped this week into Rev. William Barber’s book about building the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina in response to abuses of power in the N.C. legislature aimed at disenfranchising poor Black folk. Rev. Barber emphasizes how important it was for people to come together and hear each other’s stories before they leapt into activism.  He says, “we had not known the extent of others’ pain and suffering until we came together to listen.  We did not know how much we had in common until we told our stories of struggle to one another.  What’s more, we didn’t know our own power until we gathered as one coalition with a moral agenda.”[6] The Moral Mondays movement eventually got a lot of traction in the relatively liberal Raleigh area.  Rev. Barber accepted an invitation to come to the hill country in the more rural part of the state and was quite unsure about how the message would go over.  He arrived at the appointed place and found a church packed full of white folk.  He talked about the movement for an hour or so.  When he was finished, a couple of people got up and talked about how the extremists in their conservative political party didn’t represent them anymore, and they were satisfied that the Moral Mondays movement was not just a scheme of the other party.  Then another person stood up and said, “Reverend Barber, though we don’t have any black people, we’ve decided to start a branch of the NAACP here in Mitchell County.” Barber said, “I almost fell out of my seat.  In the most unlikely of places, white people were coming together to establish a local branch of America’s oldest antiracist organization.”  The following day more than ten thousand people joined a rally for the Moral Mondays movement up in the mountains of North Carolina, far from the cities. 

          This is an example of folks with power attending to the suffering of those who have been oppressed and sidelined.  Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign builds on this North Carolina crusade, taking it nationwide in a moral fusion movement trying to empower folks who have been disempowered.  The movement is based on listening, finding common ground, and working together to share and reclaim people power.  This is relational power which rises out of being receptive to being affected by others as well as trying to affect change. 

Earlier, I mentioned Senator Lindsey Graham’s snarling remarks in the D.C. hearing room: “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”  What we’re after is more like this: “Boy/Girl/(and every gender in between), you all want power. God, I hope you get it.  Let’s work on it together, as servants of all.”


[1] Muray, Leslie A. “Politics in Process Perspective” Handbook of Process Theology Jay McDaniel & Donna Bowman, ed. St: Louis: Chalice Press, 2006, p. 217

[2] Poling, James Newton “Defining Power” Quoted in Alive Now September/October 1996, p. 10-11

[3] Ibid. p. 218

[4] Shuman, Thom M. “Do We Know What We’re Asking?”  Alive Now March/April 2006, p. 22-23

[6] Barber, William J. II with Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear Boston: Beacon Press, 2016, p. 52

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