Power vs. Powerlessness in Christianity

One of my favorite hymns from my Baptist youth included the refrain about Jesus, “He could have called ten thousand angels/To destroy the world and set him free/He could have called then thousand angels/But He died alone for you and me.”

This moving hymn still has value for me today, conveying the essential message of Jesus as lying in his demonstration of the power in powerlessness.   In modern day terms, given his dilemma as his crucifixion approached and given the abysmal circumstance he saw in the world, he could have decided to just “kick ass” and call down a horde of angels…so to speak…and righted the wrongs that he so astutely observed.  But he offered us the poignant and vivid lesson that the only meaningful way to address the wrongs in the world is not to wield power in response to power but to find that our power lies in powerlessness.  This has been demonstrated so graphically in our lifetime with the passive resistance of Martin Luther King in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

The powerless I am speaking of here does not mean wimpishness.  The powerless refers to a hidden power that lies in attitude more than military and/or political might, seeing the wisdom of “beating our swords into ploughshares” and attacking the subtle systemic power grid that has created and maintains the oppression in the status quo. One easily overlooked expression at these two approaches toward power was seen in the recent confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court nomination.  Christine Blasey-Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual abuse when they were teenagers, offered in her testimony a carefully worded and measured response to the questions she faced, demonstrating an effort at being as careful and honest as she could be.  Following her, after a “half-time” in which certainly the “head coach” had intervened, Kavanaugh responded with fire and fury which included many instances of out right refusal to answer questions or deflecting from answering them.

Many Christians have adopted the Kavanaugh and Trumpian style of power, feeling that “might makes right” and demonstrating their feeling that their “spirituality” is weak and ineffective, requiring the reinforcement of political and legislative power. They fail to recognize the wisdom in the bromide, “You can legislate morality.”  Ancient Chinese wisdom told us that legislation becomes necessary when the internal moral code has broken down.  The more this internal code has been broken down, the greater the need for legislation and the greater will be the ferocity with which it is sought.  This is beautifully illustrated in the 38th chapter of the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation:

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

 

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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“Purity and Danger” by anthropologist Mary Douglas explores tribal culture’s and their hyper emphasis of purity and its relationship to “perceived” danger.  The “danger” is usually the fear of contamination  by new ideas from beyond the pale of their culture but also from within the culture as deviance from within is always present within any culture that has any dynamic quality.

The hyper emphasis of purity always belies profound insecurity of the tribe, the fear that its values could not withstand any necessary adjustment from the introduction of the “new” or novel.  When this threat is on the horizon it is common practice to emphasize strongly the importance of the status quo and to demonize any deviance. This was evidenced in our country about a decade ago when the Tea Party sought to “purify” the Republican Party and began to label as RINA (Republican in Name Only) to anyone who took a view deemed to be inconsistent with the party line.

But today my focus is on the “purity and danger” phenomena is in fundamentalist Christianity, expressed in its inordinate emphasis of protecting the virginity of their young girls.  This often includes a ceremony in which the girls father places a purity ring on her finger as she takes a vow of chastity until her marriage.  (This makes me think of a quip by H.L. Mencken, “The problem with chastity is its over emphasis of sex.”) However, victims of this abuse are now beginning to report the trauma they experienced and the suffering they experienced as they began to mature beyond the reaches of their conservative faith and explore their sexuality.  (See the following link for one report:  http://www.foxnews. pcom/lifestyle/2018/09/15/woman-recalls-how-broke-free-evangelical-purity-movement.html) I not here advocating sexual promiscuity or debauchery for anyone, certainly not children.  I am bringing to attention the fear of sexuality that is often present in religion and the gross tragedy  that often results from having denied that dimension of human experience.  Furthermore, my concern with the Christian tradition which provided my spiritual roots is the very much related denial of the whole of the body and its impulses, the fear of losing control as W. H. Auden described in the poem with which I will conclude.

There is “danger” when we fear our body’s impulses and become obsessive with a desire for purity.  This cannot help but create impurity which will find expression somewhere whether it be in our own acting out or “rubbing elbows” with the impurity we fear under the ruse of ministering to them.  Decades ago there was a fundamentalist evangelist who preached loud and hard about immorality and even set up his office on Bourbon Street in New Orleans where he could preach to the prostitutes and strippers.  Eventually he was caught in an alley being serviced by a prostitute.

If…like your father before you, come
Where thought accuses and feeling mocks,
Believe your pain: praise the scorching rocks
For their desiccation of your lust,
Thank the bitter treatment of the tide
For its dissolution of your pride,
That the whirlwind may arrange your will
And the deluge release it to find
The spring in the desert, the fruitful
Island in the sea, where flesh and mind
Are delivered from mistrust.
(W. H. Auden “The Sea and the Mirror)

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

The Need of a Religious “Splinter in the Brain” for our Culture

Emily Dickinson used the phrase “a splinter in the brain” to describe a sudden irruption in the routine functioning of one’s mind.  Our mind’s do work like a machine, prone to constantly regurgitate thoughts and feelings to keep our preconceptions and biases in place.  (Just as I do in this blog!)  This is too often a relentless, even monotonous process that we see from time to time when we realize we are talking to someone who will not allow us to intrude into their monologue.

The same phenomenon is present with any tribe as groups of peoples are just like individuals, striving to function in such a way so as to keep in place preconceptions and biases that maintain group coherence.  A contrary vein of thought or behavior is frowned upon and at times violently oppressed.  When this group coherence becomes more important to the group than functioning amicably with neighboring tribes war can often take place…always under some “justified” pretext of an affront or insult to the groups dignity or integrity. A closed system such as this can be dangerous which healthy tribes will address with allowing some degree of dissent.  This dissenting voice will always come from someone/s who deviate from the norm and offer a different perspective on the “reality” that prevails within the tribe.  These are often the voices of artists and religious leaders who serve the function of “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Religion having always been an important part of my life, my focus here and elsewhere is often the role of the church in our country, particularly given the horrible catastrophe that is brewing in our country.  The church often appears to have been “culturally encapsulated” so that it often serves only to reinforce the biases and prejudices of the status quo, failing in its task to offer a prophetic word, a voice from beyond the pale of the cultures obstinate insistence of grinding on in its “metaled ways.”

The following is a relevant post from another one of my blogs from yesterday:

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation. 

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Jeff Sessions and His “Religious Liberty Task Force.”

Attorney Jeff Sessions has proposed a, “religious liberty task force.” This makes me think of the war on Christmas, the annual non-sense that some Christians trot out to enhance their sense of piety and alienation. Many evangelical Christians fail to have the self-reflection necessary to realize that they are the source of the, “war on Christmas,” that they are the ones who need to be the focus of any, “religious liberty task force.”  But they are so obsessed with their piety that self-reflectiveness would be a catastrophe, as it would create a, “splinter in the brain” that Emily Dickinson referred to.

I write here in a confessional mode, from personal experience.  I was mired in this “mindless” piety and not willing to initiate the process of, “working out my own salvation with fear and trembling” that the Apostle Paul recommended.  This “fear and trembling” is very much akin to the aforementioned, “splinter in the brain” which is necessary for life to break through the encrusted hypocrisy of an unexamined life.  Fortunately, the good Lord was merciful to me and has meted out this “splintering” over the course of four decades as He knew I could not handle it otherwise.  He knew, graciously, that my hypocrisy was a necessary evil with which I could cover my fragile ego (i.e. “ass”) long enough to muster up enough ego integrity to handle the sting of all those splinters.,

It is painful to wallow in disillusionment.  Someone said that, “Reality is a veil that we spin to hide the void,” and when that veil begins to be pierced by the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too,” disillusionment is inevitable.  Then we lament with T.S. Eliot, “Oh the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done, and done to others harm which once we took for exercise of virtue.”  This always brings to my mind King Lear on the heath of his former kingdom, “pelted by this pitiless storm,” bereft of his family and political power, finding himself naked, noting re roving animals nearby:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Lear was naked, buck naked, stripped of the superficies of his existence and understanding that in essence he had never been anything more than these, “poor, bare forked creatures.”  Religion is a fine cover-up for this nakedness but according to spiritual teachers, such as Jesus, it is only in this nakedness that we can find redemption.

Huffpo column, “All Christians are problematic, even you and I”

An Oregon chaplain and pastor, as well as columnist in Huffington Post, Brandi Miller, noted yesterday that, “All Christians are problematic, even you and I.”  In this column she addressed the issue that has been so conspicuous with the evangelical support of Trump—an unwillingness to admit any fault and to fiercely defend the champion of unwillingness-to-admit-fault, Trump himself.

The kernel of this problem is that many Christians, evangelical and otherwise, are mainly ideologues rather than followers of the teachings of Jesus.  Ideologues are in love with their thoughts more than that which these thoughts should refer to.  As epistemology teaches us, the word is not the thing but merely a token which points us toward the thing…in this case the “thing” being the person of Jesus.  This truth is so powerfully present in the Buddhist teaching, “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”  This “finger” is but a pointer, as words should be, a phenomenon which is very important in spiritual teachings, most of which have this understanding buried in their tradition.  But this “burial” is difficult to grasp and thus wrestle with as most spiritually-minded people prefer the superficial, the “letter of the law,” as it offers quick and easy validation of their self-serving preconceptions and biases.  Awareness of this “burial” of Truth is impossible without understanding the wisdom offered by poet Adrienne Rich, “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”

(The Brandi Miller column can be found in following link—https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-miller-problematic-christianity_us_5b4b7887e4b0bc69a788148e)

Religion Can Facilitate Meaning in a Meaningless World.

Religion has historically offered solace to the duress of life’s fragility, offering hope and comfort when there appears to be none.  The word “religion” means “to bind together,” reflecting humankind’s awareness that the psyche is divided and some unification of this schism is needed for the resulting anxiety to be handled effectively.  But acknowledging this duress is challenging to the human ego, which offers us a steady diet of pabulum and diversion with which to amuse ourselves rather than boldly opening one’s heart to the existential tumult that is always simmering beneath the surface of “civilized’ life.  (“Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”  Henry David Thoreau)

This escapism can be fatal to religion.  This insight is what led Nietzsche to declare in the 19th century that, “God is dead,” as he saw that human culture was creating an alienation that could eventually be catastrophic to life.  The alienation that meaninglessness can produce often creates an existential crisis world that religion could help and alleviate were it not encapsulated by the culture and thus disallowing it to fulfill its function of directing the soul toward the numinous. It in the domain of the numinous that the heart can explore the mystery which is intrinsic to life, though it was very disconcerting to a world that was increasingly rationalistic.  This mystery can facilitate an integration of body and soul that will allow humans to live meaningfully in a world that that would otherwise be bewildering or baffling.

Religion, however, is not the only antidote to this problem of meaninglessness.  The metaphor present in meaningful religion also finds expression in the artistic and literary worlds, artists and writers being capable of using their respective mediums to put humankind in touch with imagery that can facilitate an experience of this numinous.

A Prayer About Humility

Religion often today reveals a very ugly dimension of the human heart, an intent to acquire power and domination rather than to bring reconciliation in this world.  Religion affords many opportunities for the ego to run amok, carefully hidden from any criticism because of its “spiritual” nature and the “fact” that “god is leading.”  But on this notion it has been helpful to remember the teachings of the Bible to, “Try the spirits, to see if they be of God” and also the admonishment of the Apostle Paul that we see only, “through a glass darkly.?”  The following poem by Louis Untermeyer reflects more humility, a desire to not prevail and dominate but actually to “lose,” to become, “losers” even though in our particular historical moments many persons of faith are finding appealing the clarion call of one who vehemently denouncers, “losers.”

PRAYER by Louis Untermeyer

God, though this life is but a wraith,
Although we know not what we use;

Although we grope with little faith,
God, give me the heart to fight and lose.

Ever insurgent let me be,

Make me more daring than devout;
From slick contentment keep me free

And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit,

But let me always see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.

Open my ears to music, let

Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums
But never let me dare forget

The bitter ballads of the slums.

From compromise and things half-done,
Keep me, with stern and stubborn pride;

But when at last the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.