This week’s lectionary passages evoke starkly different moods. The passage from 2 Samuel 5 and Psalm 48 speak of God’s power and might in the afterglow of victory–whether in the near or more distant past. The epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 12 is the famous passage in which Paul boasts of his mystical journey into the third heaven–supposedly without boasting–before he revels in a weakness he identifies as his thorn in the flesh.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
In these lines we find again the emergence of power and strength as dominant themes, but here the divine power does not take the form of a victorious community or kingdom but of an individual believer who is oppressed. Perhaps this the politics of the oppressed, a slave politics, that seems–if we are honest–to have little relevance for the modern nation-state, let alone the world’s dominant military power. How does powerlessness, for example, relate to the huge bureaucracies that dominate modern life? It seems largely irrelevant. Surely, though, the scriptural guidance is not to “suck it up” whatever the bureaucracy says or regardless of whether it serves well or not.
Rather than an ethic of acquiescence, the texts point to a power that is beyond our power, a power that is mystical and humbling, that reverses fortunes and delivers the oppressed. The point is not to despise the powerful or power, but to make room for ultimate power. This point should strike us odd: make room for ultimate power. Surely, ultimate power needs no room; it makes its own room. It crushes everything in its path like a tank rolling over a car. And yet in Mark 6 we catch up to Jesus wrestling with the multitude and failing–yes, failing. Mark reports that “he could do no deed of power there.” Of course, Mark can’t help but add that Jesus was not entirely powerless, saying “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” That’s all, just a few minor healings.
Still, the point is that Christ is not simply all-powerful. Indeed, it only takes a stubbornly suspicious group of locals to make Jesus seem relatively ordinary. If that’s not interesting enough, note that it is at this moment that Jesus calls his followers into action, commissions them for their own journeys into the world. Doesn’t this seem odd? Jesus commissions his followers just after he has failed. Not exactly a rousing start, but very much like so much of ministry, politics, and the stuff of life, like raising children.
On the 4th of July, the fireworks may serve to remind us of our power as a nation. Amid the ringing canons and the roaring jets, the follower of Jesus may be tempted to despair and curse the nation that sometimes confuses God and country. Idolatry is an ever-present temptation. The allure of power remains strong, even after a decade of wars. This allure should not cause us to curse the strength of nations or our own nation. Instead, we should seek to discipline our nation’s power in the service of peace and justice in a way that recognizes that we are not the only power. Our path is neither dominance nor flight from responsibility. This is of course an impossible task at which the nation repeatedly fails, because we as people fail. Justice comes to serve as a rationalization for our dominance, and peace too easily becomes the cause of Empire. This week’s lectionary reminds us, however, that power comes and goes. Today the church is tempted to resent its lack of influence, but Mark’s story of Jesus and the words of Paul remind us that even spiritual power has its limits. The Son of Man and the Apostle Paul both experienced failure and frustration and yet they did not lose faith in the One beyond the many. The One offers no guarantees of success in either the church or in politics. Indeed, the One seems powerless as often as not. And yet it is this One who humbles the proud, heals the sick, and saves us from ourselves. It is this One who calls us to slip on our sandals and walk on.
David True is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College. He also edits the journal Political Theology and the journal’s blog, There is Power in the Blog. Samples of his writing can be found at the blog Tea Leaves. He is also the author of The Church and Politics for the curriculum series Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding.