Posts Tagged ‘power’

Powerlessness is power

November 24, 2018

Christ the King – 2018

sJohn 18:33-37Marian Free

In the name of God who in Jesus demonstrates that true power and authority lie in service and not in domination. Amen. 

It is not difficult to observe that the balance of power in the world is shifting. The United States is increasingly looking inward, relinquishing at least to some extent its role as a mediator, peace-keeper and influencer on the world stage. At the same time China, through its belt-road, its aid programme in the Pacific and through the purchase of property and land beyond its borders is ensuring that its role in the world is being vastly enhanced. Elsewhere, ISIS which is suffering military defeat and the loss of territory has unleashed an ideology whose effects and violence extend far beyond its geographic reach and its direct control. For those who have grown up in a reasonably stable world, the current political situation is unsettling and disturbing. We have grown used to power being wielded by one nation and do not know what the world will look like if power is exercised by another government or nation.

Power according to Max Weber is the ability to exercise one’s will over others (Weber, 1922). Sociologists point out that, “power affects far more than personal relationships; it shapes larger dynamics like social groups, professional organizations, and governments. Similarly, a government’s power is not necessarily limited to control of its own citizens. A dominant nation, for instance, will often use its clout to influence or support other government or to seize control of other nation states[1].” Power is sought and secured by individuals, companies or nations who wish to demonstrate their “status”; to gain control over resources – physical, geographic or technological; to exercise control over people and the actions of people; to amass wealth or even to build their own self-esteem.

Power is usually gained by force and therefore must be maintained by force. Those who are disempowered by the actions of another person or another state rarely cede what is theirs willingly or graciously. In order to maintain their power over others the “victor” must use force and/or the threat of punishment to ensure submission and obedience.  

In the first century, the chosen method of suppression was crucifixion. Anyone who threatened or was seen to threaten the supremacy of Rome was publicly crucified in the belief that such an horrific death would deter others from challenging the conquerors.

Today’s gospel is all about power[2]– its exercise, illegitimacy and its ultimate futility. At his trial before Pilate, Jesus demonstrates most fully what he has been trying to impress upon the disciples – that power overothers is ephemeral and temporary and that it is based on a false premise – the assumption that the person exercising power is in some way superior to those enslaved to his or her rule. For Jesus true power, legitimate power, power that is lasting, is the opposite of the worldly view. Real power, Jesus preached – (and now demonstrates in his life) – lies in service. Enduring power comes not from lording it over others but from raising them up. Empowering others, giving them a sense of their own worth, draws from them loyalty and respect that cannot be bought and that certainly cannot be enforced. 

Only a person who is secure in themselves and who does not feel the need to prove anything to anyone, can put themselves last and others first, can face false accusations and not feel a need to defend themselves and can endure cruelty and abuse without losing anything of themselves. Such a person can, from their own position of strength (not power), draw out of others their strengths and their gifts and enable others to develop and grow and to reach their full potential. Those who are thereby affirmed and encouraged know themselves to be blessed and enriched. In turn they acknowledge the gift and the one who so generously bestowed it with a deep sense of gratitude, a desire to please and a loyalty that cannot be bought or enforced. 

Power that derives from service need not be enforced, because it is power that is not desired or sought or enforced but bestowed by those who understand how much they owe.

Pilate does not and cannot understand Jesus because Jesus does not conform to the world with which Pilate is familiar. Jesus does not play the games that Pilate plays – he has no need to compete, no desire to prove himself to others, no longing for recognition. In Pilate’s eyes Jesus is a conundrum. He is accused of claiming to be a king, yet he submits to the indignity of arrest and trial and makes no effort to defend himself. Pilate, who is constantly needing to assert himself and his authority is at a loss. In fact, Pilate is powerless. By refusing to be cowed and by refusing to contest the charges brought against him, Jesus deprives Pilate andhis accusers of their power over him.

Today we affirm that Jesus is king – but Jesus is a king like no other king – a king whose power comes from his empowering others, from putting himself last and others first and whose absolute trust in God ensures that he can remain true to himself in the worst of circumstances. 

Would that we all had such confidence in ourselves and such faith in God that we, like Jesus, would have no need to assert ourselves, that we would seek the well-being of others before our own and that we would have the faith to face the worst that life had to offer without complaint and without a struggle. Then, and only then, would there be balance in the world, accord between all peoples and a peace that endured.


[1]https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/power-and-authority/

[2]As becomes clear in 19:10-11

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A matter of moral fibre

July 11, 2015

Pentecost 7

Mark 6:14-29

Marian Free

In the name of God who transcends both time and place and yet is ever present. Amen.

John the Baptist is something of an enigma. He provides an introduction and a foil for Jesus. He precedes the latter and prefigures Jesus. Yet despite his obvious importance, Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John (Luke 7:28, Matt 11:11). As I have said on previous occasions, John appears to have been a source of embarrassment for the early Jesus’ followers who are keen to diminish his significance. Luke carefully crafts the introduction to the third gospel to suggest that John’s role is to point towards Jesus and that while the births of both men have supernatural overtones, Jesus is clearly the superior of the two. This emphasis is continued in the narratives of Jesus’ baptism – John doesn’t mention it at all, Luke almost skips over it and Matthew suggests that it only happened at all because Jesus insisted (Matt 3:13-15).

That John was an historical figure seems to be without doubt and that he had followers at the time of Jesus and beyond is unquestionable. Not only does John have to be accounted for by the gospel writers, but the Jewish historian mentions his death in Jewish Antiquities 18:116-19). By all accounts John was an uncomfortable figure. His style of life and his preaching were confronting. His style of dress, choice of lifestyle were hardly conventional and John’s practice of baptism directly critiqued the sacrificial tradition of the Temple in Jerusalem implying as it did that forgiveness could be obtained outside the Temple cult[1].

John was a threat, not only to the religious traditions of the time, but also to the political stability of the nation. Herod had a number of reasons to be alarmed by John’s presence and preaching that had nothing to do with Herod’s personal life. According to Crossan: “what is most explosive about John’s (baptismal) rite is that people cross over into the desert and are baptised in the Jordan as they return to the promised land” (231). Whether or not this was a deliberate inference on the part of John, it certainly had parallels to other movements that “invoked the desert and the Jordan to imagine a new and transcendental conquest of the Promised Land” (op cit 232). In what was already a politically volatile situation, Herod had every reason to be anxious about a man considered to be a prophet, who drew large crowds to him and who played on the imagery of the desert and the Jordan.

Josephus record of John’s death is very different from that of today’s reading. “Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind (sic) might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and to see his mistake. He was brought in chains to Machaerus [2] …… and there put to death” (Jewish Antiquities, 18:116-119).

In contrast, the Gospel tradition of John’s death not surprisingly places the emphasis on Herod’s immorality rather than his political anxiety. Though all the gospels record John’s death and the Synoptics all mention Herodias as a factor only Mark and Matthew provide the detail of the dinner, the daughter’s dance and Herod’s rash promise to give her whatever she desires.

We know then that Herod put John to death, but the actual circumstances surrounding that death cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

Josephus emphasises the political threat to Herod’s hold on power. The gospels stress not only Herod’s insecurity, but also his immorality and his weakness. It was “because of his oath and his guests” that Herod acceded to his “daughter’s” request. In a culture that was governed by principles of honour and shame, Herod could not afford to lose face. So, whether or not he himself had qualms about the execution, he was honour bound to keep his promise. To have not done so would have been to lose both credibility and status, something that he could not afford either socially or politically.

The desire to gain and to hold on to power can often lead to the abandonment of moral principles and the adoption of violence towards any threat or opposition. History has shown over and over again that Herod was not unique. Despotic or insecure rulers can be ruthless, cruel, oppressive and unjust in their efforts to maintain their position of strength. (In very recent times we have witnessed the violent suppression of popular movements – especially in the Middle East.)

In the gospels, John’s unwarranted death at the hands of Herod sets the scene for Jesus’ crucifixion – an innocent man will be executed by a representative of Rome; Jesus, like John, will be seen as a threat to the Empire and especially to Pilate’s hold on power: Pilate will be swayed by the crowds just as Herod’s actions were influenced by the presence of his guests.

It is not just those in power who sometimes feel a need to do whatever it takes to hold on to that power, or to retain the respect of their supporters. Many of us are guilty at some time or another of behaving in ways that protect the image of ourselves that we wish to present to the world. It can be embarrassing to admit that we have made a mistake and humiliating to have our position at work, (in the community) undermined. So we cover up our errors or lay the blame elsewhere. We behave in such a way that will ensure the regard of others – sometimes at the expense of someone else.

Today’s gospel does not come with an obvious message, but read in this way, it challenges us to consider our own behaviour and calls us to examine our own integrity. As followers of Jesus, we are called to see weakness as strength, to put ourselves last, to be indifferent to societal measures of status and power and to seek the values of the kingdom rather than the values of this world.

[1] Crossan, John, Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishing, 1991, 235.

[2] The Franciscan Archeological Institute has details of the fortress on its website: http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fai/FAImachr.html

At peace with ourselves – with the world.

April 11, 2015

Easter 2 – 2015
John 20:19-31
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us all that we need, if only we were ready to accept what God has to give. Amen.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the news is full of bad news stories. This morning for example , I woke to the news that in my own city, less than twenty miles from my home, a man of fifty-five had been killed – his neighbour was upset by the amount of noise that he was making. Later in the day, I heard that a young woman had been arrested for the murder of her father-in-law (her husband having already been arrested for the same offense). The newspaper provided an update on the man who had nearly killed his brother, by knocking him to the ground after they had visited a nightclub together and there was also a report on the guilty verdict for the “Boston bomber”. I could go on – the litany of crimes committed in anger, frustration, greed or need for power is just appalling.

Despite Jesus’ resurrection gift to the disciples, peace and harmony seem to be illusive even on the domestic front. The problem of course, lies with us – with the very human needs to be in control, to feel important and to put ourselves first.

What that means is that as long as there are people who are filled with anger and insecurity; as long as people feel entitled to do what they want and to behave how they want to behave; as long as there are some who are so concerned with their own comforts and own desires that they are able to disregard the concerns and interests of their neighbours: as long as some are filled with self-doubt: as long as there are some who feel that the world owes them something; there will be people who will resent any attempt to limit or curtain their activity, those who vent their fury in violent actions; those who seek to build their own prosperity with little or no regard for the cost to those who labour makes them rich or to consequences for the environment or the wider society and there will be those who will seek to diminish others in order to prove themselves smarter, better, stronger.

It is all too easy to imagine that such people are very different from ourselves – that we are above such petty, nasty, aggressive behaviour. But I wonder, are we really so different? Are we, those who profess the faith, perfect examples of the peace that Jesus gives? When others look at us, do they see our deep contentment with life our satisfaction with who we are and what we have? Are we so secure in our (God created) selves that we have no need to fill our emptiness with possessions, achievements or comparisons with others? Do others looks at us and see in us anything that separates ourselves/our lives from their own? Do we really stand out from the world around us?

Let me be clear that I have enormous respect for members of the Parishes in which I have served. Their life and their faith has often challenged my own. In general though, I suspect that too few of us find our meaning entirely in Jesus, that not enough of us seek above all that peace which only Jesus can give and that not all of us really believe that we can trust God with every aspect of our lives.

For the world to be a better place we would all need to find our meaning, our hope, our security and our peace in the Trinity – in God our Creator, Jesus our Redeemer and the Spirit our enlivener. As long as we look elsewhere we will not be at peace and our striving, our frustration, our fears and our anxieties will be taken out on others (intentionally or otherwise).

As I write this, the words of a well-known hymn are repeating themselves in my head:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace,
the beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still small voice of calm,
O still small voice of calm. John Greenleaf Whittier

May we together seek the beauty of that peace which Jesus alone can offer, and in relinquishing our striving to be other than who we are, find our true selves and know the presence of God there.

Defeating evil, by submitting to evil

April 4, 2015

Easter – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns darkness into light, despair into hope and tragedy into victory. Amen.

I don’t think that anyone would dispute that we live in a world that is full of inequity, injustice, oppression and cruelty. By accident of birth, most of us have escaped the horrors that abound in nations too many to name. In this country we have a democratically elected government and sufficient wealth that our children do not die of hunger or of preventable disease. Few of us have had to flee our homes because we are terrified by relentless bombing or the approach of an enemy that is known for its cruelty. Our children are not at risk of being killed or kidnapped simply because we choose to educate them. It is very unlikely that we will be sent to prison (or worse, ‘disappeared’) because we challenge government policies or laws or expose corruption or injustice. Our labour laws ensure that the vulnerable cannot be exploited and our poor are not so desperate that they risk life and limb eking out a living from rubbish dumps nor would they sell their daughters into prostitution or their children into slavery.

The awful reality now, as in every previous generation, is that all over the world innocent people suffer and die in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. Impossible as it is for most of us to imagine, an over-riding desire for wealth, status and power drives some people (even groups of people) to exploit, oppress or silence others.

These are not easy issues to contend with. When we think about the unspeakable suffering that is inflicted on some people in order to gratify the needs of others, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. We can’t even begin to grasp the horror that is the daily existence of millions of people throughout the world and we feel both impotent and ill-equipped to do anything to change things. We are frozen by indecision and do little or nothing.

One of the things that is different about Jesus is that he faced evil head on, he determined that evil would not have the final word, that violence, injustice and oppression could be both confronted and defeated. Jesus refused to play by the rules of his enemies. He understood that it is impossible to defeat evil with evil and that violence only leads to violence. By refusing to resist arrest, by accepting the false accusations, by submitting to the taunting, by enduring the flogging and by accepting the cross, Jesus proved that in the final analysis, violence and evil are powerless to destroy goodness and life. For good triumphs over evil not through violence or war, not through oppression or force, not by resistance or compulsion.

Jesus defeats evil by submitting to the power of evil. By freely accepting his fate, Jesus made it clear that the powers of this world in fact had no power over him. By choosing to relinquish his right to defend himself, Jesus demonstrated how ineffectual his opponents really were. By refusing to fight for his life, Jesus made it clear that those who sought his death had not power over him. Throughout his trial and even on the cross, Jesus remains in control – his enemies might take his life, but they cannot destroy him.

The resurrection is proof positive that by submitting to death, Jesus has frustrated the powers of this world and shown how impotent they are. Injustice and cruelty do not have the final word, their victory is limited, temporary. Jesus refused to be bound by worldly values that give success, influence and possessions priority. He was prepared to lose everything, even life itself rather than lose his integrity and play the game the way his enemies played.

It is all too obvious, that Jesus’ victory over evil and death was not the final solution. As we have seen for millions of innocent people the world continues to be a place of horror and suffering. That said the resurrection is a powerful demonstration that while evil might persist in the world, it does not ultimately have the power to enslave us.

We have a choice. We can choose to resist evil. We can make the decision not to be governed by the forces that control this world. We can resolve to live by kingdom values – seeking above all the well-being of others and our own self-aggrandisement. We can play by different rules and in so doing expose the failings and the evils of the rules that govern behaviours that result in exploitation, injustice and oppression. We can cling on to power, possessions and status, or we can give it all away for the ultimate goal of life for all in the present, and life eternal in the future. Jesus’ victory is our victory, if only we chose to share it.

Making a difference in the world

December 20, 2014

Advent 4 – 2014
Luke 1:26-36
Marian Free

In the name of Jesus who surrendered himself completely and in so doing became completely God. Amen.

What a year this has been. What a week! This week alone two people have lost their lives in a hostage situation in Sydney, 140 students and teachers have been killed in an attack on a school in Pakistan, eight children have been stabbed to death by their mother in Cairns, and (hidden away in a small paragraph of today’s paper) we learn that another 180 women and children have been kidnapped by Boko Haran in Nigeria. In the face of all this horror and violence it is easy to overlook the devastating news that the UN has run out of funds and that hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria and Iraq can no longer expect food handouts and so may have escaped the war only to face starvation. It might also have escaped our attention that currently in the Central African Republic something like 10,000 children – some as young as eight – have been recruited as soldiers and force to fight in a war they almost certainly do not understand.

And that is just this week and only the news items that particularly grabbed my attention. It is only the tip of the iceberg in a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams.

The week just gone is exactly the sort of week that might make a person ask “where is God in all this” and “why doesn’t God do something to stop the violence and destruction?” The reason is simple – God can’t intervene. At least God cannot intervene decisively and enduringly without stooping to our level and behaving just like us. If God were to use violence to put an end to violence either the world itself would be destroyed or the world would follow God’s example and the cycle of violence would continue. If instead God tried to impose God’s will, to dominate and subjugate the aggressors would resist God’s control and take out their frustration on others the situation might become worse rather than better.

So while God might despair at the state of the world today, God chooses not to intervene. If God does intervene God does so in a completely novel and unexpected way – without resorting to violence or domination. God knows that forcing us to do God’s will is not nearly as effective as working with us to achieve the same end. For this reason God refuses to coerce us, to bend us to his purpose or to subjugate us to God’s authority. Instead God waits. God waits until we are ready, until we recognise and are open to God’s greater wisdom and willingly submit ourselves to God’s plan for us and for the world. For it is only when individuals acknowledge God and allow God to direct their lives that they enable God to be effective in achieving God’s purpose. It is only when we relinquish our pride, our arrogance and our selfish ambitions that God is able to work in and through us to make real God’s hopes for all humankind.

And so we come at last to today’s gospel and the extraordinary story of an ordinary young woman whose selfless humility made a place for God in her life and therefore for God in the world. In order to respond to God, Mary put aside her fears, her ambitions, her desire for respectability and her need to be in control of her own life. Mary was less concerned with what was good for her, and more concerned about the greater good, less worried about her own future, and more worried about the future of humankind. Mary let go and gave herself and her life completely into God’s hands.

It was Mary’s willingness to submit to God that provided God with the opportunity to intervene in the world. It was Mary’s “yes” that led to Christ’s birth and consequently to the redemption of all humankind.

If then the world has not been redeemed, we need not look to God but to ourselves. While we continue to hold on to our own hopes and dreams, while we persist in trying to prove ourselves by competing with and striving over and against others, while we rely on our own resources to provide security for the present and the future, we effectively diminish God’s presence in the world while at the same time reinforcing our own.

Paradoxically, it was Mary’s submission, her giving up of her self, that not only allowed God to be brought to birth in the world, but made her most truly the person God created her to be. In giving up everything, Mary gained more than she could have ever imagined, by accepting ignominy, Mary gained the sort of fame which few have achieved and few can even imagine.

Mary is told: “Nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible for God, but in order for God to make a difference in this broken world, God needs our cooperation, our willingness to let go of ambition and self interest, our preparedness to relinquish our need for control and give ourselves completely to God’s will. There are few who are prepared to give themselves so completely and lose themselves so thoroughly and as a result the world continues its trajectory towards self-destruction.

God needs our ‘yes’ to join that of Mary’s so that in every age and every place, ordinary men and women will continue to bring Christ to birth. Our “yes to God might not transform the world, but it might change our small corner for the better.


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