Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Paradox of Boundaries and Power

Even when I try to be as clear as I can be, apparently, I am unclear:

Sometimes, in other words, you have to compromise some of your principles in order to uphold others. The alternative is to let a small group of intransigent bullies dominate the system. This, it seems to me, is the problem that advocates of transformative politics have to answer. How is it exactly that politics are going to be transformed while the goons thoroughly control the place?

Some of my friends and colleagues have decided that the sacrifice of principle simply isn't worth it. Try to gain power, and you're dancing with the devil, they warn.

Perhaps. But the flip side to that equation is that without power, nothing can be done to protect the innocent, much less redirect a predatory political system.
There was a link in the original back to the blog of yours truly. I pity the persons following that link and trying to understand what it means. Let me clarify:

Pastor Dan and I are talking about apples and oranges. Pastor Dan wants to stay in Omelas and free the child and make the city over into the basileia tou theou. And I prefer to walk away from Omelas, because I know it cannot be remade, that Omelas cannot exist as Omelas without leaving the child in the basement; that to free the child is not to re-make Omelas, nor will it improve the child. The deal with the devil has been made, and we cannot unmake it. My proclamation of the basileia of God is as an alternative, a replacement, not a corrective.

Am I right? Do I consider myself more principled? I don't know; and no, I don't. It isn't a question of principle. I do not consider myself holier than thou, or in some way superior to Pastor Dan. That is the way of power. My way is the way of powerlessness. It is the way of humility. Does this mean bullies will continue to control the political process? Yes; just as they did in Jesus' day. It was not a generation after his crucifixion (an act of savagery that beggars description as "bullying", I know) when Roman soldiers slaughtered every man, woman, and child they could find in Jerusalem. I find references to that cataclysm in the Gospels, most likely inserted after the fact, as the Gospels themselves probably post date the destruction of Jerusalem. I find nothing in those references that is a call to arms against such horror, that is a demand that it be prevented, that is a rallying cry for an alternative political vision which will remove the brutal yoke of Roman "civilization" from the necks of the people of Israel. Indeed, the gospel message for this week (which I'll be getting to in another post) is about wars and rumors of wars; but it isn't about choosing sides for the fight. What it is about is being ready, and faithful, and trusting God to preserve those who hold fast to the way of God, the way of powerlesness, the way of the executed Savior, the Crucified God.

I've actually made this point to Pastor Dan before; but I will repeat myself, and make it again:

I'm a stickler on this point: power only and ever and always serves the ends of power. If God is not about the power of powerlessness, then Paul and I are agreed that the crucifixion was pointless, and all we're really waiting for is for God to get around to making us all believers, whether we like it or not.

But if God is about the power of powerlessness, then even taking up power in God's name is contrary to God's purpose. And a basiliea tou theou where the first are always last, and the last first, is a place with no political power at all.
My "principle" is in that first sentence. The rest is theology, and my sure conviction that the basiliea tou theou is about the race to the bottom, the race to be the servant, not the master; the race to give up power, not to attain it for whatever good purpose may be intended. Because it is my firm belief and experience that power only and ever serves the ends of power, and whoever wields it, for whatever reason, is mistaken in thinking the control it. Power serves its own ends, and it uses you as it used the person before you, and will use the person after you. It uses you only to make power effective. Does this create some sort of anthropic principle for power, give it anthropomorphism it does not deserve? Perhaps; but we cannot understand the world except for the anthropic stance of how we experience it, so I consider that a small objection indeed, in light of the larger truth it reveals.

So it isn't a principled stance on my part; it's a theological one. It is my belief, my faith, my understanding of the kerygma of the Gospel. Because if the meaning of the crucifixion was that Jesus was the ultimate power, and his resurrection the sign of the awesome power of God over all creation, then, well...we knew that, didn't we? And we are just back to the voice in the whirlwind speaking to Job, answering nothing and declaring itself justified. It means the awful agonies of the cross were just a bit of stage production by a God who couldn't be crucified, who couldn't die. It it not too much to say my entire understanding of Christianity rests on this paradox. To quote myself again:

There is no power without resistance. Power needs resistance not only to be powerful, but if it is going to exist at all. Without resistance power has no force. It is a blow against empty air, a fierce punch into darkness that meets no opposition. So power manufactures its own resistance, creates its own opponent.
It may well be there is far less difference between Pastor Dan and I than appears. After all, this discussion touches on the question of responsibility, which he claims makes him responsible for others against the power of those he identifies as bullies. There, again, I would disagree. It's a point I've made before: That which you most oppose, you most come to resemble. This is the problem with identifying yourself as opposition to whatever you consider evil. You stop identifying with your core, and start setting your boundaries against what you are not; and at precisely that point what you are not starts to define you. At that point the struggle against evil is endless, because evil is whatever you are not; and you can always find something you are not, something you are sure you must eradicate. But in seeking to eradicate that, you are seeking to eradicate yourself, because what you are not is what defines you.

Paradoxes abound.

Thomas Merton, writing about the desert fathers who fled collapsing civilization to live in the Egyptian deserts in the 4th century, said that there are times when it is every man and woman for him- or her-self, when the best you can do is to grab a piece of flotsam and hold on in the flood that is coming. Sometimes, in other words, the most Christian thing you can do is to save yourself, so that you can provide a witness to the world that will arise from the destruction. It may be we are in one of those times, again.
And in such times, it is not what you oppose which should define you.

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