GOOD POWER AND BAD POWER
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible moves the reader to see the difference between ‘bad power’ and ‘good power’.
‘Bad power’ tries to force others to change: Untransformed people always seem to think that problems can be solved by external force. But it’s an illusion that one person can actually change another person. Domination is domination, not transformation; those who are dominated will eventually become sad victims, or climb the ladder of power to become dominators themselves.
‘Good power’ changes us: Transformed people have learned to use power to protect and care for the powerless. For examples of good power, see the stories of Joseph (Genesis 50), and Moses (Exodus 18).
The prophet Ezekiel contrasts ‘bad power’ with ‘good power’: One of the strongest comparisons of ‘good power’ and ‘bad power’ comes from the prophet Ezekiel when he denounces Israel’s religious and political leaders:
As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey… and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but have fed themselves… therefore, you shepherds, hear the Word of the Lord: No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them…. I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered… I will feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… (Ezekiel 34:7-16)
Centuries later, Jesus would echo Ezekiel’s prophecy:
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the world coming and leaves the sheep and runs away… The hired hand runs away because he does not care for the sheep… I am the good shepherd … and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:1-16)
Jesus’ life and death give us the Bible’s best example of good power – and he teaches servant leadership to his disciples (see Mark 8:31f, 9:35f, and 10:41f).
God sets the tone
But we will never find the courage to trust spiritual power until we have actually experienced the power of the God who is willing to wait, allow, forgive, trust and love unconditionally. So Jesus’ life and teachings show us the mystery of surrender and trust – and then it will be done unto us, through us, with us, and in us (and often in spite of us).
From the very beginning the Bible is teaching us this kind of power. Those people at the bottom, the edge, the outside, are always in the privileged spiritual position. It seems that until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies, and shadow side of that system. It is important to know that people can be personally well-intentioned and sincere, but structurally they cannot see certain things.
Barren women and rejected sons
First the Bible gives us God’s choice of Israel, an enslaved people on the bottom of Egyptian society. And then comes a series of stories about barren women and rejected sons.
Barren women: it’s seldom the fertile woman who is special in the Bible, but the woman who is empty and then graced by God’s power. Hannah (1 Samuel 2) is a beautiful example. In Hannah’s story, the theme of themes (grace, free election, bias toward the bottom) is taking shape. In Hannah (and her child Samuel) God is turning the world’s values upside down.
Rejected sons: In the Bible, it is the rejected sons who know what sonship is really about, perhaps because they have desired it for so long. (Jesus will illustrate this beautifully in his parable of the Prodigal Son. ) It’s always the forgotten ones, like Jeremiah or Job, who come understand things more deeply through their pain, and then break through to enlightenment.
Seeing through power’s illusions: It seems that God won’t risk giving spiritual power to anyone unless they can see through power’s illusions and placed their identity elsewhere. Even Jesus’ temptations in the desert are all temptations to the misuse of power (see Matthew 4:1-11).
Power in the Psalms
Like the Old Testament itself, the psalms can be divided into three categories: Law, Prophets and Wisdom. Many psalms reaffirm the guidance of Law and tradition (for example, psalm 1); other psalms contain the critical voice of the Prophets (see psalm 50); and Wisdom psalms point to the unfathomable Mystery of God, whose spiritual power works at the center of Israel’s existence (see psalm 139).
All the psalms – even those psalms we can call ‘negative’ – are worthy to be called the ‘songbook’ of God’s people Yes, just like human beings, the psalms are full of anger, fear and even hatred as well as praise and joy; they reveal diverse stages of faith and diverse understandings of power.
Almost a third of the psalms are psalms of lament. These allow us to feel, express, and publicly own the downside of things; they allow us to complain to God – and trust that God will receive our complaints (for example, see psalms 123 and 131.)
The New Testament word for power, dynamis, is actually a name used for the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:8 and 10:38). God wants to plant a little bit of the Holy Spirit inside us – just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied (see Jeremiah 31:31f and Ezekiel 36:25f), and as Jesus taught (see John 14:15f). The dynamis of the Holy Spirit is the meaning of the New Covenant: the Holy Spirit is God with us and God within us.
Before Christianity became the established religion, Christians were on the bottom of society – the ‘unpowerful’ place that is actually the easiest place to understand the gospel. But in the 4th century Christians suddenly moved from the bottom of Roman society to the top.
The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the gap. The loving relationships of the Trinity were largely lost as the shape of God; the Father became angry and distant, Jesus became the needed emperor, and the Holy Spirit was mostly forgotten.
Spiritual power needs to be understood as something larger than force. In the Bible, God looks for adult partners who can handle power. God takes people like Moses, Jesus, and Paul, builds upon their powerful egos, and then transforms them into his servants. But this Biblical pattern has not always been honored by the Christian church.
Rites of passage
Over the centuries, the Bible has been used and taught by people on the inside and at the top. But if we read the Bible with Jesus’ words and practice in mind, we will find a new viewpoint from which to read the world.
Groups always want to circle the wagons around themselves. But Jesus knew that there is a better way of knowing – we can call it ‘the wisdom of the outsider’ – which comes from those who are in any way marginalized, excluded, disabled or on the ‘outside’.
So Jesus sent his disciples out, away from the group, and often in pairs. Their journey forced them to become ‘outsiders’ – to look from the outside in – and taught them Jesus’ way of humble love and trust. This journey was a rite of passage, a training course in vulnerability and community.
Jesus and all the prophets wanted us to know what it means to be on the losing side – because that place is where transformation and conversion are much more likely to happen. And so Jesus begins his public ministry by declaring, “I have come to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Simply looking at the structure of the Temple in Jerusalem, we can see what a radical reformer Jesus was. In the first century there were seven distinct groups who were to be kept outside the Temple precincts: lepers; the disabled; gentiles; menstruating women; men after seminal discharge; those in ‘unclean’ occupations; the bastard sons and daughters of priests (Leviticus 11-24). Jesus saw that the Temple had been captured by a religious system that was putting customs and human laws before people.
Try making a two-column list: looking through the Gospels, list the people who fight Jesus in one column and the people who respond to Jesus in the other column. The people who respond to Jesus are almost always members of those seven groups declared unworthy to come into the Temple.
Here, just under the surface, is the Gospel’s critique of power systems and their capacity for self-serving illusions.
Some questions for your reflection:
Rohr writes that the Bible critiques the human drive for power from Genesis all the way to Revelation. The Bible is moving us toward spiritual power – which does not merely change us on the outside, but really transforms us on the inside. This transformation is the work of a lifetime of grace, surrender, and prayer.
‘Bad’ power: Where do you see ‘bad power’ being used in the world today? … in American society? … in the church? …in your own relationships? … in yourself?
‘Good’ power: Can you find ‘good power’ being used in the world today? … in American society? …. in the church? … in your own relationships?