The Game of Power
I’ve been cross-reading biographies on Harry Emerson Fosdick and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The former was an assignment while the latter was for pleasure. Fosdick frenetically rallied against another American war in Europe while serving as the pastor at the Rockefeller funded Riverside Church in NY, while Bonhoeffer gave his short but unforgettable life to resisting Hitler’s rise and tyranny in Germany. Both men were widely misunderstood and struggled to determine how they may go about their life mission in their respective contexts. I was struck by how these contemporaries, with seemingly conflicting theologies, both looked to Gandhi as a model of Christian social activism. Although Gandhi was not a Chrisitan, he spearheaded a community devoted to living out the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount as taught by Jesus.
The lives of these three historic men seem to suggest a framing of the Christ and Culture conversation under the theme of power. All the trappings of modern life such as education, technology, money, fame, and so on, are inextricably tied to either the gain or loss of power.
In America, whether a person is religious or not, our true religion is to find a way to “success”: that typically means financial secruity and personal freedom. The next step is to get our children the best education possible so they can repeat the same cycle. Better education means more career opportunities, which leads to higher earning potential. But what exactly does money, social capitol, and strategic relationships offer an individual? It offers choices.
With more socioeconomic resources one has the ability to avoid certain neighborhoods and everything associated with it, such as the neighbors that live there, the crime and culture that keeps these cities dysfunctional and the schools that lead to little if any future choices for their prosterity. Such is why most churches today are commuter or regional churches, where the majority of the members commute from the suburbs to the inner city only for church business. Hence, the churches rarely represent the demographic in the city it resides. Christinaity in America, as discussed, written about, and taught in seminaries, is a middle-upper class reality. The Christian stories of the spiritually “gentrified” outliers are rarely told, except for the token diversity month celebration talks.
When I spent a year in limbo between being a local church pastor to a military chaplain, my family and I stayed with my in-laws in a neighborhood with an elementary school rated a 5 by Greatschools.com. On the one hand, I considered trusting God to use the opportunity and make it meaningful for our sons. The human, father, and Americanized middle-upper class minded follower of Jesus on the other hand said, “sending my kids to this school for their first public school experience can ruin or traumatize them forever.” There was no way I was going to take the risk, that is, trust God with something so important. Trusting God was for lesser things like good beach weather and sometimes the serious new job interview. But when my children’s entire livelihood and their future psychosocial health was involved, I wasn’t going to give it to and God. So my wife and I spent almost every penny we had each month to rent an apartment in a better school district 30 minutes away. I justified the expense by using the apartment as a type of Study and spiritual getaway.
That was five years ago and I have felt ashamed of the experience and confessed it to friends on a few occassions. But if I were in the same situation today what would I do? If faith in Jesus means volunteering my family into disadvantaged situations laced with inherent dangers, will I still trust him?
My time working in a susbstance abuse clinic with wounded warriors taught me that everything really is about power, or the illusion of power. Giving up a sense of control or predicability in my life, and in the future well-being of my loved ones, is basically the equivalent of accepting powerlessness as a reality. Ironically, whenever I reflect on the life and teachings of Jesus, this power issue stands out as a non-negoitable door one must go through if following Jesus is the aim.
The only pure way of living in Christ seems to be through powerlessness. And the best way I make sense of living this out is by defining love as a way of giving away power, since love always makes us vulnerable. Giving up power is in many ways a kind of death. We are forced to embrace something that terrifies us without any certainty of how God will respond.
Who knew that faith was such a terrifying journey into the abyss? I can’t help but recall a comment I once heard as a pastor. A church member asked me, “pastor, what are you preaching on today?” I said, “on faith.” He said, “that’s so basic.”