God, Power and the Western World

In this blog, I am exploring how traditional views of God have dominated western thinking about the nature of power, sovereignty and systems. I am drawing heavily on three brillaint thinkers: Thomas Jay Oord and his book ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’, Brad Jersak and his book ‘A More Christlike God’ and my great friend Roger Haydon Mitchell and his book ‘Church, Gospel and Empire.’

 

 

I agree with Richard Dawkins that there is an utter God delusion. But I disagree with him utterly about the nature of that delusion, which I will come on to. So much of Western thought has been shaped by “Christianity”, or perhaps more accurately, Constantine“Christendom”, and has very little to do with the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The dominant story, as we have it now, took it’s shape in the fourth century, under the partnership of the Emperor Constantine, and a theologian by the name of Eusebius. At this particular point in history, the message of Christianity was spreading like wild-fire throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. It very much challenged the status quo and the power dynamics of the Empire, calling for people to change the way they thought about who God is (a loving father, not a dominant emperor), to consider all people equal, to undo economic oppression and follow the radical way of love, partnering with God for reconciliation, healing and peace. This view of God didn’t suit the Emperor, nor the philosophy of Empire.

 

UnknownThis allowed an understanding to develop that God is actually quite like a Sovereign Emperor who rules the whole world, a God very much like the one Richard Dawkins describes in his famous book – and why would anyone believe in a “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” God like that?! No thanks! But this is the kind of God that Empires depend on. This is the kind of God that those with power through the centuries purported God to be like in order to hold onto their own power, making Jesus the great warrior and God the threatening one to be feared. Constantine understood that harnessing the message of Christianity gave him more control. The church leaders understood that partnering with the empire would mean greater safety and prosperity for themselves.

 

But God is not at all like the caricature painted by Dawkins. As Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” God is exactly like Jesus. He is the antithesis of a dominant Emperor. He is a loving, kind, creative, healing, perfect Father, who rather than anihilating us for our rebellion, allows himself to be utterly misunderstood and seemingly defeated by the might of Empire, only to overcome it through love, breaking forever, the power of all that stops us being truly human and inaugurating a new way for humanity – what some of us now call kenarchy, but more traditionally referred to as the Kingdom of God (a term which now has so many other difficulties that it needs reinterpreting).

 

If God is exactly like Jesus, then he is essentially kenotic, in other words, he is first and imgresforemost about self-giving, others-empowering love, and therefore he cannot be like the God caricatured by Richard Dawkins, nor can he be a fluffy grandpa, a doting dad, a domineering dictator or an amalgamation of all of these, dressed up as Santa Claus. That means that the Christian scriptures have to be wrestled with and studied carefully with this lens firmly in tact. It also utterly changes the whole idea that Christianity could ever become a “state-religion”, uphold the divine right of kings (or indeed presidents/republics etc that behave in the same ways), or the support the propping up of political ideologies that lead to the oppression of the poor, marginalisation of the other or rejection of any person based on any part of their identity.


For me, the Gospel narrative is not that God made the whole world and we then messed it up, offended his sovereignty and so he needed someone to die in our place so that his wrath could be appeased. No, the narrative is something far more profound and beautiful. Brian Zahnd explains is beautifully in his ‘gospel in chairs’. My faith lies in a God who invested himself in the evolutionary process, creating a world of order and randomness in which human beings emerged, in his image, able to choose how we would relate to God, each other and the environment in which we find ourselves. But rather than choose this way of self emptying, others empowering love, we have time and again made God in our own image of power and self-centred free will. In doing so, we have wrought destruction to ourselves, to one another, to those weaker than ourselves and to the ecological systems in which we live, move and have our being. And this is why we have different versions of God painted through the pages of scripture in our desire to understand what God is like – and we must wrestle with ourselves as we read. What do our interpretations of the bible teach us about ourselves? What kind of God are we looking for?

We had so misunderstood and misaligned our very expectations of what God is like, that he came as a human being, especially as a male, as maleness needs utter redemption from the stereotypes we have created, somehow encapsulating the male and female in one body.

The incarnation is therefore not about God changing his mind about humanity, but about giving humanity the chance to change its mind about who he is and what he is imgreslike. This human Jesus, stood at the pinnacle of the Roman Empire, proclaiming himself the son of God in direct contrast to the empires of the day. But humanity did not like this image of God and so we killed him. But in his death, he took upon himself all that is broken in us and in our world and nullified its power, overcoming death through his endless, self emptying, others empowering love, and released the potential for new hope, creation and life. To me, this is the story of salvation, that out of our own selfishness, we can be re-activated into a place of love, in which we are free to choose to benefit others ahead of ourselves and bring this shalom or wellness to those around us, sometimes seeing miracles and sometimes not, because although God is good and more powerful than any other force or being, shit still happens; and because he is essentially kenotic, he is therefore unable to just intervene whenever he feels like it. He is unable to be untrue to his nature and in Him an uncontrolling love comes first. 

In the end, if you want to believe in a God who is first of all omnipotent, ie limitless in his power, you can find that kind of God in the bible. It’s a bit like needing a dominating form of government, and world order in which you are free, until you challenge the Sovereign. When this happens, the nice, good, caring government has unclear about copyright on google imagesbehind it the immense threat of the nuclear bomb, which I suppose you could liken to hell. Our view of leadership, our view of how government should behave, our view of the role of the state is actually pretty messed up, and I am arguing that it is messed up because it was shaped by a very warped view of God, who mostly cares for us, but has the great threat of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe quite correctly. That is not to say that all will be part of a heavenly future, but I would say that those who pursue the way of love are actually following the way of Jesus far more than those who follow the way of their version of the truth. The truth will set us free, but the truth is: (as Belinda Carlisle – that great theologan told us) in heaven, love comes first!! So when people pray the Lord’s prayer – ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – this looks very little like our current practices of government or nation states and the ways they behave in the earth.

But if self-giving,  others-empowering love is the ESSENTIAL nature of God, then this must images-1change the way we understand everything. The glory of God is not found in might, power, dominion and sovereignty. No, it is found in his cruciform nature. And if the earth can be filled with the glory of God rather than the ‘glory of empire’, where love is the antidote to fear, joy the antedote to debt, goodness the antedote to control through law and peace the antedote to violence, then together we might begin to taste a little bit of heaven.

How might we live and organise ourselves differently? How might we live politically? How might we shape economics? How might we heal and educate? How might we care for each other and the environment? How might nations relate to one another if love and not autonomous power comes first? There is a revolution much more profound than the violent overthrows of the past. It is the revolution of love.

Is Another World Really Possible?

For those looking for a post about outer space and extra-terestialism, I’m sorry, you’re in the wrong place!

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the possibility of another world, a different kind of future to the dominant story we find ourselves in at the moment. Much of my reading and wondering over the last few years has been about this: Is another world really possible?

 

I know people have asked this question for generations and for some it has meant creating an alternative story, outside the dominant system in the hope that others will join it. For me, this is obvious in certain religious and political institutions. The same yearning has also led to many wonderful people movements (suffragettes, civil rights, gay rights etc), inventions and change. But nearly always, these catalytic shakings result in commodification and assimilation into the status quo. My good friend, Martin Scott, has written some very helpful and thought provoking things about the nature of people movements of late and I especially like the observation he makes about how such movements rise and fall. First of all they are ignored, then they are ridiculed. When ridicule fails and the movements become more threatening to the powerful elite, the strategy becomes one of hostility and when this fails, they are colonised. Colonisation leads to control.

 

The danger for any people movement is the acquisition of power. This is based on the old adage that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For me this is held fast by the current reality of the dominant system that holds its power through the triangulation of control through violence (particularly seen in the state of the exception), debt and law (both religious and political, especially when is oppresses or stifles creativity and freedom). But, another good friend of mine, Roger Mitchell, contests that love itself is the most powerful force in the universe and love does not have to be corrupted. If love is the prime choice before power, then power becomes subordinate to love and another world becomes possible (see ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’ by Thomas Jay Oord).

 

Another world is possible, but my perspective is that it is only possible for it to be ‘recreated’ from within it. And that involves our eyes being opened to new possibilities and a determination that love must be our prime choice. Once we decide that we are first and foremost about love, it leaves nobody at all on the ‘outside’. It has a different set of priorities to those of the dominant form of power. It involves a new way of being together. Our systems can be transformed once we personalise them and realise that we are part of them. For me, this is the heart of what the christian narrative is all about (ignored, ridiculed, treated with hostility and then colonsied). It awakens the possibility within us, as individuals, communities and nations, of another kind of world, not a separate world within the world. A world where God is not mysterious but known to all as the One of Love, who does not dominate or control but gives love and life freely; not in some Utopian, hippy-like dream, but in the gritty reality and pain of every day life, pouring itself out from the choice of love. This kind of love does not demand uniformity, but calls us deeper into a place of union, a real belonging to the family of humanity in which our choices, values and behaviour become aligned with the hope we carry for the future. Once we decide that our underlying and first value is love, the possibilities ahead are very exciting!

 

 

Political Parables – Education as a Revolution

Unknown

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was an educational revolutionary who saw that the poor, marginalised and oppressed in Brasil, took on the world view (or “social construct of reality”) of those who were their oppressors. More than this he described how the educational system was used like a “banking system” to deposit the world view of the dominant class, (with their wealth, power and privilege), into the hearts and minds of the lower social classes, therefore maintaining the status quo.

He spent loads of time with the “peasant classes”, (after a financial crisis in his own family left them very poor) and learnt that they were certainly not unintelligent and although illiterate, had an incredible language of their own. He went on to devise an educational program which enabled these “peasants” to learn rather than to be taught and in so doing released them to begin a revolution in which the powers were challenged, the presumed ‘ways of being’ were shaken and new freedom was found. Unfortunately, this was crushed by the military coup of 1964, but it left Freire never again to “underestimate the vested interest of political powers in controlling the production and distribution of knowledge through their system of schooling” (see amazing work on his by William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech).

Unknown-1

William R. Herzog II

Herzog goes on to draw some extraordinary parallels between Paulo Freire and Jesus Christ, whom he asserts both hugely confront the power paradigms of the day and in so doing bring good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive to oppressive systems, sight for those who had been blinded by the worldview of the ‘mighty’ and light for those living in darkness.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

Mitchell, in his book, “Church, Gospel and Empire’ demonstrates how Jesus directly challenges the Imperial System of Rome. Brueggemann (in “The Prophetic Imagination”) contends that Jesus (as a prophet and much more than just a prophet) is fulfilling the prophetic tradition of those who have gone before, criticising the oppressive systems and energising a fresh imagination of how radically different a future built on the foundations of (God’s) love could be.

I wonder how many teachers these days see it as their role to teach and train their pupils in the ‘national curriculum’ and the ‘social constructs of reality’ to which we all subscribe? And how many see their role as revolutionaries who dare to allow our children to believe that the world we live in can be radically different in the future; where instead of an economics of affluence, we have an economics of equity, instead of a politics of oppression, we have one of justice and compassion, and instead of a religion of immanence and law, we have one of true freedom (again, see Brueggemann) – I don’t know, but if you’re out there – please keep going!

The Ring of Power

I’m currently reading Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings to my eldest son. We have just finished that part in ‘The Two Towers’ in which Gandalf has returned to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at the turning of the tide. He makes this awesome statement about Sauron the dark lord:

‘That we should wish to cast him down and have NOONE in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the ring (of power) itself has not entered into his darkest dream.’

There are still the stirrings of revolution in many nations. But revolution that is based on violence and only replaces one form of dominant power with another sort of hierarchical dominance is no revolution at all.

Kenarchy is about the emptying out of power. It comes from an understanding that the politics of Jesus were about emptying out power and utterly transforming it. Leadership is not only to be kenotic (that is poured out for others), it is to be kenarchic (that is emptied out) so that we begin to understand that the lowest place is the highest place. We begin to understand that level playing fields are the order of the day. We are not looking for new political parties, but a new politics, that is a new way of relating to one another. We are not looking for new economic regulations, but a new economics. We are not searching for peace maintained through violence but a genuine love of one another, including the love of our ‘enemies’ that transforms how we live together as humanity.

William T Cavanaugh gives a radical reinterpretation of the christian eucharist in the light of this. We live in a divided world in which the ‘powers’ crush and break the multitude. When Jesus breaks bread and gives it away, he is not looking to form an exclusive club. He is, rather inviting us to partake of this kind of givenness, to embrace brokenness in the face of violence and to find that this way of life-poured-out-love finds hope in resurrection. As we eat the bread, we receive life, we become life and we give life as we share with others. The bread is given and is available to all who will receive it. Our barriers are broken down, our borders and our flags lose their relevance. We become part of this trans-local body that only exists to bring life, love and peace. There is no politics (way of doing life) that is more radical than this.

The nation state project holds power at the centre. It uses the components of money, law and control through violence to do this. I believe that as we build relationally in our localities we can find new ways of being. This is happening on a vast scale already and many stories are emerging of alternative ways of being that provide a different narrative to the dominant (economic and political) one of our day.