Introduction: Herod or God the Baby?
In my last piece, I contrasted the powerless way of God the baby, with the satanic way of Herod the King. For those with the eyes and ears to see, my piece was filled with allusions to the failures of the Church. Indeed, this dichotomy of power versus weakness, is intended to be an indictment on the Church. The story of Herod’s murder of the Children is instructive in this regard. Outwardly, in his expressed intentions, Herod claims to want to worship God the baby and yet, in his dark and twisted soul, his true intention is to kill Christ. So too, I assert, it is with the Church that claims to worship Christ, and yet clings to power with satanic fear.
The story of Christmas points to the collision of these two theologies, or these two churches. One is the church of Christ the baby, and the other, the church of Herod the king. What is the difference between the two? One is shaped by a theology of weakness and the other, by a theology of power.
A theology of power is primarily about maintaining the way things are, be it self-preservation or preservation of existing power structures or hierarchies. It’s the kind of theology could be enlisted to defend slavery, bless a holy war or defend all manner of evils and injustices. Its fundamental expression is pride, it confuses itself with God and demands that all bow down and worship it. It is a earthly, worldly, mammonistic religion.
A theology of weakness on the other hand is fundamentally an expression of humility, it recognizes that God is God and we are not, and it gives thanks for this fact. This spirit of humility is what pervades all of its theological reflection and action. A church shaped by a theology of weakness is able to speak the truth about itself and about the world, and yet also, extend grace by meeting people where they are at. Such a church is always directed outward, away from itself, seeking to serve and learn from the other.
Christ, before Pilate, says that his kingdom is “not of this world.” By this, Christ does not mean, of course, that his kingdom is somehow “otherworldly” and platonically aloof from the realities of this earth—far be it from a God made flesh to have such a notion! Rather, what Christ means by a kingdom not of this world, is that his Kingdom operates in a way that is radically different from the kingdoms of this world. Christ gives an example when he says that his Kingdom is not of this world because if it were, his followers would be fighting on his behalf. The Kingdom of Christ fights by going to the cross: by taking abuse and returning it with love. Rather than perpetuating the violence, the kingdom of God, undermines it with self-giving love and thereby makes possible a new way.
Kierkegaard speaks of the distinction between the Church triumphant and the Church militant. The Church militant, is for Kierkegaard, the only true expression the Church can take in the world. The Church Militant in contrast to the Church triumphant has not come to terms with the world, and it ensues worldly power and empire. The Church triumphant, by empowering itself and finding its place within the empire, is able to lead a life of ease; it has “arrived” and need not change. The Church militant on the other hand, is forever in the process of becoming, and its primary expression, in its dis-empowered opposition to the kingdoms of this world, is suffering.
Among other things, the church militant never arrives. It is in the process of becoming. By contrast, an established Christianity is. It refuses to change. It is rooted in the conceit of human impatience that want to take in advance that which is ultimately comes later—the kingdom of God. It is blind to what Christ said about his kingdom not being of this world. Though is truly enough a kingdom in this world, it is not of this world. His church, therefor, is militant. As soon as Christ’s Church makes a deal with this world, Christianity is abolished.
The triumphant Church assumes that the time of struggle is over; that the Church, because it has expanded itself has nothing more about or for which to struggle. With this, the Church and the achievements of the world become synonymous. This is not the way of Christ. He promised only one thing: hatred and opposition from the world. Christ’s Church therefore, can only endure by struggling—that is, by every moment battling the world and batting for the truth.
Pope Francis speaks of a “Poor church for Poor people.” What he means by this is a Church that is not self-serving, that is not interested in enriching or empowering itself, but rather, wants to serve others. Furthermore, such a Church is ‘poor,’ in the sense that it recognizes that it too, is filled with sinners, that it too has not arrived and that it too is in need of gifts. Such a Church then, is a humble Church which extends grace and recognizes that it too is in need of grace. Such a Church is starkly delineated from a prideful, self-centered Church: “Put simply, there are two images of Church: a church which evangelizes and comes out of herself or a worldly church living within herself, of herself, for herself.”
I would like, for the rest of this piece, to give two very different visions of the Church. On one hand, a Church Militant, a Church of the Kingdom of God, a Church of the Poor, a Church of weakness, a Church of God the Baby. On the other hand the Church triumphant, the Church of this world, the Church of Power, the Church of Herod the King.
A Theology of Weakness
As we have already mentioned above, the theology of weakness begins with humility. It begins with a recognition of one’s own smallness in the face of the Infinite, a radical recognition of the otherness of God. God is God and we are not and thank God for that. What does this mean? It means that we are not as capable of figuring it out as we think we are. We are not as rational as we like to think we are. And we are certainly not as righteous as we would like to think we are when judging our neighbor. For a theology of weakness, pride is the cardinal sin, because to have pride is to make oneself God. Pride is believing that your standards of righteousness, your rationalizations, your way of putting things together is ultimately correct and not in need of constant subversion by the Holy Spirit. A theology of weakness believes that God is always more righteous, just, beautiful, compassionate, loving and gracious than we could ever imagine. Contemplation of God begins at the cross. The glory of the ineffable God we worship is most clearly seen in the man crowned with thorns and enthroned with nails. Is there any God more humble than this? Is there any image that more decisively humbles our self-important rationalizations?
A theology of weakness does not feel the need to give unsatisfactory answers to difficult questions or to resolve what is better left in tension. Indeed, it recognizes the paradox at the heart of Christianity—the paradox of the God-man—is the tension that gives the faith its vitality and creativity. The believer exists then, in the liminal space of to and fro between heaven and earth, and allows himself to be molded into shape by this tension. The Church of weakness is always aware of the danger of tipping the paradox over to one side—joy over suffering, church over individual, spirit over flesh—and seeks always to walk the narrow path, not of balance, but of Spirit-led tension. Christianity is a lived navigation of paradoxes and the tensions must always be worked out within a given context. It can never therefore be worked out into a system; it is a life to be lived.
A church of weakness is a Church of vulnerability. It takes its cue from Christ suffering on the Cross as the ultimate revelation of God’s glory. It seeks always to make itself vulnerable and to sacrifice itself, so that reconciliation and new life can occur. Such a Church is uninterested in self-preservation, it does not care about looking strong or powerful, but instead it makes itself weak and poor in the service of humanity. Such a church is genuinely capable of hearing the voices of those it has hurt and does not feel the need to justify what should not by justified. It does not paint over its failures, hide its ugliness or conceal its contradictions. Instead, the apologetic of such a church is its weakness: Just as the power and Glory of God is revealed in the suffering Christ, so too, is this revealed in the crucified Church. And just as the waters of life flow from the side of the murdered God, so too, life flows from the crucified Church. For only by making itself weak and vulnerable can it genuinely encounter the other, draw people in and be a life giving presence in the world. Pope Francis speaks beautifully of this others-oriented Church:
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… My hope is that we will be moved by fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within which rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat.
A church of weakness is able to tell the truth. Because its strength is found in weakness, it does not need to tell lies to empower itself. Such a community is able to face the truth about itself and is able to speak truth to power. Christ himself said, “the truth shall set you free,” and what a profound truth this is! While it requires vulnerability to speak and hear the truth, the truth frees us from the false narratives that hold us captive. A community that is able to speak the truth is a community that brings the mighty down from their thrones.
Because a Church of weakness is a Church of truth, it must also be a Church of Grace. Truth must be accompanied by mercy and love, and a community that speaks the truth must also be willing to accept where people are at. It is only from a place of unmerited grace that it is possible for this kind of radical humility and radical truthfulness to be lived.
The faith of a church of weakness is grounded in God and not in idols. Faith is not dependent on our own abilities, and it is not grounded in anything earthly. It is not grounded in the ability to be rational, in one’s moral standing or even in the experience of certainty. Rather, faith is precisely our moving beyond ourselves, and into the realm of weakness. Indeed, for Faith, apologetics, rationality and thought, are temptations that hinder this most difficult and most effortless of movements. Faith is simply this, the venture that goes beyond yourself, to make yourself vulnerable to the Holy Spirit. What a great misunderstanding it is to think of faith as being related to rationality, thought or doctrine! The only way to gain faith and overcome doubt—and the only way to overcome pride and gain humility—is to venture outside of yourself, to get out of your head and to start serving others and working for the kingdom. As Kierkegaard once wrote “Venture a decisive act; then you can begin, then you will know.” Faith is a venture that begins where you end.
A Church of weakness is a Church that, to quote Bonhoeffer, is “one great battle cry against fear.” Because faith is grounded in God and not in ourselves, there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God. Such a faith overcomes the fear of threats against ones faith—be it the end of Christendom or the latest greatest argument against the existence of God—because such a faith is not grounded in arguments, politics, or anything temporal but rather, our holding fast to God and He, locking us in His embrace. Such a faith also frees us from the fear of death and thus from the tyrannical narratives that hold so many captive. There are so many peddlers of fear, so many apocalypses to choose from—the end of Christendom, ISIS, global warming, atomic war, and the list goes on—and so many of these narratives, while genuine threats, also act as systems of power and control. How do you get Donald Trump elected? Tell American Christians a scary story about the decline of Christianity in the west and promote him as the messiah. Many of these Christians have allowed themselves to be controlled by fear. However, genuine faith constantly deconstructs the narratives of fear and tempers despair with hope. Of course, this does not mean that Christians stand aloof from the suffering of the world, quite the contrary. It is this fearless faith which allows the Church of weakness to live a truly human life free of fear and to genuinely enter into the suffering of the world. In overcoming fear, the Church of weakness is able to live “out of control.” That is, to renounce the need to gain control of the wheel of history, and to strive for faithfulness instead. John Howard Yoder—a theologian who wrote a theology of weakness and lived a theology of power—writing about Christian Pacifism, shows the radicalness of a life lived out of control:
That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the Character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficiency has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival.
A Church of weakness is always opening itself up to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and practicing thankfulness for what it receives. The Holy Spirit is the constant source of renewal which blows new life into dry bones, and a church of weakness recognizes its constant need of renewal, grace and restoration. It comes at all of reality then, with the openness to receive a gift, and all of reality becomes a sacramental source of grace and encounter. It is always ready to welcome the stranger, to encounter the other and to learn from the neighbor. In encountering the other, it does not come with the intention of colonizing; for to colonize is to worship oneself and to try to fashion the world in one’s own distorted image. Rather, it meets people where they are at, and looks for the face of God in the other. In its openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it delights in reality for what it is and not for what we would like it to be. Thus, the gifts that are received do not come from our imposition of ourselves unto the world, but rather from an encounter that takes place between me and reality. I learn then, to delight in the tree for the tree it is and in the neighbor for the neighbor she is. This Spirit of openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, must also be accompanied by a cultivation of the ability to thankfully receive the gift one has been given. For this reason, a church of weakness is always welcoming of the unborn, the disabled and the stranger. And in these difficult gifts, the Holy Spirit may be bringing good things to the poor.
A church of weakness fears God rather than man. It is important to contrast the fear of God with the fear of man to draw out what this entails. In some sense, the fear of man is what makes a shared life possible. Our behavior is kept in check by the social signals sent out by those around us. If we do something that is socially unacceptable, we will get strange looks, startled comments or a prison sentence. The fear of man, then, is the fear we all have of being ostracized or singled out in some way. A radical religious life then, must overcome this fear of man by living before God. To fear God then, is not to be petrified before the infinite, though of course there is some room for that in the religious life, but rather to be more interested in seeking the approval of God, than the approval of man. This is freedom. It is so easy to get caught up in the mob, to get ones sense of morality from what is socially acceptable or what is considered to be the duty of an upstanding citizen. To live before God, to fear God, is to step above this fray and to be able to access the genuine religious life. This idea is connected with what Jesus says about “Judge not, lest you be judged.” I believe what he is saying is that our judgements are always fallible, unfair, partial and distorted. Just as we fear the judgement of others and thus modify our behaviour, so, we judge other people by this matrix of fear and prejudice. We judge others through the eyes of our neighbour. What Jesus is calling us to, is to once again reach above the fray of the mob and of the fear of man, and to see the other with the eyes of a good God. Judge not, lest you be judged, is a constant reminder of how petty our judgements are. It calls us to humility and mercy in our perception of the other: you are not God and don’t pretend you are. The petty little god your judgements presuppose will be the god that judges you. To fear God rather than man is to strive continuously beyond the inherited prejudices, injustices, idolatries, ambitions, and presuppositions of our imperfect culture, to the more perfect way of God, that is, the way of the Cross.
A Theology of Power
I have just spent many hundreds of words trying to describe the theology of weakness. The vision that emerges of a vibrant, life-giving, vulnerable, open, self-sacrificing, venturing Church. It is a vision that challenges me and leaves me wanting. As I now turn to describe the theology of power, I doubt that I will need as many words to describe it. This is because the Church of Power is a shallow, pathetic, little thing that slowly eats itself. It is like Hell in The Great Divorce—a place so tiny that it fits into a crack in Heaven.
A theology of Power begins with pride. It does not recognize a infinite distinction between God and man, and thinks that it is rational and righteous. It turns its own ideas, or the way it is doing things, into the ultimate Truth. Or, alternatively, it sees the accepted notions and morality of civilized society as the latest and greatest revelation of Progress. In its traditionalist or progressive forms then, the theology of pride has no need for the God-man. For the traditionalist, the thick walls of dogma, tradition, and propaganda it has built around itself protect him from the radical call of Christ to come and follow me. For the progressive, there is no need for God to break into human history, because we are moral and rational and can figure it out on our own. Both have arrived at the ultimate truth and have no need of change or challenge. The theology of pride then, turns its own twisted creations into God and calls others to bow down before it. Colonialism is the natural outgrowth of such a theology. There can be no genuine encounter with the other, and the other can have no gifts to give you. You perceive your colonialism as a generous imposition of the Truth upon the unenlightened masses.
A theology of power works to reinforce a twisted ideal. Because it sees itself as God, in ultimate possession of the Truth, there can be no higher ideal to strive towards. If there is nothing beyond your comprehension, you are worshiping yourself. There are endless justifications for wrongs that the status quo perpetuates, because to challenge them, would put the theology of power into a position of weakness. The status quo then, becomes equivalent with the good. And it is good, because we are doing it.
A theology of power is motived only by the maintenance of its power. It is, in the final analysis, uninterested in the Truth, but only in maintaining its grip on some earthly advantage. Be it the status of the most rational, one of God’s elect few, the most moral or the most woke, a theology of power worships these idols as its god.
A theology of power then, is always lying about itself and about others. The truth always threatens to undermine the narratives of control and power maintenance that shape a Church intent on maintaining its power. The narrative then, must continuously be propped up by lies, half truths, slander and propaganda. Truth tellers have no place in such a community and they must be discredited and undermined by any means possible. There is no room whatsoever for vulnerability here, because to be vulnerable is to speak the truth. Those who make themselves vulnerable will regret it. Masks must be worn on all occasions. A community shaped by this theology of power is constantly eating away at itself. While in public, all will play their part and wear their mask in the grand narrative. But in private, gossip, slander and truths will seep out like a poisonous gas, some serving to buttress the narrative, others to subvert in. To counteract this, the Tyrants try ever more to impose the narrative on all aspects of life. For example, in a community that sees itself as one of the few of God’s elect, to challenge the system, to question dogma or to call out authority figures is a sin, if not the cardinal sin
Essential then, for a theology of power to maintain its power, is fear. There must always be an enemy threatening in order to center the community around a common enemy and also to keep the attention focused outward, rather than inward. Fear is what is used to justify all manner of injustices and wrongs. The examples of this in American Christianity are countless. We need guns because the Muslims are coming. We must shut the borders because of Mexican rapists. And so on. This constant, shrill sound of fear, these endless lies and propaganda, work tirelessly to guard against the work of the Holy Spirit trying to speak through scripture, or the neighbor.
A theology of power depends heavily on Apologetics. Apologetics give the theology of power a illusion of openness to questioning, while masking its genuine aversion to vulnerability. As I wrote a few months ago:
Apologetics (Having a ‘reason’ (TM) for what you believe) is like a mask someone puts on which turns human beings into secretaries. You end up talking with the Christian public relations front, instead of a real Christian. I’m noticing this more and more recently, you will be talking to real person until a dicey apologetics issue pops up. Then suddenly the persons eyes will glaze over and his/her mouth will start talking on its own. The reasons for the historicity of the resurrection will pour smoothly out their lips. Its as if someone hit “play” in a tape recorder hidden inside their head. It occurs to me that this person is lying. He is not revealing his genuine inner being, he is not uncovering who he really is (as one must in a real conversation) he is not telling the truth. The “reasons” which just flowed out of him so easily, are not “reasons” he abstracted from in depth research, his claim that the bible is “historically accurate” is not a conclusion he came to after reading several good books. No, he got that line from his favorite apologist and now I have the privilege of hearing that particular insight be regurgitated for my listening pleasure.
Apologetics are also essential in helping the theology of power maintain its power. I have been thinking recently about the connection between Christian apologetics and power. This might sound counter-intuitive to many, surely apologetics is about the truth? The key to recognize this connection is to note that apologetics is the capitulation of Christianity to modernity. There is an essential connection between Modernity and control. The enlightenment created a new hierarchy, these on the top were no longer the most pious, the richest or those born into the right family, but instead, the most rational. Thus, the scientific class ascended to the top and gained the right to impose their ‘rational’ view of the world unto the unwashed masses below. The West, as the most ‘rational’ and ‘advanced’ of civilizations, gave itself the right to shape the world in its own image. From this relationship between rationality and control, we get the horrors of eugenics, colonialism and environmental denigration. Apologetics, is the Christian attempt to enter into the battle to be the most rational and so, to ascend to the top of the heap. The new atheist phenomenon was not as much a debate about the existence of God, as it was a proxy for the ongoing culture wars and a battle for soul of Christendom. The winner, that is, the “most rational worldview,” gets to shape the society and the culture in their own image. James K A Smith articulates precisely this perspective in his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. Speaking of the critics of the theological movement of Radical Orthodoxy—a theological movement which critiques precisely this notion of autonomous, secular reason—he notes that a political agenda is implicit in those critiques:
(While it may not be immediately self-evident, what is at stake in most criticisms of [Radical Orthodoxy] is ultimately a matter of politics. By that I mean that our epistemologies and attendant theologies spawn political agendas, even where such political implications are neither suggested not glimpsed. Conversely, the theological critiques of RO are also funded by an allegiance to classical [political] liberalism. The secular will almost always be in allegiance with classical liberal polity. Wayne Hankey’s critique of RO, for instance, deals with a somewhat Tory defense of the status quo through a defense of an autonomous nature. Caputo’s Derridean critique of RO is a critique funded by a fairly uncritical allegiance to the kind of American left that allows one to care passionately about mutual funds and at the same time celebrate a simply more radical individualism.) …Central to RO’s critique of (post-Scotus) modernity is its claim that the secular—as neutral, objective and universally rational—is a modern invention intended to secure a universal reason that could ground a public politics. This same neutral reason shared in common by all could also underwrite an apologetics or natural theology that would secure foundational truths of theism by appeal to natural, unaided reason. In many cases, these political and apologetic interest merge to underwrite a Constantinian religious political project. In other words, the epistemological confidence of a natural theology often translates into a notion of natural law that, more often than not, feeds into the colonizing of the political by the religious that also tends to cut the other way—namely the church becomes allied with the interest of the state.
It is no surprise at all, that we now see alliances forming between former new atheists and Christian apologists to battle the emergence of new intersectional social justice movements This is because the apologists and the new atheists are both modernists, while the intersectional social justice activists are postmodernists. This Postmodern movement represent a threat to very structure which empowers the new atheists and the apologists. They subvert the whole “may the most rational argument win” game, and set up a whole new playing field, in which a different set of “skills” will land you on top.
The theology of power is, in essence, satanic. Lucifer was cast out of heaven for attempting, in his pride, to ascend to the place of God. He is called “the prince of lies,” and the “prince of this world” because he is obsessed by worldly power and will do anything to maintain it. This is precisely the character of the church of power. It, like Herod, claims to want to worship Jesus, while in its attempt to empower itself, seeks to kill him.
How different is the way of Christ! Jesus, rather than attempting to seize the place of God, makes himself lowly. Yoder writes:
“differing from Adam, Lucifer, and all the Powers, Jesus did not consider being equal with God as a thing to be seized. His very obedience unto death is in itself not only the sign but the first fruits of an authentic restored humanity.”
And even as the satanic powers bring him to the cross, his death is their defeat and his ultimate weakness, his enthronement. Whomever seeks to save his life, will loose it. But whomever looses his life will gain it.
The featured painting is called The Crucifixion Pastoral by Kazuya Akimoto.