Anti-Semitism and other forms of religious hatred are in the news again this week. More murders by extremists with an allegedly ‘religious’ motive. The twisted purpose seems to be to give God / Allah / Whoever, glory by demonstrating dominative, violent power and control.All religions seem to have their versions of Allahu Akbar - God is Great!
Clearly, extremism and its roots in authoritarianism are not the sole preserve of extremist terrorists or politicians. The controlling spirit of extremism can spring up even in liberal and generous hearts – even in church! ‘Careless talk costs lives’ in a spiritual sense. So we religious people need to watch our language. By thoughtlessly over-simplifying complex ideas, we can contribute to the development of extremist thinking in the church and in the wider world.
Christians need to be very careful as we talk about God’s power and ours. As I listen to church talk about God I get nervous sometimes. Language is used and assertions are made that have dangerous implications.
We so often say: ‘God is in control’. Really? What sort of control? What sort of power does ‘our’ God wield? Is God a dictator or an autocrat? Do we sometimes reduce the invisible God of the Universe to a set of over-simplified assertions based on human social models?
And what sort of power does this powerful God expect us humans to exercise – over ourselves and others? Recently, I heard someone say, ‘We need to give up ‘our primal instinct for control’ (sic) and abandon ourselves to God.’ Sounds like a sort of all-or-nothing captivity to a tyrant God rather than a meaningful relationship.
I ask seriously, ‘Who is this controlling God? How am I to give up my own well-developed instinct for control by worshiping a controlling God? It doesn’t make sense.
Why do we rarely talk honestly about power and control in our lives and in the church? Probably because it’s too threatening. But we need to think about it. Partly for theological reasons. But particularly because it will make a difference to the way we exercise power and control in our everyday lives both inside and outside the church.
At the heart of the Christian theology, there is a paradoxical teaching about power. Yes, we worship the Most High God of Isaiah and Daniel who is ‘high and lifted up’ who is ‘sovereign over the kingdom of mortals etc, etc. That gives many of us comfort when the world seems to be absolutely in the control of fools and tyrants.
But we also worship the God of Jesus of Nazareth. During his ministry he did his best to discourage his disciples from exercising the sort of power they were expecting from the Son of King David. After his resurrection, his early followers learned to worship him as someone who ‘...took the form of a servant...and humbled himself to suffer on a cross’. Here we see the developing recognition of a very different type of radical power exercised not through threats and domination but through mature, thoughtful, self-giving love.
Here is the challenge which the life of Jesus presents to all of us who want to emphasise a powerful, dominant, God 'on our side'. We need first to know ourselves loved by the powerful God of the Universe who is ‘with us’. And then to find our true selves in a life of ‘cross-inspired service’ to the power of that love.
Women and men who give themselves to learning that sort of paradoxical relationship with power open themselves to the mysterious power of the Spirit of God. Other people will see and feel in them not just power – but authority!