Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Political Power

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God,and serve only him.'"

After I told this story on Sunday, one of the children in the congregation, a kindergartner, came up to me quietly during the peace and said, “You were talking about Voldemort, weren’t you?” I was surprised that one so young would know that, but he was right. His dad said that he had become deeply interested in the world of Harry Potter. There is little question but that Voldermort is the closest thing one will find to the devil in children’s literature. Like Harry, children live in a world that is not always friendly to them. Too often, in order to keep their own integrity, they must contend with forces that seek to humiliate and hurt them. The stark world of reward and punishment in a modern school is not too far removed in the minds of the young from the terrors of the police state where absolute conformity is a matter of life and death.

Political power, like education, is all about shaping the way people think and live. It’s about forcing the many to the will of the one. It’s the story of our age. The industrial age gave humankind an inflated sense of power and influence. It gave us the idea of the "masses." It gave us such “great men” as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Ze Dong, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, and the Taliban. It gave us the atrocities of colonialism and the doctrine of "shock and awe." Totalitarianism and the violence it spews are truly satanic. You know that. But would you recognize the devil if you ran into him on the road?

In Hebrew, ha satan means not a creature with horns, hooves and tail, but simply, “the adversary.” He is whatever opposes God. To say that there are powerful forces which oppose God is not necessarily to engage in dualism. One does not have to be equal to God to oppose God. Satan was only an angel who couldn’t stand it that God was greater than he.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a tantalizing hint of what happens when we abandon God. Reflecting upon the temptation stories, he writes that Jesus became one of us, “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”(2:14b-15)

Political regimes, such as the ones the devil was offering to Jesus, all capitalize on the fear of death. Fear is quick and efficient. Fear is impersonal. In our culture avoiding death and staying young have become a multi billion dollar industry. Getting back to Voldemort, the fear of death was what drove his rise to power. He killed to feed his own pathological drive for immortality, while those who opposed him, James, Lily, Sirius, Dumbledore, all of them chose something else.

I remember one day walking in the woods thinking about these things. and the thought came to me that God who was good had created death, which meant that death had to be good. It was at this moment that I encountered fear as temptation. I wonder whether it is fear, in the end, that tempts me to wield the kind of power that Jesus so wisely resisted.

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