Advent Reflections, Part 2--"He Has Cast Down the Mighty from Their Thrones"


There are many radical ideas and claims in Christianity.  But if I had to pick one, it would be what Christianity, or more specifically Jesus, has to say about power.  There are probably other religious or wisdom traditions have a similar take on power, but I am not aware of any that present it so clearly and so forcefully.

Here is what Jesus, in essence, teaches us about power:  We think that power and having power (in all of its normal forms--authority, money, sex, fame, social or other kinds of status, etc.) makes us powerful.  In fact, phrased this way, it sound like a self-evident truism.  But, and here is the truly radical part, it's not true.  And not just not true--having power and acquiring power and protecting power actually is a trap, a prison that disempowers us in the end.  In fact, the only way to obtain something like "power," if that's the right word, is to voluntarily and self-consciously give up all of our power.

As I said, this is an incredibly radical and challenging claim, one that cuts against every single instinct that we have.  Our instinct is to amass power, because our gut reactions are that with this power we can be safe and we can protect ourselves and we can flourish.  To give all of that up is to step into the void; it feels almost suicidal.  And, yet, that's the claim.

As scary as this leap of faith can be, though, it's not without empirical support.  That's what's so great about Jesus--He says something radical and seemingly insane, and then you look around and start to find examples of what He is talking about that lead you to think "you know, He just might be right about this."  And there are examples of how power doesn't really make you powerful.  Examples that are all around us.

"I am a son of the Church."--Pope Francis, interview with America Magazine, September 30, 2013.

Today, December 21, 2017, in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Bernard Cardinal Law was laid to rest.  Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, was the principal celebrant.  Pope Francis was present at the funeral and gave the final blessing on the body, as is customary for a Cardinal.

It is difficult to conceive of something more tone-deaf than giving Bernard Law a full "state" funeral, with all the trappings befitting a "prince of the Church."  Law became, and rightfully so, the embodiment of the catastrophic, multi-dimensional failure of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to the sexual abuse of children.  It is essentially unrebutted that he actively and intentionally covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests of the Archdiocese of Boston while he was the Archbishop.  He moved priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes, and he allowed abusive priests to transfer to other dioceses so they could continue to abuse, often without informing anyone of what he knew about these priests.  And, when all of this came to light, he basically fled the United States for the protected sanctuary of the Vatican and was allowed to continue as a Cardinal, making him functionally immune to being held accountable for his actions.

Laid out like this, it might seem unfathomable that Pope Francis would allow or agree to participate in this funeral.  No one is suggesting, I don't think, that Law should be denied a funeral of any kind.  But no one is entitled to a funeral at St. Peter's, no one is entitled to have the Pope commend your soul to God, and no one is entitled to be buried with all the honors usually granted to bishops and archbishops and Cardinals.  By participating in this funeral, Pope Francis is communicating that nothing that Cardinal Law did in Boston or in its immediate aftermath really matters or moves the needle all that much.  He is just like any other Cardinal, and he was treated as such.

But it's not unfathomable; it's completely understandable, even predictable.  Being a Cardinal makes you, second only to the Pope, the symbol of the power of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.  If a Cardinal could be denied the honors due to him because people in the hinterlands were unhappy with him, then this would give a heckler's veto to any yahoo with an ax to grind.  No, we must protect the integrity of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, our own internal processes, and our prerogatives.  Without the power and autonomy of the institution, then the Roman Catholic Church is vulnerable to various external forces that seek to bring it down.  We must show that we are in charge of our own house.  

Or, at least, so goes the thinking of the institutional church.  And, never forget, Pope Francis is a "son of the Church."  He told us so.

The great tragedy, and I mean that in the full Greek drama sense of that word, of the last 50 years of the history of the Roman Catholic Church lies in precisely this line of thought.  For the last 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church has been essentially consistent in insisting that it must maintain it own understanding and its own  discernment with regard to the broad basket of issues that fall under the heading of "sex and gender."  It must do this, we are told in ways great and small, because to depart from these positions, to allow for other streams of thought and other perspectives to enter into the conversation, would undermine the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  So birth control must continue to be prohibited because it would bring the consistency of church teaching into question, LGBT people must continue to be marginalized for similar reasons, women may not become priests because it would raise issues regarding the historical treatment of women, sex crimes by priests must be handled "in house" so as not to scandalize the faithful, etc.  

But, in each and every case, it has been precisely these acts, taken to preserve and maintain the authority and power of the Roman Catholic Church, that have undermined the standing and institutional credibility of the Church.  In survey after survey of people who leave the Roman Catholic Church you see that one of the primary reasons people leave is because of its heavy-handed refusal to listen to reason on birth control and women's issues and LGBT issues, and beyond anything else its abysmal handling of the sex abuse crisis.  The very things that were seen as necessary to preserve the Roman Catholic Church's power are the same things that have weakened that power.  I am convinced that a Roman Catholic Church that took a different path on Humanae Vitae or women priests would be more credible now on the vast array of issues that it is advocating for--from peace to the environment to economic justice--than the one we have.  And I know for a fact that a Roman Catholic Church that immediately disclosed the malfeasance in its own ranks would be more credible than what we have now. 

Pope Francis gets this to some degree, I think, but not nearly enough.  He just can't get beyond the institution and protecting the institution.  He can't imagine a church that did not have all of the trappings of power and authority, no matter how much he tries to disclaim those trappings for himself.  Those trappings are a prison, an albatross around the neck of the Roman Catholic Church, because they force people like Pope Francis to again and again wallow in these indefensible actions and indefensible people.  All in the name of preserving a power and authority that is no longer there, lost as a result of the very actions taken in the name of that power.


Watching this video did something that I didn't think was possible.  It made me feel sorry for Vice President Mike Pence.

There are only two possible explanations for the sickening, sycophantic display put on by Pence at this meeting.  Either he feels he must do these things in order to keep his job and his position, probably with a hope that his current position will allow him to move on to become the President.  Or he has become so denuded of personality and self-dignity, so deep into Stockholm Syndrome, that he really believes these things he is saying about Trump.  I'm not sure which one is worse.

If it weren't for the very real and very serious consequences of all of this to real people, the dog-and-pony show that is the Trump administration would be pathetic.  These people, deep down, are pathetic.  They have sold everything of value in human lives, and for what?  Are they happy?  Have they accomplished anything, even by their standards?  Will they be able to enjoy the fruits of all of this?

People have approached me, periodically and recently, about getting involved in politics and seeking elected office.  And, from time to time, I have considered it.  But when I look at scenes like this one, I put aside any such thoughts.  The life of the people who are supposedly the most powerful people in the country seems truly awful.  The very act of running for President has become a two-year long Bataan death march.  The three Presidents prior to Trump entered the office of President as young energetic men and left old and tired.  Elected officials are constantly terrified that they will do something to offend the donors that support their campaigns, or the electorate that puts them in office, creating an endless and unceasing paranoia.  Random yahoos on the internet (like me) get to write snarky articles about what a wang rod you are.  And everywhere you go, your supposed "power" is constrained and limited and bought at the price of time and money and annoyance and self-abasement.

Now, is Vice President Pence and the Trump regime an apotheosis of everything terrible and dehumanizing about American politics?  Yes.  Is politics, on balance, better and more humane in other countries?  Almost certainly.  But, as Girard insists, things that are shockingly awful are usually also truth-telling.  They show in a raw form the true nature of something that is often cloaked in fake sweetness and light.  These people have all the power, and yet they are prisoners.  None of these people who are associated with Trump and his administration will ever be free of its shadow.  Some of them, I suspect, will go to jail at the end of all this. 

This grasping for power has not made any of these people powerful.  I would not trade my life for theirs for anything.

"But you see, Mike, my situation is different.  My use of power is not like all those other people and their uses of power.  I know what I am doing.  I am not using power for the wrong reasons.  I am on the side of goodness and righteousness."

That, right there, is the true temptation of power.  The temptation to believe that you, and your situation, is special.  And you have all sorts of very thoughtful and coherent reasons why this is so.  Those reasons seem very persuasive to you, and may even be persuasive to others as well.  It's so easy, and it feels so right, to just accept that you are different and you won't screw it up like everyone else has.

That's why we need Jesus, gently but firmly whispering to us from the back of the crowd, "it's all bullshit.  I have heard all of those justifications.  They are all the same, and they are all bullshit."  It is very, very hard to hear that.  It is especially hard to hear that when power is put in front of you.

But, here's the thing about Jesus--He walked the walk in addition to talking the talk.  Jesus could have come to Earth in any time and in any form He chose.  The Savior of the world could have been a Chinese mandarin or a Roman patrician or a medieval king or a modern tech bro or any one of a multitude of people with the power to make God's message more widely known and more credible.  But He didn't do that.  He chose to become a poor man of no social significance in a marginal place under political oppression.  He chose the least powerful incarnation possible, to show us that all of this power is both unnecessary and counter-productive.  Jesus is living challenge to our inborn conviction that we need this power to do what is needed.  He didn't need it, and thus neither do we.

It's hard to get away from the temptation to power.  We need to see what the absence of power looks like, and how good it can really be.  And, it looks like a woman giving birth to a child in a manger.


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