The Weakness of God that Trumps the Power of Politics

The unsettling drama that has played out on the stage of American politics during this last presidential campaign has rightly, in my view, been called ‘historic’, though of course in a very negative sense. Although candidates typically resort to personal attacks and mud-slinging, what has occurred during this election season seems to have reached new levels of ugliness and violence. Yes, even violence, as illustrated by a recent arson attack on a church in Mississippi. When was the last time that people were reticent to affix political bumper stickers to their car or place signs in their yard for fear of having their tires slashed or their house vandalized? Unfortunately, some professing Christians have been at the forefront of the vitriol, voicing their support for one candidate or the Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece, detail of Christ's right hand, c.1512-16 (oil on panel)other, not so much because they actually support said candidate, but because they essentially view the other as evil incarnate that will no doubt bring an end to American society as we know it.

What troubles me deeply (apart from the abysmal choice of candidates) is the way in which it seems that, regardless of whom is elected, many American Christians have either fallen into despondency (as though the current situation offers little hope for the future of the country) or have ardently advocated for a candidate that, had there been any number of other feasible options, would have advocated just as ardently against that same candidate. It is truly a marvel to see Christians throwing in their lot with a candidate who displays the very characteristics and tendencies that in the past would have motivated them to vote against that very person!

Although the problems with this are manifold, I would like to spotlight one in particular that is insightfully elucidated by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World. Hunter offers the following assessment (which I think is spot on) of what drives much of American politics:

[C]ontemporary political culture in America is marked by a ressentiment manifested by a narrative of injury and, in turn, a discourse of negation toward all those they perceive to be to blame. Though each expresses this ressentiment differently, in different degrees and to different ends, it is present in all of these factions. It is especially prominent, of course, among Christian conservatives, which may be why they have been so effective over the years in mobilizing their rank and file to political action. Ressentiment is also centrally present among Christian progressives and it is clearly a major source of their new solidarity and the motive behind their recent assertiveness in Democratic party politics. Both the Right and the Left ground their positions in biblical authority and they both appeal to democratic ideals and practices to justify their actions. But the ressentiment that marks the way they operate makes it clear that a crucial part of what motivates them is a will to dominate.[1]

What is this ressentiment of which Davison speaks? He explains further:

What adds pathos to our situation is the presence of what Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” His definition of this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. Ressentiment is, then, a form of political psychology…Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds. The entitlement may be to greater respect, greater influence, or perhaps a better lot in life and it may draw from the past or the present; it may be privilege once enjoyed or the belief that present virtue now warrants it. In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in positions of power. The sense of injury is the key…

Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper. In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury— real or perceived— leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.[2]

If this is not an accurate description of this presidential election, then I don’t know what is. The “narrative of injury” is precisely the tale that has been spun in varying and contradictory forms, depending on which candidate one listens to. Not only that, but the ressentiment – that vicious cocktail of resentment, anger, rage, and the subsequent will to dominate – that this narrative induces is not merely an inadvertent byproduct of these narratives, but it is the whole goal! As Hunter underscores, ressentiment is a tremendously strong factor in motivating people to vote for a certain candidate, not because said candidate really has anything better to offer, but because he or she is believed to be the lesser of two evils.

The tragedy, in my view, is that many American Christians have been duped by this narrative of injury, and as a result their choice to vote for one or the other of the two primary candidates is driven fundamentally by this sense of ressentiment which, as Hunter describes, terminates in the will to dominate. That is to say, the decision of many Christians regarding whom to vote for is, I think, largely motivated by the urge to deprive one candidate of power and, in his or her place, to elect the other who presumably will use that power in a way more amenable to their own views. Ultimately, it is a choice fueled by the desire for control, “the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable”.

That question that this raises in my mind is this: how is this even remotely coherent with the gospel of Jesus Christ who explicitly eschewed the will to dominate and instead humbled himself to death on a cross, even praying for the forgiveness (not the the-crucifixion-detail-matthias_grunewald2condemnation!) of the very enemies who had put him there! As Paul so eloquently stated in 1 Corinthians 1, this is a wisdom that is foolishness in the eyes of the world. It is a power that appears only as weakness. Yet it is precisely this foolish weakness – the preaching of the cross – with which God puts to shame the wise and humbles the strong. How then could someone who claims to believe this gospel and follow Christ crucified vote for reasons of ressentiment, for fear of losing comfort and security, as though our Christian hope depends not on who sits on heaven’s throne but on who sits in the oval office? This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t vote; but the fact that Christians support candidates that are inimical to the kingdom of God and its righteousness does beg the question: have we become so beholden to the power structures of this world that we have lost sight of where the true power to change the world comes from, namely the power of God paradoxically manifested in weakness, suffering, and crucifixion?

In the conclusion to his study of Paul’s ministry in 2 Corinthians, Timothy Savage writes something that I find very pertinent to all of this:

[T]he Corinthians were evaluating Paul according to the self-exalting standards of their secular environment. They wanted him to be proud and assertive, to boast of his personal exploits, to employ powerful speech, to draw comfort from financial security [sound like any political candidate we know?] – in a word, to embody the self-regarding aspirations of their culture. By making these demands on Paul they demonstrated that they were assimilating their idea of a minister of Christ to the egocentric norms of their society. Not surprisingly, they were dismayed by Paul’s humility – or, as they put it, his ‘weakness’ – and it caused them to wonder whether he was really a minister of the exalted Christ…

[I]n responding to his critics Paul felt that he had little choice but to turn their logic on its head. It was precisely his ‘weakness’ which not only affirmed his position as a minister of Christ but also ensured that his labours would be accompanied by divine power…Contrary to the accusations of his critics, he regarded his ministry as exceedingly glorious…[Yet] for all its alleged brightness, the apostle’s glory was not accessible to the naked eye. According to Paul, it was a paradoxical glory – a heavenly light which appeared in a terrestrial being named Jesus, an unearthly beauty manifested in the ugliness of an execution. It was thus the ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ glory anticipated by…Isaiah, a light revealed in the darkness of death, a splendour manifested in the most appalling object of antiquity – a cross. The ancients had no category for such a paradoxical glory. They looked for glory in great displays of human power – imposing oratory, a large and loose wallet, a domineering personality. Even Paul himself, before his conversion and while still influenced by the assumptions of his age, refused to believe that glory, and especially the glory of heaven, could be found in the curse of crucifixion.

It was only when God shone his light in Paul’s heart that the apostle accepted by faith what his eyes had failed to see: the glory of God in the face of a crucified man…In [this] revelation which he received from God, he had discovered something very different – that it was precisely in the radical self-abnegation of the crucified Messiah that the power of God had come to its mightiest expression. It was in human weakness that God had chosen to manifest his illimitable power. The implication for Paul was clear. Insofar as he was conformed to the humility of Christ he, too, became a fitting vessel for the expression of divine power. The power of God was thus manifested in Paul in the same way in which it was expressed in Jesus: in cross-shaped humility…Hence the apostle guides us to the paradoxical…conclusion that it is only in cruciform sufferings like his that the Lord can perform his powerful work, introducing glory into an age of darkness, salvation into a world of despair, a new age within the old and life and power to more and more people.[3]

My intention in this post is not to tell anyone how they should vote, or even if they should vote. My sole purpose is simply to remind us all that the way of Jesus is not the way of ressentiment that leads to the pursuit of power but the way of the love that leads to the cross. It is not the desire to gain the upper-hand over one’s enemies but the willingness to lay one’s life down to serve them. It is not in the power of the world, but only in the weakness of the cross that the true power of the kingdom of God is made manifest. As Christians, our primary aim should be to seek this kindgom and its righteousness, not the kingdom of man and its self-serving interests.

And let us all remember that no matter who will soon sit in the oval office, it will still be the same Lord – the Lamb that was slain – who is seated on heaven’s throne.

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[1] Hunter, James Davison (2010). To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (pp. 168-169). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., pp.107-108.

[3] Savage, T.B. 1996. Power Through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.187-189.

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