Posts tagged ‘Power’

Everybody Wants To Be Famous

Image result for simon cowell

Credit: Wikipedia

Simon Cowell has finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – an honor that was long overdue, at least if you ask Mr. Cowell.  He began his remarks at a ceremony honoring him by quipping, “Before we start, I would just like to ask you: why did this take so long?”  He quickly added, “I’m kidding.”

Mr. Cowell rose to fame in the early 2000s when he joined Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson as a judge on the hit show “American Idol,” which he created.  His acerbic personality, which often revealed itself in biting criticisms of the show’s singing contestants, garnered him both affection and hatred from the millions who watched him.  But whether you loved him or hated him, you knew him.  He was – and still is – famous.  Hence, his newly concreted star in Hollywood history.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Mr. Cowell noted how much he enjoyed being famous: “If anyone says fame is a bad thing, I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s the best thing in the world.”  I appreciate that Mr. Cowell admits what many of us only secretly think:  fame is awesome!

People covet fame because it generally rests at the intersection of money and power.  With fame, there often comes a fat paycheck as people are willing to pay top dollar for a star’s appearances and work.  With fame, there also normally comes throngs of people who hang on a star’s every word and an entourage of handlers who attend to a star’s every wish.  It’s no wonder Simon Cowell thinks fame is awesome.

But, of course, this is not a complete portrait of fame.  Scripture is clear that with great fame comes great responsibility – and no shortage of great danger.

One of the most famous figures in the Bible is King David.  David gained his fame by his monumental military accomplishments.  2 Samuel 8 outlines David’s victories in battle and includes this note: “David became famous” (2 Samuel 8:13).  But David’s fame went to his head.  He not only set out to conquer Israel’s enemies, just three chapters later, in 2 Samuel 11, he set out to cover up his own sin.  After having an affair with a woman who was not his wife, he had this woman’s husband Uriah, a famous warrior in his own right, killed when it was discovered that she was pregnant by David and that her husband would be able to quickly discern that the baby was not his.  A man who had made a name for himself in battle killed another man who had made a name for himself in battle all in an attempt to ensure that his fame would not become infamy.

Nearly 400 years after David, the prophet Habakkuk wrote:

LORD, I have heard of Your fame; I stand in awe of Your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

Habakkuk knew what fame chasers often forget – the most important fame we can desire is not our own.  It is the Lord’s.

The Lord freely grants fame to people out of His grace.  The Lord gave Israel “fame and honor high above all the nations” (Deuteronomy 26:19).  He made Joshua’s “fame spread throughout the land” (Joshua 6:27).  Fame, in and of itself, is not bad.  But man’s fame, as the old saying goes, lasts only briefly – 15 minutes or so, if you believe Andy Warhol.  God’s fame, however, endures.  Which is good.  Because God is famous for His compassion, grace, and salvation.  And everyone should know about that.  Because everyone needs plenty of that.

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September 3, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

_____________________________________

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

2016 in Review

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It’s difficult to believe, but another year has come and gone.  Before we chug full steam ahead into 2017, I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the year that was.  Whenever I look back over what I have written over the course of a year on this blog, I am always amazed – and a little disturbed – by how much I have forgotten.  Thus, it seems worth it to look back and linger a bit longer on 2016, lest we file away some important lessons from this year into the dusty rolodex of our fleeting historical memories too quickly.  So, here is my Year in Review for 2016.

January
The biggest Powerball jackpot ever, valued at $1.5 billion, goes up for grabs.  People across the country flock to convenience stores to buy their ticket, even though the chances of winning the jackpot stand at 1 in 292,201,338.

February
Fear of the Zika virus sweeps the nation as a woman in Dallas contracts the disease. Justice Antonin Scalia, a fierce proponent of Constitutional originalism, passes away, leaving a vacancy on the high court and an even split between more conservative and more progressive justices that remains to this day.

March
Terror strikes Brussels, Belgium as two coordinated attacks – one at the airport and another on a subway – are carried out simultaneously, killing 32.

April
A bathroom brouhaha erupts as retail giant Target announces it will allow “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.”  Massive boycotts of the chain ensue and concerns are raised over the misuse of the policy by predators.

May
Art Briles, head coach of the Baylor Bears football team, is dismissed after he is implicated in cover-ups of sexual assaults by his players.  The University’s president, Ken Starr, also leaves the institution in connection with the mishandling of the assaults.

June
Omar Mateen opens fire in an LGBT-frequented Orlando nightclub, killing 50 and injuring 50 more.  In a stunning electoral surprise, Britons vote to leave the European Union 52% to 48% in what has popularly become known as “Brexit.”

July
Police officers shoot black men in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul and five police officers are killed in Dallas by people protesting these shootings.  The next week, 84 people are killed when a terrorist drives a large, white paneled truck into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, 290 people are killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, and three more police officers are killed in Baton Rouge by a sniper.

August
More than 50 people are killed in Istanbul when a 14-year-old suicide bomber walks into a wedding party and blows himself up.

September
Nicholas Kristof pens a column in The New York Times issuing a call to rethink Christianity as a faith free from many of its traditional beliefs, such as opposition to abortion and an affirmation that marriage is between a man and woman.

October
After decimating Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Matthew strikes Florida and slowly moves up the eastern seaboard.  About 1,600 people are killed by the massive storm.

November
Donald Trump wins the presidential election over Hillary Clinton after taking many of the so-called “rust belt” states that, for the past several election cycles, have traditionally gone to Democratic candidates.

December
Fidel Castro, the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, dies.  The Russian ambassador to Turkey is shot by a Turkish police officer in Istanbul while, on the same day, a Tunisian refugee drives a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve.

As I look back over the list of stories I blogged on this year, a few thoughts come to mind.  First, the violence of this past year has been horrifying.  From terrorist attacks to assassinations to sexual assaults, there is no shortage of violent acts in our world.  Indeed, this new year has already brought new violence with a New Year’s Eve terrorist attack in Istanbul that killed 39 and injured many more.  Second, the political season of 2016 has been a thing to behold.  On this blog alone, I wrote about issues pertaining to this year’s presidential election here, here, here, here, and here.  Politics was certainly front of mind for many.

What strikes me about these two themes in particular is that whether the stories were about violence or politics, these themes shared a common denominator – that of power.  In the case of violence, acts of terrorism, for instance, seek to gain power by striking fear into the hearts of societies.  People live on edge, never knowing when, where, and how a terrorist will strike.  The terrorists gain power by “getting inside the heads,” as it were, of communities and nations.  In the case of politics, it is obvious that the United States is painfully divided.  Whether it is cast as a division between red states and blue states, the seaboards and middle America, or traditional America and progressive America, there is a pitched battle to define this nation, with each side fiercely fighting for its own interests.

As I wrote on this blog last weekend, power is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be used badly.  Rightly used, power is a gift from God to be stewarded.  But we all too often assume it’s a weapon of our own to be wielded.  In other words, we are called to use whatever power we may be given to first serve others instead of serving ourselves.  If the stories from 2016 are any indication, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to stewarding power appropriately.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the stories from this past year is how impotent our potency ultimately proves to be.  The spread of the Zika virus and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew are sobering reminders that there is still much we do not and cannot control.  What is true of these disasters is also true of the future.  We cannot control what 2017 will bring.  So perhaps the best posture to take as we head into a new year is one of humility toward the future and faith in the One who holds the future.  He knows what is in store for us.  And He will take care of us.

January 2, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Politics, Power, and Sacrifice

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Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to watch last Monday’s presidential debate.  But my curiosity got the best of me, so I turned on the TV.  I have seen many on social media bemoan the state of our politics in this presidential election and, I suppose, I would sympathize with their chorus.  The tone of this election is grating.  The discussion about this election often borders on and even ventures into the banal.  And the goal of this election appears to be little more than an undisguised race for power.  People across all points on our political spectrum are desperate to see their person in power so their interests can be furthered while others’ interests are overlooked, or, in some instances, even crushed.

Power is a funny thing, in part because it is such a dangerous thing.  In the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Power ought to come with a warning label: “Handle with care.”

Power, of course, isn’t always bad.  God has plenty of power – indeed, He ultimately has all power – and is quite adept at using it.  But it is also important to point out that God’s power always comes with a purpose.  He uses His power in order to sustain the world.  He uses His power in order to constrain evil.  He uses His power in order to rescue us from hell.  Power, for God, is a means to some very good ends.

The concern I have with so many in our political system is that power has become the means and the end.  Politicians want power because, well, they want power!  And this means that when they get power, they often use it in a most detrimental way – not to help others, but to help themselves.

Yoni Appelbaum discusses this reality in an article for The Atlantic titled, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate.”  The way he describes America’s situation is jarring:

Civil religion died on Monday night.

For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.[1]

He goes on to describe how traditionally Christian-esque values were not only not extolled in the first of our presidential debates, they were proudly repudiated.  Virtues, Appelbaum says, were reframed as vices.  Altruism was painted as a sucker’s game and sacrifice was left for those who are losers.  “The Clinton-Trump debate,” he concludes, “was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions – all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose.”  Yikes.  I hope he’s wrong.  But I couldn’t help but notice that not one transcendent concern made an appearance during the debate.  We, as a nation, have become so obsessed with the exercise of power in the material realm that we pay little regard to the transcendent One who gives power as a gift to be stewarded rather than as a weapon to be wielded.

When the high priest of political pragmatism sirens us into trading cherished values like altruism and sacrifice for the formidable forces of power and control, something has gone terribly wrong.  Such a trade fundamentally undermines the very purpose of power – at least in any Christian or morally traditional sense – in the first place.  Power is to be used for the sake of altruism, not to dispense with it.  Power is to be used in concert with sacrifice, not to insulate oneself from sacrifice.  Any of the men and women in our nation’s Armed Forces can tell you that. Jesus certainly expressed His power in sacrifice.  The cross was a place of no power and great power all at the same time.  On the cross, Jesus gave up all power, even power over His very life, as “He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).  But through the cross, Jesus exercised great power, conquering sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus’ power, to borrow a concept from the apostle Paul, came through weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

Political power might not involve dying on a cross, but it sure would be nice if it involved taking one up.  It sure would be nice if politicians used their power to do the right thing, even if it involved some measure of sacrifice.  It sure would be nice if politicians fashioned themselves more as public servants and less as demiurge saviors.  It sure would be nice if voters stopped cynically leveraging the power-obsessed sins of an opposing candidate to minimize and rationalize the power-obsessed sins of their own candidate.  A willingness to see sin as sin, even if it’s sin in the politician you happen to be voting for, is a first step to an honest and healthy analysis of our problems politically.

I understand that politicians are not always Christian, and I understand that non-Christians can be competent politicians.  I am also not so naïve as to think that every politician will see his or her elected office as a cross to bear rather than as a career to manage, even if they should.  I furthermore understand that the civil religion of which Appelbaum speaks in his article is not coterminous with – and in many ways is not compatible with – Christianity.  But the virtues of Christianity it promotes – charity, selflessness, and humility, among others – are good for our world even as they are good in the Church.  We need them.  We need them because, to quote another proverb from Lord Acton, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”  The curbing of despotic power may not be the ultimate reason to foster and preserve Christian virtue in our political system, but it sure is a good reason.

We the people should expect of our politicians – and of ourselves – something more than a blunt exercise of power, even if that power happens to promote our interests.  We the people should expect real virtue, both in the people we elect as well as in ourselves.  Do we?  If we don’t, there’s no better time than the present to change our expectations.  Remember, the people we elect to public office are not just products of a corrupt political system, they are reflections of the values we celebrate and the vices we tolerate.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a good, long look in the mirror.

__________________________

[1] Yoni Appelbaum, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate,” The Atlantic (9.27.2016).

October 3, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Honor, Dignity, Victimization, and Power

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much to offend people these days. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything at all. This is what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue in their paper, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.”

Campbell and Manning cull their definition of what constitutes a microaggression from Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions are:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[1]

Two things are especially notable in Wing Sue’s definition. First, microaggressions can be either “intentional or unintentional.” What counts is not what a sender intends, but what a receiver perceives.  Second, words like “indignities,” “hostile,” and “derogatory” in Wing Sue’s definition cast microaggressions in a vocabulary of victimization.  Microaggressions, no matter how pint-sized they may seem, are really part of a broader caste system that relentlessly oppresses certain groups of people.  The cry of those who perceive themselves as having been microaggressed, then, is really the cry of those who have been systemically victimized by this system and its cultural and socioeconomic assumptions.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning argue that, for all the complaining that the microaggressed may do about being victimized, our newfound concern with microaggressions actually encourages a culture of victimization rather than discouraging it:

Victimization [is] a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization … We might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim … has risen to new heights.

In an article for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf cites one example of a blossoming culture of victimization in an exchange between two students at Oberlin College. In the exchange, a white student invites a Hispanic student to a game of fútbol who takes offense at the invitation, writing on an Oberlin blog devoted to calling out microaggressions:

Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? … White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth![2]

A big blow up and a public shaming over a single word. Welcome to the world of microaggressions.

Of course, things were not always this way. Before there was a culture of victimization, Campbell and Manning point out that there was a culture or honor.  In this culture:

One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing … Because insulting others helps establish one’s reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult others.

After a culture of honor came a culture of dignity, where:

People are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others … Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is commendable to have a “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults.

Though vestiges of these cultures of honor and dignity remain (compare Campbell and Manning’s definition of a culture of honor with some of the things Donald Trump has said in his presidential campaign and you’ll quickly realize that even though honor culture is on the decline, it is certainly not dead), they are quickly losing ground to a culture of victimization.

But why?

The answer seems to be “power.” Victimization, in our culture, can often be the fastest track to status and power, just as, in previous ages, honor and dignity were inroads to influence. For instance, in recent clashes over same-sex marriage, many in favor of the institution claim discrimination and victimization while many against same-sex marriage claim discrimination and victimization as well. Both groups hope that, by portraying themselves as aggrieved, oppressed, and victimized, they can engender sympathy and, ultimately, the upper hand in this debate. In other words, both sides are hoping to gain cultural capital, or power, by means of their own victimization.

Certainly, not all instances – indeed, not even most instances – of victimization represent grabs for power.  One thinks of those who are sexually assaulted or emotionally abused.  Such tragic examples of victimization have nothing to do with power.  Rather, they represent grave injustices and deserve our prayers, our sympathy, and our action.  But in cases of microaggressions and similar self-declared cries of victimization, for all their claims of powerlessness, they often turn out to be nothing more than cynical means of leveraging power.

It is here that we find that, for all of their differences, the cultural systems of honor, dignity, and victimization hold something in common: they are all means to an end of power. And this is where all of these systems run into trouble.

In His ministry, Jesus sometimes fought for honor, sometimes upheld human dignity, and sometimes embraced victimization. But His goal was not that of gaining power. When Jesus fought for honor, it was the honor of God Himself for which Jesus fought, refusing to allow the religious elites of His day to honor God with their lips while blaspheming Him in their hearts (cf. Matthew 15:8). When Jesus upheld dignity, it was the dignity of the ridiculed and marginalized He championed, like the time He rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (cf. John 8:2-11). And when Jesus allowed Himself to be victimized on a cross, He did so not as a backdoor to power, but in order to ransom us from our sin (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus, it turns out, picked up on elements from each of these cultures without endorsing the shared goal of all of these cultures. He used honor, dignity, and victimization as ways to love people rather than dominate them.

Like Jesus, His followers should feel free to fight for honor, uphold human dignity, and even see themselves, in some instances, as victimized. But none of these cultural constructs, in the economy of Christ, should be methodically used as mere means to power. Rather, they are to be used to love others.

So for whose honor will you fight? And whose dignity will you champion? And how can your victimization lead to someone else’s restoration? Rather than eschewing these cultural constructs altogether, let’s use them differently. Let’s use them for love.  For when we use these things for love, even if we do not gain power culturally, we exercise power spiritually.  And that’s a better kind of power anyway.

__________________________________________

[1] Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” Comparative Psychology 13 (2014): 692-726.

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” The Atlantic (9.11.2015).

October 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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