Power and Truth

August 28, 2011

John Salmon

Pentecost 11     Exodus 3:1-15     Matthew 16:21-28

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There’s power, power, wonder-working power

in the blood... in the blood

there’s power, power, wonder-working power

in the saving blood of the Lamb.


I was walking down Queen St recently and heard that old chorus – familiar from my days (45 years ago) on the fringes of Pentecostalism! I cringe now at the blood imagery – and it’s good to know that there’s much less blood now in mainline churches... despite the Passover story we hear in a few weeks from Exodus that provides the ‘blood of the lamb’ image.


But the power imagery certainly remains...


The God of Power


We continue to use overarching power images in our thinking and talking about God – with their roots, I suggest, back in ancient ‘sky-god’ mythology.


Explorers of myth and imagery, like Mircea Eliade, see this powerful ‘sky-god’ as present during the Stone-Age, a response to fear in the face of the unknown. Then, as I read it, there’s a shift around 8000 years ago to emphasise the life-energy of the ‘earth-mother’ goddess, ensuring harvest success in the move from hunter-gatherer communities to earth-based agricultural societies. As our religious traditions grew, beginning somewhere around 3000 years ago, both these sets of images were drawn on, and are woven in different ways into the God-pictures we still use.


It seems to me that both the sky-god and the earth-mother portray power – one: commanding, controlling and intervening from a distance; the other: energising life in an engaged co-operative manner. I think we still want a powerful god, who can rescue us from the dangers in and around us – and often we choose the powerful intervening god, rather than the close-by god who talks to Moses, or is experienced as life-giving divine energy. God-images can portray power, I suggest, as either overarching control or as energy within us. Both work.


My concern is that the images of controlling power tend to predominate. They’re there in our language: Almighty... Father... Lord... (in both our readings today)... Glory... (in Matthew). These power images remain in part because the systems that shape and preserve our imagery and our social frameworks want to preserve them – they protect them from their fears and they validate the exercise of power by those systems, and by those with leadership within them. Along with a number of social commentators, I would contend that many social and political structures have been predicated on the hierarchical imagery of the powerful sky-god and ‘his’ priests (after all, that’s what ‘hierarchy’ means). God’s power is ‘given’ to the structure as God’s agent, with leaders exercising that power on behalf of the organisation and God. It’s not usually spelt out like that these days, but I’m convinced that the underlying images and assumptions function in that way: commanding, controlling, intervening power from the safe distance of ‘top of the tree’ and with institutional protection.


The Church’s Power


Our community of faith, the Christian church, has (I’m afraid to say) mostly functioned in this way through its history. The theological ‘truth’ we hold to is largely the set of ideas held by the victors in ideological or ecclesial battles: those who won the debate insisted their view was the only view – and it becomes ‘God’s truth’. (Just read about the Council of Nicaea and how its decisions about Jesus’ relationship with God were made.) Power, in one form or another – and often hand in hand with political manoeuvring – has shaped many of our church positions on both belief and ethics.


An early triumph was the imagery of the controlling power-God over the earth-centred energising-God (though the suppressed view did continue underground, in common belief and practice, as in Celtic Christianity). This Almighty Father God then combined with a philosophical view that saw the world through a set of rigidly structured ideas. As a result, our Christian communities have tended to function very hierarchically, with control over our ‘correct’ beliefs and ‘right’ actions – plus a determination to protect the church, as belonging to God.


I know from my experience how hard it then is for a person in leadership to ‘break ranks’, to make a decision that goes against the prevailing so-called consensus, or that others fear might threaten the institution. The current bishops’ decision not to ordain gay and lesbian persons at present in our church is a case in point: upsetting the ‘anti-gay’ lobby is judged politically to be a threat to hierarchical power and could divide the church. It’s not about what is right, theologically or ethically (or even legally), but about what is expedient in retaining the existing power balances. Adherence to controlling-power images for God can lead to distortions of truth and of right action.


The Truth: “Out of Oppression...”


The core of what I’m suggesting this morning is that if we are to proclaim truth that brings life and freedom and wholeness to all (Jesus’ message surely), then we should be careful with our power images. If we – individually, as congregations, as the whole church – are to act out gospel ethics, then it’s my view that all our language and images need to express liberty and life, renewed energy and ongoing hope.


I think the words God speaks to Moses in today’s reading contain the core of Judeo-Christian truth: the people must be brought out of oppression. That’s where truth lies. As with Moses, our actions can entwine with the divine energy around us to help that happen.


The leadership given by this community of St Matthew in the City in exposing ‘white collar crime’ portrays this: conforming to canon law, retaining solidarity with episcopal colleagues, protecting the institution – all that is meaningless ‘untruth’ while oppression and exclusion remain for gay and lesbian members of our church. We do not need a God whose power commands and controls from a distance, and unconsciously sustains the power of institutions and their leaders.


Jesus talks of the danger of ‘gaining the whole world’ but ‘forfeiting your life’ – seeking wealth and power at the cost of integrity and truth. Our task as the community of Jesus’ followers is to challenge hierarchies of control, and to speak and act in ways that lead out of oppression into full life. That’s the truth.


So let’s be careful with the power imagery we use as Christians – sung or not! Let’s focus on images of God-energy, energising us all to work for a world of freedom and truth.

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