Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Powers that Be

Some time ago, round about 1998 or 1999, I was wondering what is to be said of Power, and how the 'Powers that be' are to be faced as we individually and together mature.

Words have power as we have seen (and heard and felt)
  1. power to shock - such as the shock of learning that our hitherto unquestioningly revered forebears were not (or were?) as like us as we thought;
  2. power to belittle: such as the calling of a revelation the "Ravings of a lunatic";
  3. power to defend and close the ranks of thought, such as is seen in the brandishing of the sword of dogma;
  4. power to heal, to console, to encourage, to correct, a power that is heard in the wise teacher's responses;
  5. power to propagate a tradition - to separate persons from one another or to join people together;
  6. power to criticise, to question, to postulate, experiment, and prove such as is seen in science;
  7. power to break down walls and reconcile us to one another.
  1. Why should we be shocked? Something in us wants to be known and to know, and does not want to be wrong or thought wrong or ignorant.
  2. Why accept a 'name caller', why be one? We don't have time to read or know everything, so we accept or proclaim opinion without adequate knowledge. This is an easy out - and sometimes necessary.
  3. Having such an opinion may lead to the need to defend it. Scepticism battles with desire to believe and belong; fear battles with hope. The dogma that encapsulates the opinions of the past requires considerable unpacking. If poorly unpacked, it becomes a blunt instrument, stunning both those who use it and those against whom it is used. I think we observe and feel this in some correspondence.
  4. Yet if well unpacked, it can lead to healing. (This is true of and in all traditions)
  5. It also forms and divides communities. Even though the same human experience informs all their differences to a greater or lesser degree. So for example 'being born again' is a human teaching - not just a Christian one. The Jew, Jesus, (according to John, ch 3) made it very clear (to Nicodemus) that it was ancient Jewish teaching that Nic ought to have known about already; and it can be observed in all communities even today as the unpacked dogma has its effects on the human spirit (So for example Malcolm X and his experience of the community of Mecca).
  6. Dogma can be seen in any community - even in those that claim a method of proof; so scientists must shift their perspectives as new explanations are derived from observation. This can be as painful a repentance as any religious one.
  7. so new words are required to be received to break us out of our enclosures. We are not enclosed out of pathology but necessarily in each generation for safety in our vulnerable years.
These 7 thoughts are from the point of view of an individual. Each of us needs power; each of us willing or unwilling, witting or unwitting, gives up some powers for the sake of others in community. This delegation, abdication, or seizure of power has emerged in certain structures that are in evidence in all cultures. I am searching for a generalization of Bonhoeffer's mandates: family, labour, government, and church. These are not just 'divine' mandates but also either benevolent or demonic powers that we find ourselves in the midst of.

A. Family: most basic protective device and source of learning respect of peer and superior alike. Honour your father and mother is the source of the mandate. Yet the ancient Jewish stories of fratricide (Cain, Solomon, etc), seduction (Lot's daughters, Judah & Tamar, David & Bathsheba, etc) show clearly that honour was not always paid where due.

Yet family is a strong power. What sentiment and closely shared experience ties us to each other. Yet we must let each other go in the long run. Family cannot be absolute, but it must be respected. It is good for us that there is a divine mandate here in the Jewish tradition. This covers about half the world - what is the state of this mandate as indicated from other traditions?

B. Labour: means of sharing effort and reward. The basis of economy. Yet the first cursed - 'by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread'. Also a continual source of conflict - related to fairness, exploitation. A source too of self-fullfillment, outlet for creativity - but don't overdo it - '6 days shall you labour and do all that you have to do...'

Well 5 days for most of us - and a promised 35 hours in France. Corporations object - they too arise as if from the mandate of labour. Landlord or peasant, owner, manager or worker, we are under that mandate. Consider the problems if we are excluded from productive work. How work rules us if we have 'things that must be done'. How those who produce try to seduce us with the products of their labour through advertising.

C. Government: The mandate for government seems to arise out of the people's desire for a king (2 Sam). "Fear God. Honour the king." (2 Pet) Why? I ask. The latter does not seem like a basic requirement at all. Yet in all cultures at one time or another, the supreme ruler somehow embodies the spirit or desire of the people. Government easily blurs into religion. French Sociologist Jacques Ellul identifies this evil in the 20th century with the worship of the state. But emperor worship is very old. What constitutes good - necessary government? Lao Tsu has much to say about government, some of it in conflict with our desire to know and control our own destinies: "do not use Tao to awaken the people to knowledge, but use it to restore them to simplicity. People are difficult to govern because they have much knowledge."

Whatever we think of government, we are under it. Many powers are exercised over us - they go by the names of all the ministries and departments you can think of. Here is where the traditional Thrones, Dominions, Principalities & Powers are embodied.

D. Church: Of all the powers, spiritual power can be seen as the most easily abused. Where individual, family, economic activity and regulation are obvious to life and ethic, church traditionally seen as a necessary means to morality (threat/promise) is really not that at all. The powers evident are the exploitation of fear, superstition, ignorance, desire, self-interest and the unknown. These powers have been used in history to keep the poor in their place. The caste system in India, all sorts of feudalism ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, received their imprimatur from both government and religious tradition. This is true in all religions. Humans seem to be infinitely capable of generating conflict and getting themselves tangled in it.

This is too one-sided though - the Church if true to its prophetic tradition, is a thorn in the side of the others, keeping them honest. The Church in its faithfulness has given to government the basis for its legislation and to labour and family the mandate to preserve their own integrity. This rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Saint, sinner, enthusiast, atheist all benefit.

Do these four provide a basis for balance in the consideration of the design of a global ethic - or are they too simple a structure?

If we observe that any one has precedence over others, does this help to avoid conflict by managing and adjusting the precedence? For example, maybe someone fears that some religious doctrine is threatened. Perhaps the recognition that three of the four are without reference to what is unknowable and are mandated to have their own independence will cause the enthusiast to temper his or her fear that the Ark cannot stabilize itself.

These thoughts lead me to think that we should hold our fire when we feel our base is being threatened. It could be we have something to learn from the other's point of view. It is also dangerous to put up a hand to support the Ark, a Glory that does not need our help.

To avoid harm to others and ourselves, we might be careful how we express ourselves.

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God and the 'powers that be' have been instituted by God ...... Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

"Owe no one anything except to love one another, for if you love your neighbor, you have fulfilled the law." (Letter to the Romans ch 13:1, 7, 8, c CE 57 Corinth, Paul of Tarsus, written by Tertius his amanuensis.)