Good Power/Bad Power (The nonviolent Jesus versus the apocalyptic Christ)

It is vital to our spiritual health to understand the difference between dominant power and spiritual power. Dominant power is the power to externally influence behavior by the use of force, coercion, threat or promise, reward or punishment. Spiritual power, on the other hand, is the capacity to influence and persuade based on the quality, integrity, authenticity, and authority of one’s own being, apart from any position or any external authority.

Dominant power is often bad, but not always. It is sometimes necessary. I think most of us would agree that some form of dominant power is necessary to stop a terrorist group like ISIS, with whom peaceful negotiations are impossible. Dominant power can force a child to comply, which is sometimes necessary, but dominant power cannot make that child love you. Love cannot be controlled or coerced or demanded.

Holy week begins with Jesus’ nonviolent, peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mark 11:1-10; par. Matt. 21:1-9; Luke 19:28-38)). This expression of spiritual power stands in direct contrast to another procession into Jerusalem led by Pilate, representing the imperial might of Rome. Departing from Caesarea Maritima, Pilot would have entered the city from the west with cavalry and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount, thus ensuring that during the Jewish high holy days any uprising would be met immediately with force.

Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem depicted in the Gospels also stands in direct contrast to the procession depicted in Revelation 19:11-21. John Dominic Crossan in his book, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian points out that the radical, nonviolent, humble Christ of the Gospels who is committed to distributive justice is subverted by the apocalyptic, violent, warrior Christ of the Second Coming who pours out retributive justice. In other words, the spiritual power embodied by the Jesus of the Gospels is subverted and contradicted by the dominant power wielded by the apocalyptic Christ at the Second Coming.

So, which version of the Christ are you going to trust and aspire to emulate? Since every viewpoint is a view from a point, what will be your point of reference? Where will you plant your feet? Where will you stand? What lens will you use to see God and your place in God’s world? Will you stand with the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels or the violent Christ of the book of Revelation.

If your tendency is toward dominant power you will most likely side with the apocalyptic Christ of Revelation 19 (along with all who embrace the Left Behind worldview/Godview). If you are a believer in spiritual power then you will allow the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s authentic letters to be the filter through which you read and apply the rest of Scripture and the Christian tradition.

If we read the Bible motivated by and filled with spiritual power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very best in the Bible brings out the best in us. The Bible will then be appropriated as an instrument of transformation that grows and expands our souls, empowering us to become more compassionate, loving, courageous, and self-giving.  

However, if we read the Bible motivated by and filled with dominant power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very worst in the Bible brings out the worst in us. When we rely on dominant power we use the Bible to justify our prejudices, our demand for retribution, and our control and dominance over others. 

The late Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing to pass the time, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. The mounted police then waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church was infuriated. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” “Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. We are not fighting for our rights, he said, we are fighting for the good of the whole society. He proclaimed, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said to the group, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing [emphasis mine]. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, pp 176-77).  

This is a point that Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly emphasized to all activists in the civil rights movement. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. They wanted to turn their enemies into their friends.

In that struggle two very different kinds of power were at work and visibly on graphic display. I suspect the racist Christians who supported Jim Clark and the police brutality took their cue from Revelation 19 where the apocalyptic Christ slaughters all opposition. How different is the nonviolent Christ of the Gospels who tells his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:29-36).

Only persons who are filled with spiritual power can be trusted with external power, because they don’t crave it, seek it, need it, or even want it. They are secure in their own being and in God. Spiritual power gives us the courage to follow Jesus all the way to the cross where we see another vivid pictorial of the difference between dominant power that induces suffering, and the spiritual power of suffering love.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global.)


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