Institutionalising powerlessness and a God who looks like Caesar?

I’ve been working through some thoughts about powerlessness of Jesus and the kingdom and how it takes form, institutionally or systemically – with specific reference to the church generally.

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Alfred North Whitehead takes us to the heart of what is being challenged here in regards Christianity and the Church. Whitehead noted that the history of Christianity and its formulation of theology shows the fashioning of God as a ruthless moralist after some of the Hebrew prophets; as a philosophical principle after Aristotle, e.g. the unmoved mover; and most relevant here, after Roman imperial rulers. Whitehead writes,

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers… The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.

The history of Christianity is marred by this categorical error. The radical powerlessness and nonviolence of Jesus, that revealed the character of God and announced and demonstrated the paradigm and trajectory of the kingdom, was cast aside for a different vision. A vision in which God and Jesus began to look a lot like Roman Emperors – and not at all like one crucified – being attributed absolute power, absolute authority and the right to exercise violence when threatened. This deeply affected what Christianity has had to say about the exercise and institutionalised use of power, as it held Caesar up as a paragon to be emulated.

However, he goes on to note an alternative vision that is also present in history and rooted in the Markan vision above.

There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; and also it is a little oblivious to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.

The Markan vision does not seem to be favourably disposed toward the idea of power held in the way of Caesar, where hierarchies, power-games and violence, in a multiplicity of forms, can so often take shape. In fact this vision seems to actively undercut the very idea of organisations were hierarchy and the accumulation of power is possible.

I am inclined to think it is the work of churches and Christians to have their imaginations captured by this idea; as it begins with “the tender elements of the world,” and is rooted in humility, service and love, working slowly and quietly. I say this given their responsibility to be faithful to this vision, and in turn to realise it in their contexts and communities. It is this vision of the suffering, powerless Messiah that calls us and reveals to us the nature of God – and its radical otherness to the God-in-the-image-of-Caesar should be apparent.

God has made it known there is creative possibility and novelty in powerlessness and weakness, through Jesus’ activity in the world. When we cling to the God-in-the-image-of-Caesar and use it to affirm structures and ideologies of how power is held, which historically speaking have tended to create and sustain injustice, we must begin to ask questions of ourselves.

The Markan idea acts, for the church, as an auto-deconstruction of power and authority vis-à-vis weakness and humility because this we are to understand is how God’s kingdom comes to and takes up residence in the world.

John D. Caputo writes,

Mark 10:42-45… is a kind of managerial madness that is the very foolishness of the kingdom of God, which Jesus demonstrated in his own life. Jesus was an outspoken critic of the powers that be, which cost him dearly. To implement the kingdom of God, to translate this poetics into praxis, into a working institution, requires affirmation and reaffirmation, imagination and reimagination, a willingness to reinvent itself in a ongoing self-renewal of itself. The church, charged with the realization of the kingdom, requires a repetition with a difference, lest it freeze over into infidelity to itself and immunize itself against itself, suppressing the very event of the kingdom of God that is its mission, its mission impossible, to express… The institutional ideal in this case is to do the impossible, to make the impossible happen – as far as possible.

I’m not calling for the end of institutions and all hierarchies, that is probably impossible and seems diabolically inane generally. Yet the idea before us for the exercise of power in the church at the very least seems, following the Galilean vision, to mean being an institution that is unlike an institution; a government that is unlike a government; being powerful in a way that is totally powerless. This is the impossible, it is the redefinition the kingdom brings – this Christians are to make possible, as far as possible. A clue for assistance seems to be, nothing should resemble the power structures that surrounded Caesar.