Encounters with Power

In commenting on last week’s Gospel (Mark 6:1-13)  I noted how faced by the impoverished imaginations of his family and their neighbors Jesus came up against a real limitation on what he was able to do. Mark tells us that Jesus could do no deed of power there.

I refer you back to my pervious blog entry The Familiar: a Barrier to our Imagining. Mark begins Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John. He draws this first phase to a close with the sending out of the disciples to become participants with Jesus in his ministry. He follows this with the beheading of  John. Why does Mark place the beheading of John here? Well, there seems to me an implication that ministry of necessity will involve encounters with power and the powerful. Like John, Jesus and his disciples go on to discover that such encounters can prove fatal.

If you are like me this is a very uncomfortable realization. I have spent a lifetime perfecting the skills that  have helped me avoid becoming the object of abuse by the powerful. Nan is a friend of mine. Like me, we both spent many years working within the British National Health Service. Now, you don’t work in the NHS and avoid seeing the daily exercise and abuse of political power. She once asked her CEO the question: “what would be your resigning issue?” He replied ” I hope I am skillful enough never to find myself in such a situation”. The CEO’s answer captures the assumption that resigning issues can be avoided through adroit skill. A very modern attitude we might think, or is it?

Nan’s question and the CEO’s response reminds me of the popular English tavern song  The Vicar of Bray. You may know of it but if you don’t you can find the words and tune at: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/song-midis/Vicar_of_Bray.htm

The song tells the story of a Vicar of  St Michael’s Bray, a small town in the Royal County of Berkshire just upstream from Windsor Castle. The song chronicles his boasting about the way he has kept his benefice despite the sudden rip-tide like shifts in the of political currents that characterized the period from around 1660 when Charles II returns after the death of Cromwell to the accession of the German, George I in 1714. This is a man who has no compunction is changing his political allegiances to suit the tenor of the times. Like Nan’s CEO, we surreptitiously admire his skillfulness while more consciously disapproving of all flip-floppers.

So how do you and I sit with the experience of power? I know that I instinctively abhor the naked display of power. Power is not an aphrodisiac for me. Or do I delude myself? Well maybe you all are about to find out as I assume the mantle of the Dean in-between?

My uneasy relationship to the exercise of power lies in my life-long fear of being a victim of its abuse. What typifies the experience of victimhood is a psychological helplessness in the face of the abusive use of power. Like all of us who carry this fear, I am passionate about justice. What will make me incandescent with rage is to witness the abuse of power, particularly within the varied contexts of  interpersonal relationship. My politics arise out of an instinctive aversion to the comfortable abuses of power enshrined within patriarchal society. My political world view is not the hollow posturing of liberal correctness. My politics are deeply rooted in my personal fears. The political is always personal. If you want to understand my political world view the you only have to remember that as gay man, patriarchy desires to kill me.

One of the ways I have successfully protected myself is by maintaining a stance as the outsider. For example, my experience as an adult has been shaped by my 30 years living in England. Yet, I never once felt disadvantaged by the operation of the class system. The English class system is a complex and subtle system of signals that locates each person in a particular relationship to the sources of power in that society. I protected myself as an outsider. I was after all a New Zealander. Someone from a new world egalitarian society, to whom the classifications of the English class system did not apply.

Yet, you may have noticed that unless you look and listen very closely for the residual signs of the NZ flattening of my vowels I pass perfectly as a pucker Brit. The skill of being an outsider is the ability to maintain a psychological sense of separateness while appearing to pass camouflaged as one of the crowd. So for me outsiderness is a skillful defense. Yet, it is this very defense that perpetuates in me a sense of being vulnerable to the abusive exercise of power. Hiding and protecting myself only increases my fear. The path to freeing myself from fear of the abuse of power is to own my own power.

Life forces us to fashion complex psychological defenses against the fear of being abused by power. For me its maintaining the fantasy of the outsider, which is a fantasy that I am not part of my host societies power relations and therefore cannot be abused by them. For others I notice  the primary defense is their craving of power and their desire to grab as much of it as possible. This orientation to power is just as much rooted in fear. For those of us who have more of the Vicar of Bray in us than we might be comfortable admitting to, we adopt the defenses of the flip-flopper in our attempt to protect ourselves through ingratiation.

My main point here is that because we all live in complex webs of power relations the apparent success of our very defenses also perpetuates our state of fear in relation to power. That fear prevents us living-out  Christian values. Jesus shows time and again that to live the values of the Gospel leaves us no choice but to challenge the abuse of power. We don’t even have to go out of our way to protest a challenge. Being women and men living from our Christian core, informed by the actions of Jesus in the Gospel is enough to be a challenge to the abuse of power. Yet, its only by living the values of the Gospel that  we have the courage to own our own power.

The abuse of power is endemic to the very structures of human society. It operates in families, in the work place. We have recently seen its operation in the corruption of College sports. It operates powerfully in our churches, in government, and of course in relations between nations.

There are many different ways to challenge power. We often carry models designed to limit our belief that we can challenge the abuse of power. We have the model of John the Baptist which is a kind of head-on crash and burn approach seemingly favored by prophets. If this is what we think it means to challenge power then we are unlikely to imagine ourselves doing this.

Personally, I favor a quieter approach which recognizes that there may be nothing I can do about the central abuses of power in society. So I take the courage to own my own power through taking-up my position on the margins of power, working quietly to subvert abuse through identifying with and supporting the abused, themselves.  My many years of ministry among those with disturbed mental and emotional health is the way I have used my outsiderness a gay man to identify with those who are differently disadvantaged by social rejection.

Mark uses the beheading of John the Baptist at this point in his gospel to present us with a painful truth about the exercise of power. Mark is not inviting us to become prophetic firebrands who immolate ourselves through headlong confrontation in the manner of John the Baptist. He is inviting us to understand Jesus’ deeper challenge to power. This challenge lies in accepting God’s invitation to change and thereby inviting others to change. The nature of this change is to become liberated from fear by the greater power of love. This is an invitation that will be accepted by some and resisted by others to the point of violence. Following Jesus may cost us our lives though in our present social context probably not physically, but in some other manner, which in the words of T.S. Eliot will cost us nothing short of everything (Little Gidding).

Don’t run. Stay present. Remain committed. Tell the truth in love. And stand for what is right. Ideally one should have a great deal of courage and strength but not boast or make a big show of it. Then in times of need one should rise to the occasion and fight bravely for what is right (HH. the Dalai Llama)

The Familiar is a Barrier to Our Imagining

It’s the first time I have really noticed that with the conclusion of Mark:6, a cycle completes. From beginning with the Jesus’ baptism by John, Mark moves very quickly into the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ ministry with a focus on how Jesus’ healing action alerts us to the power and operation of God in the world. Mark brings the cycle of Jesus’ actions to a fitting conclusion with King Herod’s political murder of John in the final section of chapter 6. However, there is more of that bit of the story next week.

If it’s not too crass an analogy,  Jesus’ tour through the Galilean countryside: calming storms, casting-out demons, healing the sick is the envy of the current presidential election bus tours being made by President Obama and Governor Romney. Oh, how they each might wish to make such an impact on the crowds as Mark reports Jesus making.

After a ‘successful’ tour  Jesus returns to his hometown where his family and former neighbors are scandalized by, what seems to them, his grandiosity. They are determined to put him back in his place so as not to have their small world disturbed. Is it their unconscious envy that causes them to react like this? Quite probably!

Yet, I think there is something else motivating them as well as their being driven by their unconscious envy. Jesus’ family and their neighbors seem encapsulated within a prison of the familiar. Jesus presents them with an experience that does not fit within the limitations of their world view.  They are open to miracles performed by prophets so long as they are happening elsewhere. They do not have the psychic space to recognize one of their own to be a prophet capable of revealing God’s power in the world. They are trapped within the limits of their own imaginations.

How are our imaginations limited? I invite us to take a deeper look at our lives. Can we notice how our attachment to what is familiar  inhibits and limits our imaginations? We live lives limited by our need for predictability and our minds seem only to recognize what they are somehow already looking for. My own experience is that it is not difficult for us to recognize this state of affairs.

However, let me invite us once more, this time, to take a broader look at our lives. Can we begin to notice those turning points of life where we  have somehow become open to something beyond the familiar?  We have  taken a risk and stepped out there! Maybe this has been a wonderful experience. Maybe it’s also been a difficult and possibly painful step to have taken. Yet, has taking this step not always resulted in an expansion of our living and imagining?

When our lives take an unexpected turn we are rewarded with an enrichment to our living. This enrichment results when we become open to the promise of there being more than we, if left to our own impoverished expectations, expectations carefully tailored by our need to stay within predictable limits, can imagine for ourselves.

We live in a world strongly influenced by something called the Human Potential Movement. Everywhere we see advertisements inviting us to realize our human potential by running with the wolves and diving with the dolphins. This approach to life tells us there are no limits to what and who we can become. The unspoken hitch is that we just need the money to do it. The picture of life extolled by the Human Potential Movement is to realize our fullest happiness and satisfaction. We are enjoined to become all that we have the potential to be. Fortunately, this is not the message of the Gospel.

God’s invitation to us is to risk opening to the process of becoming the person we were created to be. This looks dangerously similar to the invitation to realize our fullest human potential. However, God is not inviting us to throw caution to the winds and run-off to find ourselves. God invites us to step-out and to take a risk. The hallmark of this experience is facing up-to, and struggling within, the boundaries of natural limitations.

God invites us to move beyond the mere achievement of our own human potential. God’s dream for us is that we open ourselves to becoming more than we can imagine for ourselves through struggling within our experience of limitation. The Epistle and the Gospel  for today give us two quite different examples of how this works in our own lives.

The first example is an example of struggling within limitation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about his struggle with his ‘thorn in the flesh’, which he tells them God has given him. I am not interested in wondering what the thorn actually was. How can we know? However, the example Paul offers us is one of struggling with a problem, a difficulty, a painful aspect of life that does not go away. The cause of Paul’s pain does not go away despite his fervent prayer that God take it away. This results in Paul coming to realize that it is through his weakness, his experience of painful limitation, that God’s grace fulfills and blesses him. He is healed through his being wounded. He is given strength to persevere, i.e. put up with hardship. He experiences an expansion of imagination, an expansion of the horizons that boundary his experience, i.e. some kind of mystical experience of acceptance.  Paul’s stepping-out and risking results in both strength and ecstasy transmitted through God’s gracing his suffering.

Taken alone we might think that Paul’s example is the only approach. However, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel offers a counterbalance. The limitation here is less personal and more situational.  When he goes home Jesus is not struggling with his own experience of limitation. He is facing the limitation of his situation caused by the lack of openness of others. What does he do? He does not use his unique access to God to overwhelm the limits of imagination in his hearers, i.e. blow their minds. He does not wow them with mighty acts.

Jesus accepts that the failure of imagination among his family and their neighbors places a complete road block to his ability to be a conduit for divine action. He recognizes the hopelessness of the situation and he redirects himself, taking a completely different direction. He sends his disciples out on the road. What has been his ministry alone up until this point now becomes theirs as well. Mark tells us that they work the same miracles as Jesus had been working.

Sometimes the need is to persevere and become opened-up through our acceptance of limitation thus allowing God to do in us, and for us, and through us, that which we cannot do for, or by, ourselves.  However, there are some situations where our capacity for living is limited and the needed response here is to walk away. We cease trying to change the unchangeable  and creatively move in another direction. The experience of being blocked opens up a new channel . As we begin to move in that direction, something beyond our imagining expands and enriches our reality.

The trick of knowing how to recognize which kind of limitation we are facing is one of spiritual discernment. Spiritual discernment is a process that involves asking for, and listening to, the wise counsel of others. We then take our own perceptions alongside the perceptions of others into a place of deep prayerfulness before God. This is a place both of openness and felt risk. Openness does not come without that disconcerting sense of risk. A sense of risk is one of the indicators that we are opening. Here we encounter a God who is always dreaming us into becoming more than we can possiblly imagine for ourselves.

A Brit’s Musings on the 4th of July

There was some amusement among the congregation of Trinity Cathedral on Sunday when the Dean announced that Canon Mark was to give the 4th of July sermon. After all, what can a Brit have to say about rebellion against the lawful authority of the Crown? Well as it happens, the answer to the question is, quite a bit!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government ….

The concept of “we the people”  does not spring fully formed out of the purity of the 18th Century air breathed in the 13 Colonies. That the Colonists could even hold a concept of ‘we the people’ places them squarely at the center of the long march of British political culture. The irony lies that in breaking with the Crown the 13 Colonies were simply asserting the ancient British right not to be taxed without representation.

I can only  trace in outline the roots of what made the American Revolution possible. For a more in-depth exploration I direct you, if you are interested, to a section of Charles Taylor’s great tome A Secular Age pp 196-207. For those who are overcome at the very thought I suggest you listen to the the first of Niall Ferguson’s lectures in the current Reith Lecture’s series at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/reith

The great events of the English Civil War, Great Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and it Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 are but successive chapters in the same story. What connects them is that they are events that draw upon the idea of an “ancient constitution” embedded in a shared cultural belief the origins of which while obscured in the mists of time, yet persists in the common political awareness of the English people. This “ancient constitution” is the necessary ingredient that gives rise to the concept of  “we the people” . This is a concept unique to English and its successive British political and institutional culture.  The British historian of the Monarchy, David Starkey, traces the roots of this sense of an “ancient constitution”to the political structure of Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon society political power was dispersed to the local level. The country was divided into a series of units known as Hundreds. Each Hundred was autonomous and practiced a rough system of representative democracy. It seems that despite 500 years of monarchical centralization following the Norman Conquest this cultural memory of a time before, was never lost.

Resultingly, in 1642, after 20years of political struggle with Charles I the English Parliament asserted its right to govern alongside the Crown. The assertion of this right required the execution of the King. Yet, this was no 1917 Bolshevik action. It was an unfortunate necessity in the constitutional assertion of ancient privileges.

In 1688 the Glorious Revolution replaced the last Stuart King James II with William of Orange and James’ daughter Mary (William and Mary). The Glorious Revolution established Constitutional Monarchy along side the emergence of what we now recognize as Representative Democracy. This paved the way for a huge expansion in the representative nature in the institutions of British Society. The American Colonists brought with them this system of representative democracy based on elected assemblies. The parliamentary strata was the only form of colonial government. With the exception of the Colonial Governors, appointed by the Crown, elected assemblies flourished in the absence of the hereditary and appointed strata of king, Lords and Bishops,

At the core of this representative culture lay the axiom  no taxation without representation. When the 13 Colonies asserted themselves against the encroachment on their ancient privileges by an over bearing Executive Government they were simply asserting their right as British subjects to defend their ancient privileges against a swing of the pendulum of government in an oppressive direction. In this sense they were only following their parliamentary forefathers who had done the same in 1642 and 1688.

The English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution all rest on a looking backwards to an idealized notion of an “ancient constitution” . This “ancient constitution’ was not only a harking back to a time out of mind . It persisted because it was based on notions of Natural Law and enshrined in the English Common Law.  In the absence of a written constitution the Common Law has always been the ultimate protector of the rights of the Englishmen against tyranny.  What the Founding Fathers did in writing the Constitution was to codify the spirit of the “ancient constitution”.

The Founding Fathers also drew on French political theorists for the Constitution and a new form of government based on separation of powers and checks and balances. However, the stable aftermath of the American Revolutionary period can be sharply distinguished from the more than 100 years of political blood letting which followed the French Revolution. The essential difference according to Charles Taylor between the French and American experience lay in the fact that unlike the French, the new Americans were heirs to a longer representative social and political tradition that found articulation in the unifying concept of  “we the people”.

“We the people” is an appeal and idealized order of  Natural Law, in the invocation of “truths held self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. The (American) transition was easier, because what was understood as traditional laws gave an important place to elected assemblies and their consent to taxation. All that was needed was to shift the balance in these so as to make elections the only source of legitimate power. (Charles Taylor 197)

I believe the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution which followed it, can be seen as major advances in the long march of the British political tradition. In the years since 1776 we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic divergent developments in the culture of government. Yet, the broader culture of representative institutions based on a notion of  a people able to articulate their social and political relationships through notions of common privileges and obligations has remained and continues to link these two now quite different forms of representative democracy.

As a British Subject, I congratulate my American host culture. I  fully enter into the celebrations of the 4th of July  as an American celebration of a deeper political and cultural heritage held in common between us.

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