Religion and Problems of POWER and CONTROL

2nd_Crusade_council_at_Jerusalem, Conrad III, ...
2nd_Crusade_council_at_Jerusalem, Conrad III, Louis VII and Baldwin III (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I was looking at my Slideshare account. There I have three presentations on Spiritual or Religious abuse. They have been there 9 months or less and they have had over 1600 hits, and are continuing to build fairly rapidly. I know that for some of you 1600 hits is not a lot. But these are not posts for having chiseled abs. These presentations are not pictures of flowers and small furry animals with inspiration saying overlays. These are presentations about people who have been abused in their spiritual setting by spiritual leaders/mentors who were supposed to be interested in doing God’s work, which includes Christlike caring for these people. Kind of a bummer of a topic. I get a few hits on topics on religocentrism or historical methodology of missions (and other topics that lack that certain pizazz) and get nothing like 1600 hits.

I am left with a belief that these numbers on poorly advertised presentations from an (admittedly) obscure compiler suggests that this topic is a BIG concern. Oh sure, it could be that the hits are from fully secularized individuals who, to feel good about their god-free life choices, like to look up pages on people who have made different choices and suffered for them. I believe that most of the hits are from people that are people of faith (or people who were of faith) who have been hurt by those who were called to help.

Many of these abusers were created not born. That is, they did not start out as abusers, or abusive. They may have even started out as sincere individuals. But they became part of a flawed structure or hierarchy. The hierarchy may have been of their own creation, but the initial intent of the structure was not to abuse.

Saying the problem is “sin” is too simplistic. Not that it would be wrong to say the problem is sin. But sin is always with us, so we aren’t addressing the problem in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that we lack a good theology and methodology for dealing with the issues of Power and Control.

1.  Theology

Many Christians I have talked to seem to have a 16th century perspective of power and control. If one has the power to control, and the right to control, one must control without limit. I have come across this in terms of God. If God is all powerful, and God has the right to control all things, then it is logical, to some, that he MUST CONTROL all things. Of course, this is a complete fallacy. The power to control and the right to control does not necessitate the desire to control.

In Ecclesiology we see it as well. We see the Apostles (the Twelve) given power and authority. Commonly, we draw the somewhat logical(?) conclusion that the Apostles did in fact control the church. This does not appear to be true. The apostles set up the Church of Jerusalem, but did not appear to rule it. James the half-brother of Jesus appeared to be an early (the first?) senior elder/ bishop/ overseer/ presbyter/ pastor of the church of Jerusalem. Even the one time the Twelve seem to exercise extensive ecclesiastical control in the Universal church (the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) they appear to merely be senior voices of a common developing consensus. Paul, despite his acerbic moments, appeared to rarely if ever control and only occasionally emphasized his authority. His focus was almost always to persuade with words and encourage churches to be guided by the Spirit of God. On the other hand, it does appear to me, at least, that St. Ignatius in the early 2nd century did have a view of church leaders as being those who should exercise a high level of control in their churches. However, even there, the fact that Ignatius kept writing letters to this effect to churches suggests that this was not the common attitude and/or belief and/or practice in the churches at the time.

2. Methodology

There is often the presumption that “too many cooks spoil the soup.” One needs one creative vision to make things happen. There are certain examples where this has been true. Yet it seems to me that evidence points to more failures than successes of this philosophy. Even organizations where a strong controlling visionary leader was faithful to the end often are ill-equipped to handle the chaos of transfer of such control and power after the leader is gone. The Bible notes the value of having many counselors, noting the limits of a king to rule wisely without such help. Samuel cautioned even the very idea of .having a king. In church this cautious note is often interpreted as Human Monarchy versus Theocracy (a battle between two autocratic systems). But, in fact, the system of government before the ascendancy of kings was fairly decentralized.  Moses was fairly autocratic (though even here, the story with Jethro provides a caution to the wisdom of not having some some decentralization of control) . Joshua was also fairly autocratic, but after this such control went away. We like to look at the book of Judges as a time of chaos (when there was no king and everyone did what is right in their own eyes) but I see little evidence to suggest one should take this period of time to evidence the benefits of centralizing of power and control. The words of the major and minor prophets seem to reject such a simplistic view.

Today, some churches combine power and control within the same person or persons. This often breeds abusive situations. Often the argument is that it increases effectivity. The vision of one (presumably getting his or her vision from God) is given the control to effect that vision. Again, I believe we see the problems in many churches where alleged effectivity is given priority in decision-making. In healthy secular organizations and in healthy governmental systems, checks and balances are put into place to limit the accumulation of an inordinate power and control in one location or person. The Caesars (Julius through Trajan and Hadrian) may have made Rome great(er) but they also set up governing precedents that weakened the empire in the long-term.

In missions, there are a growing number of books (such as by Glenn Schwartz in “When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement”) that provide caution of missions exercising a considerable amount of power and control in the mission field. They provide many examples of the problems that come from that. The biggest one tends to be Dependency.

So what to do?

A.  Separate power and control. In public corporations, the power is in the hands of the shareholders. They dole out power and authority to the Board of Trustees. These, in turn, dole out power and authority to those who actually control the organization on a day to day basis. This separation of power/authority and control provides a check/balance to those who run things. Government does this as well. In representative democracies, the power is in the hands of the people and they dole out such power to representatives. These representatives (in the legislative side) dole out power (commonly money) and authority (legislation) to the executive (control) part of government. In congregational churches a representative democracy also exists where the power is in the hands of the people, while the control is in the hands of a council or board. The members of the church empower the leaders but also provide a check for their control.

B. Change our attitude about power. Jesus spoke a great deal (especially in the Sermon on the Mount) about effecting change while eschewing traditional forms of power and authority. The Sermon on Mount is counterintuitive. One can understand the triumphalism of Eusebius of Antioch at the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity (and the legal power and prestige gained for the church from this event) after centuries of degradation and powerlessness. Yet with hindsight we can see that it was a mixed blessing. The Cross and the Sword, or the Church and the Sceptor have issues that we as a church STILL have not fully come to terms with.

Many churches find “Power” a popular topic. Some have the entertaining trait of the overemphasis of the word in prayers and sermons (POWWWW-errrrrrrr!). Power encounter is a popularized method of missions. But history (most recently confirmed in the growth of the disempowered underground church movements in China) seems to show that the church that Jesus set up has been most effective dwelling and acting from a position of weakness.

I doubt this is the final thoughts on this topic… but it is a start (and one has to start somewhere).

Doing Missions in the Marvel Universe, Part II

I.  First, the Marvel Universe fits the Worldview (or Zeitgeist if you prefer) of those around us.

David A. Zimmerman wrote “Comic Book Character” that looks at character and morality from comic books. In chapter 7, he compares the DC Universe and the

Various characters of the Marvel Universe. Pro...
Various characters of the Marvel Universe. Promotional Art for the Civil War event by Steve McNiven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marvel Universe. The DC Universe, particularly its classic version as seen in the Justice League, follows the mindset of pre-World War II. Part of this comes from the fact that DC (Detective Comics) has its roots from between World War I and II, and is modeled best with Superman. Marvel, although having roots in between-the-wars Timely Comics, was transformed by Stan Lee et al in the 1960s and was well-grounded in the culture of that time. Spiderman is, perhaps, the best example of this time. While Superman was an alien of almost unlimited power and moral integrity, Spiderman was very a very human youth dealing inexpertly with limited powers and challenging ethical settings.

In 2003, well after I stopped collecting comics, DC and Marvel joined forces with a cross-over between Justice League and the Avengers. They had a four issue team-up. The two worlds meet up. In it, we see the differences more starkly. The Justice League seeks to make their world better, while the Avengers seek to keep their world from falling apart (as Zimmerman noted).

THIS   IS   A   KEY   POINT… because it says much about how each view power. With the Justice League… power is used to control and achieve the vision of those with the power. With the Avengers, power exists in the chaos and frailties of humans. This control is to be kept in the hands of “normal humans” with intervention only occurring (from the superheroes) when power is used by evildoers to attack this freedom. This is most clearly seen in the X-men where the X-men seek to dialogue and persuade human leadership through words rather than through force or sedition. Magneto and friends  wish to utilize their power with control and are seen in the Marvel Universe as Evil.

Pre-WWII, there seemed to be a belief that our leaders were good and trustworthy, and that “we” are in the right and “they” are in the wrong. Collecting Old Time Radio programs as I do, it is interesting the gradual transition that took place after World War II. Some possible reasons? Here are a few suggestions:

  • The Western Powers were killing each other (even more ruthlessly than in WW I). The first two Fascist Powers were Italy (home of Roman Catholicism) and Germany (the Birthplace of Protestantism).  It was hard to say for sure that Christians (or anyone else) was reliably right or reliably wrong. Was “Christendom” making the world better. Were our leaders really wise?
  • The atomic (or better said, nuclear) bomb was the product of “wise leaders” and “intelligent scientists.” Technology doesn’t necessarily save lives… it can also destroy the world. We may not live in a hostile world with benevolent science making things safe for us. We MAY live in a benevolent world with hostile science (controlled by people ill-prepared to use it wisely) seeking to destroy us.
  • Improved communication, media, and travel allowed for bridging of national and cultural boundaries like never before. Bigoted opinions about “them” were challenged because they could be seen and heard and visited easily. Leaders could now be accessed and viewed up close, showing their considerable failings.

Today we live in a world that questions authority… frankly, because we know that human authorities are untrustworthy and unreliable, The move in many churches to teach unquestioning submission to authority is probably a bad idea and culturally anachronistic. It is counter-cultural… not that that is bad necessarily.  However, it is unworthy since only divine authority is worthy of unquestioning submission. Additionally, in the Bible, human authority is both submitted to and challenged.  Power and authority are best when they are not in the hands of the same people.

The Justice League felt that the Avengers really had not been doing their job seeing the poor job they have done in making things good in their world. The Avengers were disturbed by the Justice League’s cavalier use of power to control, and their willingness to embrace the adoration (idolatry) of those they oversaw.

“In the eyes of the Justice League, the Avengers have let their world go to seek, they may be powerful, but they are not heroes. The best world is one where everyone is safe and secure, prosperous and at peace. The world of the Avengers cannot boast of such accomplishments, therefore the Avengers have failed in their mission.

In contrast, the Avengers determine that the heroes of the Justice League have abused their powers to shape their world in their own image, a world in which everyone is beautiful and no one hurts. The best world is one where human beings of whatever nature are allowed  to be themselves and conrol their own destiny, within the boundaries of the individual. The world of the Avengers is allowed to remain diffuse, decentralized, in order to hold up that high value. The world of the Justice League has forsaken the individual in favor of an integrated system that is maintained essentially by its heroes. These heroes may be powerful, but they are not just.”  (Comic Book Character, Ch. 7)

The government in the DC Universe loves the Justice League (and vice versa). In the Marvel Universe, the government uses superheroes but the relationship is much more tense. Superheroes in the Marvel Universe are as likely to be ridiculed as lauded… as likely to be misunderstood as supported. Spiderman was a folkhero at times and viewed as a vigilante or a criminal at other times.

We live in a time of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). We are pretty sure our leaders don’t fully know what they are doing, and that what they are doing is often done in part with selfish motives. Power is morally ambiguous and in the hands of the few is likely to cause more bad than good for the many.  Science, technology, intelligence, and “special powers” are unlikely to make the world a better place… but in the hands of imperfect people trying their best (in their own limited ways) to do what is right, perhaps the world won’t fall apart.

In the Marvel Universe we know that heaven will not be created on earth through human (or even superhuman) powers. In Christianity we know this… or are supposed to know this. Only God can bring heaven to earth. We can’t save the sinking ship… we can do little more than man the lifeboats and rescue the drowning.

This is the Marvel Universe and the world we live in. We live in (right or wrong) an individualized world. If missionaries were superheroes (and we are not) we would be like the Avengers… full of problems, uncertainties, and on living on the edge of error and misstep. But, with good teamwork, humility, and guidance from “the truth” we have hopes to do some good in this world. We are likely to be admired occasionally, and thought of as odd misfits or troublemakers the rest of the time.