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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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Grandfather God

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When I saw God
He had a long, white beard
And He’d bring me gifts
At the end of the year
But the big one comes
In the by and by
From the Santa Claus
Up in the sky
—Kurt Kaiser, Tell It Like It Is

How do you see God?

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python tapped into our collective view of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.

I can tell you how Anglo-American culture has depicted him. He’s an old man who lives in the sky surrounded by clouds and shining light. A few apparently see him as a doting grandfather who lets them do whatever they want but who takes a prurient interest in their sex lives. This God has a touch of dementia and sleeps most of the day. He’s kindly and permissive but also passive and weak. He may cheer you on, but he won’t offer any real help beyond time-worn platitudes and old stories about people who never had to deal with all the stress you have to deal with—a mortgage and a gay child and getting the recycling out on time.

We’ve also had the wise-old-man God who is slightly amused by our difficulties. This God looks like Morgan Freeman and treats us with professionalism and excellent customer care. He dresses impeccably and just quietly knows everything. He’s not bad as gods go but still a grandfatherly sort.

More common I think is the grumpy old man who watches you with critical vigilance, waiting for you to slip up. You will often find this God in Christian churches where his sternness helps keep everyone in line. Oh, not that anyone explicitly says that God is an angry grandfather, but when you hear about God’s wrath at sin and the horrible punishments he meted out to his own people, the Jews, it’s not hard to draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, this God is only angry with unbelievers. Believers get a pass because Jesus took their punishment himself. Jesus shields them from God’s wrath.

Strangely enough, Jesus endorses none of these views of God. He taught his disciples not that God was an angry grandfather but that he was a loving father. What if instead of peevish old grump, we saw God as a father in his 30s with young children? What if we imagined him down on all fours giving horsey rides to his kids, then picking them up, tossing them in the air, and catching them? What if God is young and full of life and laughter? What if he delights in his children? What if he longs for his lost children so much that he makes every effort to find them as Jesus says he does in Luke 15? This is the father Jesus tells us about, a father who loves you and delights in you, not a stern taskmaster nor a cruel tyrant nor a nitpicking judge, but a loving, joy-filled, life-affirming father who wants for you all that is best—all the intimacy of a lover, of family and friends that you long for.

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God’s Top Ten List

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The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.

The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:

  1. No other gods
  2. No images
  3. No misusing God’s name
  4. No work on Sabbath
  5. Honor parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No lying
  10. No coveting

Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.

In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.

Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.

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