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injustice

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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David’s Sin with Bathsheba

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Some evangelicals have compared Donald Trump to the Bible’s King David, pointing out that despite David’s several moral failings, God still referred to him as “a man after my own heart.” So let’s take a look at a scandal that rocked David’s administration and see how he handled it.

From his vantage point on the roof of his palace David saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing nearby. He desired her, and since he was king, he could get what he desired. He sent for her and slept with her. Not long after, she sent word that she was pregnant. Hoping to avoid discovery, David had her husband, Uriah, returned from war. He figured that the war-weary man would be only too glad to spend his leave in the arms of his wife. But Uriah was a man of principle. He vowed not enjoy the pleasures of his wife when his comrades in arms were still suffering on the battlefield. So David plotted to have Uriah killed by the enemy by ordering his general to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. Everything goes according to plan, and when David receives news of Uriah’s death, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

David appears to have gotten away with adultery and murder.

Nathan the prophet, a position not unlike the free press in our democracy, appears before David with an odd story.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

What is interesting about this story is that there is nothing in it about adultery or murder. Instead, it is a story about abuse of privilege and power. David is outraged. “The man who did this should die!” Nathan then confronts him with the truth of what he has done. In doing so, he continues to emphasize how David has abused his position to take what he should not have taken.

At this point David had options. He could give commands to silence Nathan and continue to deny and pretend that nothing happened. Just ravings from a fake news site. He could start his own misinformation campaign, smearing Uriah in the alternative press and using his own popularity to suppress dissent. But David does none of these things. Instead he admits everything and repents.

Just here, then, is where I see a difference between David and Donald Trump. David lost his sense of perspective and began to feel that his position as king, his wealth and power, entitled him to whatever he wanted. One could even make a case that his taking of Bathsheba was rape since to resist or even protest against the command of the king was to endanger one’s own life. David’s power was great enough that Bathsheba dare not refuse him. In any case, the narrative lays all the blame on David and none on her. Yet when confronted, he immediately confesses his sin and repents. Will Donald Trump repent? Will he acknowledge having done wrong by abusing his position as President to further enrich himself? Will he repent when proof comes to light of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the election? Only time will tell, but I do not see it in him. He is not like David after all.

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The Dangers of Outrage

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It’s hard not to be outraged by news on the Internet. Sites dependent on advertising revenue use just a few tricks to drive user engagement (measured by time on site, likes and shares on social media, and clicks to related content). Headlines framed as questions (Is Google the New Evil Empire?), links that tell readers how they will feel (You will be shocked…), and, of course, content designed to provoke outrage are all angling for your attention. So much of what passes for news on the Internet seems to be aimed at our reptilian brains—provoking fear, anger, or lust.

The further you get from established, mainstream news, the more likely you are to see content framed in such a way as to provoke outrage. If you are a Facebook junkie like me, then you already know which of your friends can be counted on to share the most outrageous articles. Outrage is a response; sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only response.

Outrage is not a benign response. It may raise your blood pressure or make you hot under the collar. It may elevate your stress level, but there are more pernicious effects. To feel moral outrage, especially, requires a belief in one’s own decency, a belief that starts with, “I would never do…” or “How can anyone…” Implicit is the belief that I and my tribe are morally superior. Those people who have done despicable things are from a different tribe, perhaps different enough that they don’t deserve humane treatment.

This is where outrage becomes really ugly. Not content with denouncing bad behavior, I may even condone violence done to avenge it. This may take the form of hateful speech or comments or mere silence when I see “those people” getting what they deserve. Will I speak up for them if their own rights are trammelled? Outrage leaves little room for mercy.

The greatest danger of outrage, however, is that it accomplishes nothing. Sure, I might share a post about some miscarriage of justice, and it’s gratifying to find that my friends agree with me, but it takes real work and sacrifice to correct and prevent injustice. Outrage feels like enough, but it isn’t.

 

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