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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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The Significance of the Cross

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Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross to the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically*, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

* Of course there is an incident where Jesus confronted moneylenders in the temple with a makeshift whip of knotted cords. He was, however, severely provoked, not as some think by the greed and dishonesty of the moneylenders themselves, but by the tacit understanding that certain people could be excluded from God’s presence. The moneylenders set up their tables in the court of the Gentiles, the only portion of the temple open to foreigners, women, and invalids. The authorities did not arrest Jesus because he had exposed a policy they themselves knew to be wrong.
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