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When Evangelicals Chase After Secular Power Games

In a review of the current Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, United Kingdom, Rowan Williams makes this observation, “Desire for power – the kind of power that will make us safe, reverse injustices and avenge defeats – is a dream that can devour even the most decent.”

Power is seductive and corruptive. The lure of power destabilizes character, undermines previously solid moral principles, turns relationships from a worthy end into unworthy means to a different end.

The political insanities of the past few years are explicable in terms of the powerless exerting their anger against a powerful elite who for too long ignored the unjust consequences of social and political elitism.

Williams points to a real and present moral danger. The peddlers of fear have turned populations toward those who promise safety; those suffering from economic and social injustice are looking for someone to reverse the upward flow of wealth.

People who feel defeated by life are looking for and finding scapegoats and want someone to lead them to victory over those perceived causes of life’s unfairness, misery and hopelessness.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see what has been going on in Brexit, Trump’s America and the rise in popularity and plausibility of far-right agendas in several European nations.

In terms of influence, and, yes, power, followers of Jesus are called and committed to an altogether different scenario.

Jesus isn’t the strong-man deliverer looking for strong and powerful lieutenants. Instead, he warns his disciples about power games.

English translations of Matthew 20 miss the abruptness of Jesus’ prohibition on power as a desired goal for Christians: “It will not be so amongst you.”

His response is stronger than that. “Not so. On the contrary. You couldn’t be more wrong.” Quite literally, he could have said, “Never! Not on your life!”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him regarding positions of power and authority.

To which Jesus replied, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In the quest for a solution to church decline, seeking more power is not the answer.

As a way of bringing the Christian voice from the margins back to the center, power-seeking is not only counter-productive, it is also counter to the way of Jesus.

Power-seeking is a mindset unwilling and unready for service and sacrifice. For that reason, self-concern can never be a settled Christian attitude, nor a church’s motive for mission.

Jesus’ answer to any and every power play in the church is, “No. On the contrary. Not the way of the Kingdom of God.”

And Jesus’ answer to those of his followers chasing after influence in the political and secular realms as a way of advancing the kingdom meet with the same contradiction, “No! Not in my name!”

Evangelicals are supposed to heed the words of Jesus; live up to and within his teaching; model and embody the call to deny self, take up the cross, follow, serve and like a seed, fall into the ground and die, and live toward the fruitfulness of the Kingdom of God.

That U.S. evangelicals are prepared to go after power – and then support anyone who furthers their social and political agenda regardless of the cost and consequence in ignoring the central teaching of Jesus in all four gospels – is one of the perplexing scandals of that particular evangelical mindset.

Such unmistakable signs of the Kingdom of God as peacemaking, reconciliation, love of neighbor, brother and sister and stranger and enemy, self-sacrifice in cross-bearing, serving others recognizing that in the vulnerable and the least and the lost and the last, we are face to face with Jesus – these are irreconcilable with political power plays that choose secular means supposedly to achieve Kingdom of God ends.

“No,” said Jesus. “It doesn’t work that way.”

If it did, why did Jesus tell Pilate his kingdom is not of this world? Neither its goals nor its methods, its king nor his subjects, are servants of the world and its powers.

There is something incongruous to the point of nonsense about evangelicals celebrating a political victory which, even if it achieves their moral goals, does so by silencing the “ipsissima vox” of Jesus.

“Ipsissima vox,” a phrase learned from Joachim Jeremias, one of the finest interpreters of Jesus’ teaching, and used to identify those teachings of Jesus that are of the distilled essence of the mission and teaching of the Son of Man.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Gordon’s website, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.

James Gordon

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.