a little r & r
With the election less than 14 days away, we hear the word “power” a lot: Who will occupy the most “power”-ful office in the world, the Presidency of the United States? Who will hold “power” in Congress, in the Senate, and in state legislatures? Will conservatives increase their “power” in the Supreme Court as their numbers grow from five to six justices? And what about the “power” of evangelical Christians who compose the single largest group composing the Republican Party?
Whatever the answers, and some are obvious, the assumption we all usually make about the use of the word “power” represents only one understanding of power, namely, right-handed power, the kind of power the empires from Egypt & Rome to Britain practiced, and which is still contested between Russia and the United States. Many scholars have argued that when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (for his own political purposes) in 313 C.E. the church began to exercise this same right-handed power to the church’s detriment.
What is Right-handed power? Rabbi Michael Lerner in his book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right speaks of right-handed power as coercive power, which forces its will onto all people, especially on our nation’s or our party’s opponents. This is right-handed, coercive power, which influences the strategies we adopt to get our way, personally, politically and religiously.
But is right-handed power the kind of power Jesus practiced? The answer is “No.” As Lerner’s book title suggests, God practices ’s left-handed, persuasive power. God does not achieve what God wants for the world through coercion, but persuasion, through freedom not arm-twisting or use of force. God respects our right to decide for ourselves.
Of course, talking about God as right or left-handed is an exercise in pure metaphor, though metaphors have clout. Michelangelo sculpted “King David” with an oversized right hand, out of proportion with the rest of David’s body to symbolize “The Right Hand of God.” Michelangelo was a child of Constantine’s coercive practice of power. As one of the greatest art pieces in 2 millennia, the sculptor’s masterpiece speaks volumes of how western civilization has primarily defined power. Words have power. Left-handedness has historically been viewed as evil or foolish. The word for “left” in Italian is “asinistre,” meaning “sinister.” We may also get our word “asinine” from the same Latin root. In French “left” is “gauche,” as in “How Gauche!” a put-down.
But now we may be (re)-discovering the limits of right-handed power, which so often forces its will onto the most vulnerable among us. It is easy to underestimate the strength of soft power, another name for persuasive power. Martin Luther King, Jr. exercised persuasive power through non-violence and reminds us “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King learned non-violence from Mahatmas Ghandi, who, through such means, essentially threw the British out of India. During the first three centuries of the church, Christians practiced non-violence and began a movement, which grew rapidly and swept across southern Europe. The greatest moments of persuasive power occurred when Jesus gave up any pretense of right-handed coercive power while praying at Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus refused to speak “a mumblin’ word” in his defense before Pilate.
Nothing is accomplished when nations or their leaders coercively put their knee on the neck of the poor, the weak, the powerless, those we call “them.” Victory in Jesus occurs when we offer our hand to lift up those who are down, despised and disenfranchised and make them one of “us” and “us” one of them. Nothing is more persuasive or ultimately more victorious than the left-handed power of God’s love.