Earlier this week, Former President George W. Bush said this in an interview, “I consider the media to be indispensible to democracy….we need an independent media to hold people like me to account, power can be very addictive, it can be corrosive…”
I am not sure I have ever heard a President admit this fact; power can change us, corroding our moral compass. Most of us think we would do it better. Like how if we won the lottery, we would manage to do it differently and not end up bankrupt with broken relationships, wishing the windfall had never come. We deny what access to profits and possessions and power can do.
Power itself isn’t bad, it’s how we use it, in whose name and where and with what intent.
Power can be an instrument for equity and peace. Power can be an avenue for change for the common good and enough for all of us. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
In the Christian tradition, the holy season of Lent is a time of penance and spiritual examination, a season of repentance, leading up to Easter. As Maryetta Anschutz writes, Lent “engages the dark places in our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them, understand them and seek forgiveness for them.”
We must name what is true to be freed from it.
On Wednesday, we hosted an Inter-Religious Ash Wednesday Prayer Service here in the Fellowship Hall. The service began outside behind City Hall with communal lamentations and naming the wounds and ashes in our community, calling out the inequity in housing, education and health, about the trans phobia and Islam phobia and Xenophobia and sexism and anti-Semitism. We prayed from a variety of traditions and then we processed inside, ritualizing the hope of changing individually and collectively, of correcting everything that stands against love.
It is easy to feel powerless right now. I find that I am craving more opportunities to gather with people of all kinds, to remember how much power we do have collectively. But it looks like the billionaires are winning or that ignorance and lies are winning. We are seeing what George W. Bush spoke of, the corrosive nature of power.
So who are we then? Ordinary people of faith and conscience without lobbying firms and private equity managers? What kind of power do we have for real?
The story of Jesus in the desert has a lot to say about power. He follows a Sacred whisper, a Divine pull, into the wilderness and after fasting; he has three different encounters with the Devil. They are presented as temptations. Richard Rohr suggests that first he is turning down the natural desire to look good, second he is turning down the need to think of himself as superior, third he is turning down the need for control. He says no to one form of power after another and with each temptation he shows up with Zen-like self-control.
This is the only time I know of where the Devil actually quotes scripture. How fitting that the Dark Side stooped so low as to using his sacred text against him. And yet Jesus takes each invitation and hangs on. Even though he feels alone, he sticks with it, he names the truth.
The power Jesus draws upon comes not from profit or possession, he demonstrates the power of grit, the power of a strong will. His steadfastness was rooted in a God of love and justice, his grit came from a place of righteousness, his strong will prevailed.
For thousands of years, our will as human beings has been a topic of debate.
“Free Will” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives…”
And modern psychological research has probed human will more specifically, gaining learning from things like delayed gratification, ego depletion and cognitive control, seeking to understand will and will power in new ways. More recently, imaging technology is allowing us to learn the mechanics in the brain of what happens in the act of willing.
It might be easy to discount a strong will as an agent of transformation. What kind of power do we have for real? We tend to think of power as external, vastly exceeding whatever we might righteously generate on our own. But what if the power we have already is enough?
I have returned to the words of Arundhati Roy’s many times in these last months. “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe….”
I realized part of my personal resistance plan in this time would include me adding more music in my life, so I joined the Closing the Gap Choir. It is a glorious ministry of Recovery Café, including people across economic divides, all grateful for music as part of healing and hope. I sang with them for the first time this week. Anna started on the piano with a song from the Television show Empire…
I wept as the choir voices chimed in…
There’s so much strength in you and me
A breath away from victory
I matter, you matter, we matter all
I matter, you matter, we matter all
What if Lent is not about seeing if we have the power to give up chocolate, but about seeing how much Holy can happen when we show up in our wilderness places with the power of grit? What if this is a season for us to take more seriously the power we already have, the power of millions of strong wills acting together? Lent engages the dark places in our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them and also stand up to them. Lent is about leaving our comfortable places and risking the chance we might have to face the Devil and say out loud again and again and again that we aren’t giving in.
After a time of silence, we reflected around these questions:
Have you been tempted by power?
How do you claim your own willpower in your life?
How can our community express holy grit?