Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pagan Power

The media can’t decide what to call today: Super Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. By some strange twist, Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday,” the day before the start of Lent), and “Super Tuesday” (the name given by the media to the day in which 24 states and American Samoa will choose their presidential candidates), just happened to fall on the same day. Fat Tuesday, or Carnival as it is known in most places, is a sort of last big “blowout” before the forty days of fasting and self-denial associated with Lent. Its origins probably lie in the pagan festivals associated with the worship of Bacchus (Dionysus was his Greek name) in which all restraint on conduct was suspended in favor of orgiastic and frenetic feasting and partying. And so the media can’t decide what today is all about: power or paganism.

It occurs to me that it’s about both. In Mark’s gospel there is a story about James and John’s request of Jesus to sit in the “seats of power” when he should come into his “glory.” Of course, the “glory” Jesus will come into is his crucifixion, not exactly the power places James and John had in mind. Jesus senses here a “teachable moment” and turns to his disciples and lays a little lesson on them about power: “You know that those who seem (Greek dokeo) to rule over the pagans lord it over them…but it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). It was Frank Stagg, my late teacher and mentor, who first made the connection for me in this text. Commenting on this passage in a PhD seminar, Stagg said: “Did you hear that? Did you hear what Jesus just said? The will to power is pagan and cannot be redeemed, no matter who is wielding it; it can only be aborted.”

And on this day when paganism is prominent and people are vying for the “seats of power,” Stagg’s words haunt me. I know, I know, we think that the reason power goes awry is that the wrong people have it. Give it to the right people and things work out. But as Stagg reminded us that day, there are no “right people.” Like Gollum in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings consumed by lust for his “Precious,” I’ve seen people betray their best friends merely to grip a paltry piece of pagan power that every hand seized by death’s rigor must relinquish anyway. Seen it? I’ve done it!

There are no “right people.” Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely, Machiavelli said. The will to power is pagan and cannot be redeemed; it can only be aborted, Jesus said. Give it up; throw it back, destroy the Ring, Tolkien said. You’re not that smart. You’re not that good. It’s not that simple.

I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t care about politics or vote or take part in the political process. Though we’re not “of” the world, we’re certainly “in” it. Nor am I saying that the people currently vying for the “big chair” are bad people. I don’t know them, and it’s not my call anyway. I’m saying the only power we can be trusted with is the power of powerlessness: of cross, of servanthood, and of suffering love.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Digital Image: Mangueira samba schoo parading during 1998 carnival in Rio, by Felipe Ferreira.

No comments: