VIEW VIDEO Americans are a curious lot. I was eating lunch at Frank’s Place this week. I go there for my continuing education. There is much to be learned by listening to the conversations around you. When I was there this week, I was eavesdropping on the table next to mine, and heard a man complain about the federal government. Apparently, he had just come from paying his taxes. He was kvetching how the government was too big and too powerful and something needed to be done about it. It sounded as if he were moments away from organizing a militia to storm the ramparts. I’ve known this man 50 years and in all that time he’s never even summoned the energy to keep his yard mowed, so I wasn’t too concerned about our nation’s welfare.
He finished his meal before I did, and on his way out stopped at my table. He knows I have a son, Sam, in the Army, so he wanted to know how Sam was doing. I told him Sam was well, that he lived in Alaska, and was enjoying being a new father. He asked if Sam was going to make the Army his career, and I said, “Yes, I believe he is. He wants to become a physician’s assistant.”
The man nodded approvingly, smiling, then said, “Our nation is blessed. We have the strongest military in the history of the world.”
It was a bit confusing. Not five minutes before he was worried the government was too big and powerful, and now he seemed pleased by it. I know a lot of people like that man. People who are opposed to a strong federal government, while being simultaneously proud we have the strongest army in the world. It illustrates our mixed feelings about power. We feel about power the same way a friend of mine who lives next to the ocean feels about water─he appreciates it as long as it’s properly contained. We want power to know its boundaries. If we think power has overstepped its boundaries, we make a fuss. Go to any restaurant, go on Facebook, listen to any radio or television talk show, and before long we’re bound to hear someone grumble about the government’s power. We fear power, but we also value it, and even celebrate it. The same people who are troubled by the government’s power often think it’s wonderful we have the strongest military in the history of the world. Just as those who live next to an ocean both fear and admire its power.
Our ambivalence about power isn’t new. We see shades of it in the Easter story. The early Christians who feared the power of Caesar, who bridled at any effort by Roman authorities to control them, talked enthusiastically about the power of God. Indeed, made the power of God the central tenet of our faith, and pointed to the resurrection as the definitive proof of God’s power. Caesar would kill Jesus, but with God’s power, Jesus would rise again. Caesar would die, his power would end; but with God’s power Jesus would come back to life and reign forever and ever.
The resurrection was the church’s way of saying to Caesar, “You think you’re powerful, but your power will one day end. But the power of God will never end.” This is why the church pointed to the resurrection as proof of God’s power, and said that when we believed in that power, we would share it, and even inherit that same power. John the gospel writer said it like this, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, God gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
Now hang with me, because this next point is important, central to our lives as Christians and Quakers. Though the church has traditionally contended that the resurrection was an example of God’s power, I disagree. I think the resurrection was an example of God’s character. Especially when compared to the character of Caesar, which in this case is a metaphor for all who claim to have complete and ultimate authority over us.
The crucifixion was a revelation of Caesar’s character. It proved that Caesar would use his power to silence, to put down, to kill. It told us everything we needed to know about Caesar, that his power would be used to control, condemn, and destroy. The children of Caesar are still among us. They are those leaders who use their power unjustly and unkindly. When the Tennessee legislature expelled two black legislators this past week for protesting guns, that’s Caesar power. That’s all that is. The use of power in the service of tyranny and domination. That’s Caesar.
In those moments, in the misuse and abuse of power, the character of the Tennessee Legislature was revealed. The Apostle Paul had a word for that kind of abuse. He called it the powers and principalities. They exist only to control, condemn, and destroy. That is the power we fear, power without conscience, power whose only goal is the accumulation of more power, and the suppression of dissent.
Now if the crucifixion revealed Caesar’s character, the resurrection revealed God’s character. It told us God would use his power to heal, to restore, to give life. It told us everything we needed to know about God, that God’s power would be used for good. The children of God are among us too. They are those people who use their power to heal, restore, and give life. In those moments, in the wise and loving use of power, their character is revealed. John called them the children of God. Jesus called them Light and Salt. They are the bearers and bringers of beauty and justice and peace and hope. And that is the power we admire, isn’t it? Power with a conscience, power whose goal is the betterment of others.
Just as Caesar’s character was revealed in the crucifixion, and God’s character was revealed in the resurrection, our character is likewise revealed in our use of power.
Are we the offspring of Caesar? Do we use our power to condemn, to control, to silence and destroy?
Or are we the offspring of God? Do we use our power to heal, restore, and give life?
Whose children are we?