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Monday, 29 March 2010

Blogging toward Easter: Passion and power

In approaching Easter this year I have decided to try blogging some thoughts on Samuel Wells' Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection (Zondervan, 2005)

The promised commentary on Will Campbell and his free-wheeling approach to ecclesiology will have to wait for a while.

Samuel Wells introduces his approach to Easter with a hat tip to John Howard Yoder.

What if we are called to follow Jesus in one specific respect above all others: his willingness to walk the way of the cross in contrast to a host of political and social alternatives available to him? This book seeks to take up Yoder's mantle and begin with the same assumption. It seeks to describe six political alternatives available to Jesus - and broadly to us - and to portray the power and the passion of Jesus in the light of them, in such a way that the nature of the power and the direction of the passion available to us become transparent. (p.17)
His assumptions for reading the Gospels:
  • there is no such thing as a plain reading that is not already an interpretation and thee is no single correct reading.  (p.18)
  • Some parts of the Gospels have a special significance - the accounts of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus (p.19)
  • Christians always are and have been in the business of politics. Politics is the careful negotiation of passion and interest that pays respect to the different degrees and kinds of power and that the gospel of Jesus is about how individuals and groups use their power. (pp.19-20)
  • Power is not necessarily a bad thing. There are varieties of power, property. prestige and military power, sexual power and friendship and the power of God in creation and resurrection which assumes the abundance found in the gifts of time, companionship and forgiveness. the transformation of politics is about the transformation of the reality and perception of power. Jesus resurrection is about the politics of abundance transforming the reality of power.(pp.20-21)
  •  Passion is at the heart of the Gospel. passion is at the heart of politics and the heart of faith. (p.21)
Wells first character is Pontius Pilate whose character and engagement with power he reflects on through a reading of each of the Gospels, a reading which brings out the dynamics of power exercised by Pilate in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

People, Wells observes with executive power like to see themselves as honest brokers and are much more aware of the limits of their power than those outside are inclined to give them credit for.

Wells will not let those of us who are in positions of relative power get away with this rhetorical move to hide behind the ambiguities of public responsibilities or the assertion that "we", as opposed to "they" have no vested interests. the detailed reading that Wells offers us of Pilate and the dynamics of power demystifies the common reading of Pilate as an honest broker. Wells unpacks the gospel accounts to reveal the moves and counter moves of the power elites, for whom Jesus was a threat, stirring up the people as the gospels remind us. Here we have an account of the exercise of imperial power as the inescapable background to that week in Jerusalem.

Two critical threads emerge in the study of the first imperial character - the need to be sceptical of anyone who says "really there is nothing I can do - it's out of my hands - the cry of the realist politician and church leader. Pilate does have alternatives it is just that having established that Jesus is a threat to imperial rule his task is simple to deal with events so as to ensure Jesus is destroyed. The handwashing is pure 'spin' and very successful it has been too.

Politics begins when we realise that there are alternatives, there are things we can do rather than simply go along with a cynical realism and act to embody the truth that Jesus proclaims and lived out. In the run up to Easter it is useful to be reminded of those who imagined an alternative politics rather than conformity to the violence of empire. To remember Bishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, the Mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, Pilgram Marpeck and Michael Sattler who sought to enact a different politics. To Jean Vanier, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer who all embodied a passion for justice and the beloved community.

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