21 January 2009

Transfer of power

At 4 rubles/megabyte but only 20-40 KB/second speed on our Skylink Internet connection, we decided not to try to view President Obama's inauguration online, but instead listened to the audio on the NPR Web feed, and occasionally refreshed the photos on the New York Times live blogging page to see the unfolding scene at the inauguration. (There we are in the photo, at my desk, listening to the inauguration.) 

At this very moment, I'm making up for our image-deprived access by downloading several huge video files from Tuesday's events, at 31 KB/sec, during the unmetered overnight hours. 

Despite the skinny connection, I felt riveted. It was a moment I'll always remember. President Obama and his inauguration planners went out of their way to honor and emphasize ideals of justice, accountability, compassion, humility, respect, and global citizenship. Even if we never achieve ideal scores in all of these categories, we have been given collective permission to raise them again as the true stars and stripes of our flag.

Not that I am totally awed by the concept of "transfer of power." I don't know whether it is the biblical prophets or an inward echo of Howard Zinn, but I'm acutely aware that, in Washington, DC, power does not transfer very far. Some knots of wealth and influence have shifted a slot or two farther away from the apparatus of power, others have slipped a little closer. By and large, the same elites are in place today as were in place two days ago. Their world is probably less upset by a new president than by the last quarter's seismic shifts in the financial markets and structures of the world.

I don't mean at all to be cynical, for two reasons: First, it does matter who is president, and how he or she uses the presidential pulpit. If we are told unsustainable lies and platitudes, then our communal resolve, our dedication to common success, is weakened. On the other hand, if trustworthy leaders give us legitimate challenges, we can offer them in return a huge fund of goodwill and support for them to draw on, and may even be far more willing to adopt more sustainable practices in our own lives in the service of a better national and global stewardship. What a concept--true stewardship in national politics!!

Second, Christians should tell the truth about the powers and elites, but should never demonize the people in those places of power, even in the service of community organizing or to sound progressive. Evangelism is relationship-building. Those who have more power or wealth than they can spiritually handle are as much in bondage as the victims of their power; our Gospel invitation must extend to all. We cannot say "thou fool" to ANYONE without spiritual risk.

Speaking of evangelism, I'm in the first pages of what looks like an excellent book, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness, by Bryan Stone. Just a few teasers from opening pages:
Christian evangelism, as I will argue throughout this book, is pacifist in every way. The good news is, as Isaiah said, the good news of "peace." But this peace is not only the content and substance of evangelism, it is its very form. Christian evangelism refuses every violent means of converting others to that peace, whether that violence is cultural, military, political, spiritual, or intellectual. Evangelism requires only the peaceable simplicity of an offer and an invitation to "come and see" (John 1:46). The practice of evangelism, I believe, inescapably counters and disarms the world's powerful practices by unmasking the narratives that sustain them and by offering a story and a people that are peaceful and beautiful. The gospel can, therefore, be good news again in our world. But only if in Christ something new in the world has been made possible and the Holy Spirit present--something both disturbing and inviting, a salvation in the form of a new story, a "new humanity," a new peoplehood.

A few righteous links before blogger.com goes dark for maintenance: The weblog A Musing Environment reactivates, thank goodness--including these thoughts on discernment. ~~ The Obama Inauguration from near and far. (Actually, you should decide which is which.) ~~ Speaking of the USA's founding ideals, this book review considers the spiritual and rhetorical context of four of Martin Luther King's most important words: "I have a dream."

Eric Clapton addresses the "empathy deficit": "It hurts me too." (OK, maybe I AM reading too much into the lyrics of this old classic!)


Anonymous said...

"Those who have more power or wealth than they can spiritually handle are as much in bondage as the victims of their power."

This statement is elitist, because it could only come from someone who has NOT truly been a victim of corrupt power. When your children are killed by foreign bombs, or you are starving on the streets, would you still maintain that those who dropped the bombs or evicted you from your house are as much victims of their cruelty as you are? Would you tell others who have suffered these cruelties in various degrees that those responsible are suffering as much as they are? I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Peace and truth will not come about by denying the extent of freely-committed human evil and trying to sympathize with the poor corrupt rich people.

Johan Maurer said...

I both agree with you, other than the word "elitist" (which I am not!) and also stand by my earlier statement. If you practice terrorism (under official cover or not) and cruelty, you are in spiritual bondage.

I am not comparing suffering here--that would be foolish. I'm not setting up a hierarchy of victimhood. Most of us are probably not called to an active ministry of compassion for tyrants and "poor corrupt rich people," but there is certainly room for such a ministry--the more assertive the better.

Anonymous said...

Johan, thanks. It is cheap and easy to allow oneself (I speak from experience) the indulgence of at least thinking, "thou, fool" when hearing about the shenanigans of people in politically high places.

You are right to remind us of our Lord's warning.

Long ago I heard a recording (cannot remember the woman's name) in which the speaker spoke about "Christian sins." As an example, she said, "we look down on people who look down on people." That has stuck with me, and your post reasserts that as difficult and sometimes illogical as it seems, we are called to bless all, just as the Lord makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on all.

Again, thanks.