4 January 2015
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa
It might seem like a strange thing to say after all my studies and training, but there are times when I find it rather disconcerting to look out at my students while I’m talking and to see them vigorously taking notes. I know I should be glad at their diligence, but there’s a part of me that wants to stop and ask, “How do you know I’m not just making stuff up?” Seriously! There are probably a few things going on there. On the one hand, while scholars may project confidence in their assertions, the competitive world of academia can generate some real self-doubt: will I ever know enough? will people actually believe what I’m saying? do I believe what I’m saying? This is why mental health centers on college campuses are so vital and so busy.
On the other hand, for real pedagogical reasons—that is, for serious concerns about the methods and processes of teaching and learning—I want my students to have a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion, to use a fancy term. A hermeneutic of suspicion (and now you should be taking notes!) is an interpretive framework whereby a person doesn’t just accept what is said at face value but wonders what stands behind and beyond an idea or expression. For example, for a long time it was assumed that women were not active in the earliest Christian communities because of such statements as the one in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should remain silent in the assemblies (v34). But appropriately skeptical readers of the Bible, especially women, started to say, “Wait a minute! If women were being told to be quiet, that probably means they were actually already speaking.” And from there, people started reading with different eyes to the texts, not assuming women’s absence but instead looking for their presence. For instance, in Romans 16, we find that Paul names Junia, a woman, as being among the apostles (v7), quite a significant designation, and Junia is just one among other women named for their essential roles in the earliest Christian communities.
All of this is to say that we can actually miss out on important details and misread the evidence of history when we take as final what is said rather than asking questions with a healthy amount of suspicion. Again, it’s odd to say it, but sometimes seeing my students furiously scratching down everything I’m saying makes me nervous that they’re taking me too seriously. Of course, it is possible to take notes (and it’s good to take notes!) and to ask questions too, and many of my students do both of these things quite well. But I still wonder, “What if I were just making stuff up?”
Rest assured, I don’t just make things up, and I am honest with my students if I don’t know something. But the bigger point here is that, in these moments, I realize just how much my students are trusting me. They are looking to me as possessing some level of intellectual authority, as well as having power over their grades. I take quite seriously this issue of power dynamics and strive to be worthy of my students’ trust, at the same time as I seek to empower them to engage as full and equal participants in discussion, with their own knowledge, questions, and, hopefully, suspicions.
Our relationships of all kinds—between partners, siblings, friends, colleagues, civil authorities, and so on—are variously marked by sometimes minor and sometimes quite significant power dynamics. We recognize this when we consider the various ways we have the ability either to harm or help others, or the ways others can hurt or benefit us. Our words have power. Our actions have power. And so do the words and actions of others. We know this in our own lives, from relations with our closest family members to the consequences of governmental deliberation and action.
I am not sure there is any escaping the reality of differing dynamics of power, though we might work consciously to shape their effects toward the good. And indeed, power can be used well, from teaching that inspires to legislation that benefits people’s lives. But problems arise when we cling to power out of fear that we might lose it. And this is precisely what we find in this morning’s gospel lesson.
The fact that Herod is identified as a king tells us something about the authority that he holds. Moreover, he’s a friendly king with Rome, so we might imagine the extent of his sway backed by the dominant empire of the day; we might also consider Herod’s interest in maintaining order so as to keep the Romans happy, which means he stays happy. And indeed, it seems that Herod did take measures to suppress protests and maintained forces to keep people in line. Yet, the story told in Matthew is one that presents a crack in the armor: when Herod receives an inquiry as to where the one called the king of the Jews has been born, the text reports that “he was frightened” (2:3). If we keep issues of power in mind, what happens next is exactly what we might expect. Herod sends the Magi on an information-seeking expedition in order that he might find out what is going on and so that he might then control the situation; the rest of the story reveals that his method of control is to kill the children in and around Bethlehem under the age of two, expecting that this will eliminate the child heralded as king of the Jews.
Herod acts out of a fear that his power is threatened, and so he seeks to eliminate the threat. This should disturb us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. The greater the power, the greater the desire can be to maintain authority at all costs. We know this story in myriad forms throughout human history and still today.
But we also know the other side of the story. By including Herod within the broader narrative (which really dampens the joy of the Christmas story!), the writer of Matthew sets up a confrontation between the power that engenders fear and the power of hope for a better world. On the other side of Herod’s fear is the story of the birth of Jesus, the embodiment of the hope in God’s promise that the world will be made right. It is the hope of the prophet Isaiah, who, as we heard again this morning, announces the coming of true peace and security. This is the heart of the biblical tradition: God’s saving power. For Isaiah, the proclamation that the light has come addresses the real circumstances of exile, of having been conquered and taken away to a strange land, but trusting that God will be on the side of the faithful. Likewise, for Matthew, the narrative addresses a real tension between the authorities of the world that serve to oppress and the trust that Jesus will bring God’s just reign.
The hope of the Christmas story is indeed threatening to the powers of the status quo. As Pastor Joyce preached a couple weeks ago, the world is turned upside down. And so, we might consider the power of hope as not just being about having a positive outlook but as fundamentally being a form of critique. To hope for something is to express dissatisfaction over something else. When we say that we hope this new year is a good one, we’re making some kind of comparison, either one that is concrete (as if to say, for instance, that we desire for 2015 to be better than 2014) or one that is more hypothetical but no less real (as if we imagine what a bad or even mediocre year would be and hope for something different). Embedded in hope is a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion, a way of interpreting the world-that-is or the world-that-is-unfolding and to imagine that it could actually be different, and not only different but better.
It may seem like a bit of a downer to articulate hope in this way. Critique isn’t the most comforting of words, but understanding hope as a form of critique is really important, especially as people of faith. We have probably all experienced it when somebody says something that’s supposed to be hopeful but feels a bit empty; we’ve also probably said these things ourselves—I know I have. How do we know things will get better? How do we know everything is happening for a reason? I think sometimes we move too quickly to saying that we just have to have faith or we just have to have hope without also engaging the power of hope’s critique. It is entirely biblical to be suspicious and frustrated and upset with the way things are and to wonder if and how they will be better. This is the story of our faith. And the hopeful part of the story is that we can name where there is harm and hurt and struggle and trust that God will see us through to the end, that God will ultimately bring healing and rest for our weary souls.
But it has never just been an idle story, one where we sit back and wait. God might be on the side of the faithful, but the faithful are called to be on the side of God, which means to carry out God’s work in the world. The prophet Isaiah does not just proclaim the restoration of Jerusalem; Isaiah critiques the lack of care for the poor and oppressed. And the good news of the gospel is not just about the salvation of souls but is a call to care for one another and to be just as God is merciful and just, not just to receive good news but to bring it into the world. The hope intrinsic to our faith is the promise that all creation will be renewed, which is a critique of all the forces that do harm to God’s creation.
This is where I think it is imperative to consider the ways that power, fear, and hope are interrelated. To hope for a better world is to suggest that there are powers that diminish and prevent flourishing, and just to have this kind of hope, let alone to proclaim it, is a threat to the way things are. The result of being on the other side of hope’s critique too often is fear—fear of the loss of status or control—with the impulse, then, to exert authority in a way that reaffirms and shores up power, usually doing further harm to those over whom the power is exercised. The King Herods of the world are the easy examples that we can name unequivocally as problematic. But what about those more subtle power dynamics in our lives? Are there ways we resist change because we are afraid of what it will mean for ourselves, even while it might be good for others (and ultimately for ourselves)? I know that sometimes my own first reactions to things I might not have expected or desired can be defensive, even as I realize over time that with openness I might see new possibilities that better account for both others’ needs and wants and my own.
When we feel the fear of losing control or see it around us, we might pause to consider the other side of that fear: the hope that power can be exercised differently to the benefit of all rather than to the few. For instance, right now in this country, old wounds of racism are festering yet again as protestors proclaim their hope for fair treatment in the streets and in the justice system, and we wonder if it’s “us versus them” or if the “us” might have to change in order that we all might live together peaceably. The growing gap between the rich and poor raises questions about how we might fulfill our biblical mandate to care for the poor, which in turn raises challenges to current systems of power and wealth. The connections between these kinds of larger concerns and the relations and issues of our everyday lives can overwhelm and leave us wondering what kind of power we have at all.
We have the power of hope, the hope that can name the problems, that can be honest about where we are falling short of the vision God has for us, and the hope then that we can, by the grace of God, live into a better, more just reality, a world in which we are drawn together in love through God’s love for us.
In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from a poem that I find to express quite poignantly the way that hope holds within it the power to name the struggles from which we pray for release. Hear these words from James Baldwin’s poem “Some Days”:
Some days you say,
oh, not me never — !
Some days you say
bless God forever.
Some days, you say,
curse God, and die [this is actually a biblical quote from the book of Job]
and the day comes when you wrestle
with that lie.
Some days tussle
then some days groan
and some days
don’t even leave a bone.
Some days you hassle
I don’t know, sister,
what I’m saying,
nor do no man,
if he don’t be praying.
I know that love is the only answer
and the tight-rope lover
the only dancer.
When the lover come off the rope
the net which holds him
is how we pray,
and not to God’s unknown,
but to each other — :
the falling mortal is our brother! [and, I would add, sister!]
There is much in this life that is precarious; just to live each day is a risk. But to live with hope is to risk walking life’s tightrope with the confidence of being caught by God’s abiding mercy. And this is what I love about the poem: it reminds us that our hope is not for some vague, unknown notion of protection but that we are called to care for one another, to be in prayer for one another not just in words but in acts of loving-kindness. The power of hope does not fear its own loss of control because it is grounded in God’s eternal promise, which is made manifest in the ways we love one another according to the abiding love of God.