Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The spirit and power of the kingdoms of this world

A recent Lectionary reading included the story of the temptation of Jesus from Luke. Reading the story this time, I was not grabbed by anything about Jesus or the temptations themselves, but this little snippet about the other figure in the story:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
Luke 4: 5-7

What gave me pause was the idea that the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world are under the control of the devil. I suppose that this would be a much more self-evident proposition if I were an oppressed peasant in first century Palestine. I suppose that it would be more self-evident if I were a poor peasant in modern Burma or Haiti. But this also includes the liberal democracies of North America and Europe. This includes both the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the conservative end of the Tea Party.

The reason that this is a hard thing to read is that I am one of the privileged people that liberal democracies work for. Johann Maurer writes on his blog about Brian Fikkert's and Steve Corbett's book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Ourselves This excerpt caught my eye:

Unfortunately, while public policy has historically encouraged wealth accumulation for middle-to-upper-class people, it has often discouraged wealth accumulation for the poor. Middle-to-upper-class people are encouraged to accumulate wealth through such things as tax-deferred (and often employer-matched) retirement savings (IRAs, 401Ks, 403bs [these are USA-specific examples]), and mortgage-interest tax deductions. At the same time, poor people have been forced to deplete their assets before qualifying for welfare assistance and have been penalized with the loss of benefits if they somehow manage to save and invest too much! The end result is that many poor families are highly vulnerable to economic shocks and unable to even think about their financial futures.

This is part of the privilege that is invisible to the people receiving it. For the professional class, the 401-K is such a part of the landscape it is almost invisible. At least until the stock market tanks. Until I read this I had not noticed the class differences in policy towards wealth accumulation.

The real issue for Luke is that government is all about power. The government will use that power to benefit some people at the expense of others. In all cases, it is to benefit the people with power. In most cases, the people with power are the already privileged and wealthy. In times of revolution, the people with power might, for a short time, be the formerly dispossessed and the revolutionary government may work to their advantage. Wealth will always flow towards power. Or perhaps more accurately, power will always pump wealth away from those without power. In the revolutionary situation, over time the formerly dispossessed will become the privileged and wealthy.

But I am left with more questions than answers. I know intellectually that the government, even one lead by Barack Obama will not bring about the Kingdom of God. I am fortunate that the kingdom of this world works more or less to my benefit. But Jesus did not come to the well off and privileged. He came with good news for the poor and marginalized. His kingdom is not of this world. It is a kingdom where the last is first and the world is turned upside down. It is as hard, says Jesus, for a rich man to enter this kingdom as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. By the standards of most of the world's population, I am a rich man. Right now, I keep being shown glimpses of my privilege. Faithfulness is not always easy and grace is not cheap. But one thing I know is that right leading and right action is always wrapped in the love of God, and in the love of God, all things are possible. And everyone who resided in the Kingdom is wealthy, but not with the wealth of the world.


Will T


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I loved this essay, Will, but at the same time I wanted to add something. Governments are not just all about power, they are also all about division — the division between different parties struggling for power, the division between family members on opposite sides of a policy issue (which ultimately devolves into the brother-against-brother of situations like the War Between the States), and the division of the pie.

But what did our Friend Christ have to say about division? In Matthew 12: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” And in Luke 12, when “one from the crowd” said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide my inheritance with me,” he answered, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” And in Thomas 72, we are told that he then asked his followers, “I’m not a divider, am I?” With such words he rejected both power-over and division.

It seems to me that both power-over and division are the hands of the Devil at work in the world: that when we see these things, we should recognize them as such. But I wonder what you think —?

March 07, 2010 12:32 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I have never considered the issue of division, at least not since 5'th grade math. :^)

But I am inclined to agree with you about Christ's position on it. Christ does talk about separating the sheep and the goats. But the point of that is that it is God who does the dividing and not us.

There is also Matthew 10:34-39 where Jesus is quoted as saying that he has come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and so on. This is in the context of the need to love Christ more than family. So here the division can be laid to the people who have not been able to commit themselves fully.

This is something I will have to think about more.


March 07, 2010 7:38 PM  
Blogger Paul L said...

I am familiar with the temptation story, but until tonight never caught the significance of Satan saying that the glory and authority of the kingdoms "has been given over to me." Given by whom? By the God? By the kingdoms themselves?

If Romans 13 is correct, then God gave the "powers that be" their authority; that authority is to be a "terror to wrongdoers" and, if I may interpolate, a protector of the righteous. Consequently I can only conclude that Satan "was given" the glory and power of the kingdoms of the world by the kingdoms themselves.

But why would the kingdoms give -- or sell? -- their authority to the Great Liar? I think it's because they were swindled by his lie, which is that they are sovereign, that they are free and have to answer to no one but themselves. (It's essentially the same falsehood Adam made with the serpent in the Garden: You will not die, you will be like God, knowing good and evil.) If that's true, then obviously all earthly powers, left and right, serve the same evil master, which is to say themselves.

So I think, Will and Marshall, that the statement that "government is all about power" is true, but only because the world's powers have sold their birthright and true legitimacy. The struggle is to bring government back to its God-given vocation, to start punishing (or at least restraining) wrongdoers instead of rewarding them, and to rewarding (or at least protecting) the righteous.

That's why Jesus's being a king was so threatening to the Romans and their Jewish collaborators. His simple assertion that there was a kingdom that was not of this world spoke to the regime's guilty conscience and made his existence politically intolerable. (They could have tolerated him if he was merely a prophet, false or otherwise, or a teacher or even a rabble rouser. His capital offense was to pledge allegiance to an invisible sovereign.)

Regarding division, though, I'm not sure I understand, or perhaps agree, with you, Marshall. Will cites two of many quotes of Jesus where he made sharp distinctions. And Will's observation that "it is God who does the dividing, not us" is right on.

Kenneth Boulding is said to have said that the problem with discrimination isn't that we discriminate, but that we discriminate so badly. That is, we -- and governments -- make distinctions over things that don't matter, over false distinctions, and refuse to recognize distinctions that actually do exist and matter. Fallen governments manipulate these false distinctions -- race, sex, class, religion -- to keep their own illusion of sovereignty and autonomy from God.

Sorry for the ramble, but you've provoked some thinking. Thanks for the provocation.

March 09, 2010 12:14 AM  
Blogger RantWoman said...

Dear Friends, I seem to be in an equal opportunity tirades mode: I have read blog posts today from a couple different perspectives having something vaguely to do with discrimination and bouncing completely over the fact that this is International Women's Day. What say you specifically about the equality of women for the occasion?

March 09, 2010 1:04 AM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Paul, your question about who or what gave the power and authority of the kingdoms over to the devil, does not admit of an easy answer.

We could say, referencing the story of the Fall in Genesis, that it was given over by a fallen humanity; that seems to be your own answer, but it accords a theological preëminence to the Augustinian idea of universal human depravity that probably did not exist in Jesus’s and Luke’s time.

Alternately, we could say, referencing the first portion of Job, that it was given over by God when he appointed the satan to test (tempt) the faithful and prove (probe) their fidelity.

The problem here is that the concept of the Tempter was undergoing a steady and rapid transformation in the centuries leading up to Jesus’s time — from its character in Job (where the satan is an agent of God serving God’s purposes) to the almost Manichæan idea of a second great Power hostile to goodness and pitted against God in cosmic warfare. In Jesus’s and Luke’s day, the older Jobian idea seems to have existed side by side with the newer one.

Either interpretation would work in the present context. But a Jobian interpretation would not require us to believe that all the governments of the world have chosen to be corrupt; it would only require us to believe that the Tempter was given the power by God to deliver to Christ any worldly thing he might wish, in order to test and prove Christ’s fidelity.

On another point, the actual historical record shows that the Romans were continually executing Jews they regarded as rabble-rousers. It is thus not necessary to believe that they executed Jesus because they felt him to be something more than such. Jewish restlessness under the Roman yoke was in and of itself a major concern to the Romans: not merely because of Judæa’s location, bordering the precious granaries of Egypt on one side and the hostile Parthian empire on the other, and shaped like a highway between the two, but also because Jews were numerous and widespread all across the eastern Mediterranean, and a successful revolt on Judæa’s part might have drawn other provinces out of the empire along with it.

And so the Romans were always anxious to snuff out any possibility of rebellion. Josephus’s War of the Jews (Ἰουδαϊκοῦ Πόλεμος) conveys a good picture of the situation, especially in Book Two.

March 09, 2010 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that middle class people are privileged compared to the truly poor.... But I believe the statistics about wealth distribution in the US roughly equate to the top 5% of the population owning/controling something like 80% of the wealth and the remaining 95% of us get to share the remaining 20% of the wealth. Something like 200 people in the world control more wealth than the 40 poorest countries.... In many ways my lifestyle is closer to that of my ghetto clients than it is to the super rich.

March 09, 2010 6:08 PM  
Blogger kevin roberts said...

You know, Will, the influence and authority that Satan has over the fallen world is not limited to social injustice and the bleeding crowd, important as they are.

Satan has been given dominion over all creation, and I see his work in the eyes of a dog hit by a truck that never stopped, dying in my arms on the roadside with a ripped-open thorax. I see him at work in the coal mines under my neighbor, who was forced to shut down the dairy that supported him and three generations before him because his five springs and two wells went dry. I see him at work in school yard bullies, and in the angry drivers who cut me off in traffic and shake their fists. And on and on.

The dominion of Satan has much deeper effects on our world than just the influence of governments. Governments, after all, are nothing more than the people who make them up. We stand for something different every time we make a small decision that makes our own little lives more congruent with that of our Guide.

March 10, 2010 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good essay.

My point of view is that the devil in the Bible is a personification of evil, and not an actual being. The power over all earthly matters, given over to the devil and mentioned in the temptation, is our free will, which we corrupted with sin. So, we please ourselves by the power of this sinfulness, and thus we have given Ourselves over to the devil (which is really us, in our most debased, self-serving forms.)

Mark Jacobson

March 10, 2010 10:13 AM  

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