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A Theological Look at Power: From Cover-up Families to Cities of Self-interest

This is the first post of our Power Over/Power With series, a collaboration between Safe Church Ministry and Do Justice.

We all have some power. Power to act, to choose, to alter our world and affect others, is part of being image-bearers of God.

Yet power can so easily become corrupt and be used to marginalize, manipulate, or control others. When we are unaware of or not careful with the power we hold, we can cause deep harm.

Jesus’ way of wielding power looks different from our own sin-corrupted ways of using our power.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you….The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”

(Matthew 20:25, 26a, 28)

In this four-part series, we will consider what the Bible says about power and how we might better follow Jesus’ way of self-emptying power (Philippians 2).

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The misuse of power has become a hot topic over the past several years. The Church has been wrestling in a variety of ways to name and navigate a proper way forward in a climate of dissention and disunity, where many don’t share a common language to talk about systemic issues, especially as they relate to power and abuse.

I want to dissect the role of power and its misuse in two stories that echo the original Fall in Eden. The first is the story of the budding vineyard family business, and the second is its outgrowth into a bustling city.

The Church has been wrestling in a variety of ways to name and navigate a proper way forward.

The earth was bursting with life and potential after it was renewed by the devastating flood. At the center of the story was a “righteous man, blameless in his generation, who walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). God chose to renew his covenant with Noah, out of all humanity, and the first thing we see him do is become a man of the earth and plant a thriving vineyard. The sentence after this we read about his drunk and naked state in his tent. Then we read about the consequences thereafter. His son, Ham, saw him and told his brothers. Then his other two brothers walk backwards to “cover him.”

Theologians have largely puzzled over this text. Many quickly note that Noah abused the vineyard, and then something not so good happened thereafter with Ham. What exactly, many don’t know, but many conclude that the text implied something horrible when with Ham’s “seeing” him.

Theologians have largely puzzled over this text.

While digging into this story a bit more, I came across another possible explanation from Rabbi Robin Nafshi. She sees this story as a negative example of how many family members respond when there clearly is a problem. Noah has a drinking problem, but when Ham tells his brothers they choose to ignore it, and literally “cover up” the issue.

Then the patriarch of the new covenant goes on to use his power to curse Canaan, casting the blame onto the future generations of Ham. Not only that, but he declared these descendents would be dominated in the form of slavery - even between his future grandchildren. It may not be just a coincidence that the Canaanites would become a main enemy of Israel, and that they lived in the land flowing with milk, honey, and certainly wine. No doubt the family’s issue of alcohol abuse would be passed on to the Canaanites as well.

Then the patriarch of the new covenant goes on to use his power to curse Canaan.

In the next major narrative we see how this family structure grew into a city, soon to be called Babel. Instead of multiplying across the whole earth and blessing it, they huddled together and created some sort of stronghold to build up and bring glory to themselves, and their own name and reputation. Then we see the Lord force them to integrate with the whole world, sending them out with a vast array of languages. This of course was the very thing they did not want.

In his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch comments that their “unchecked power, driven by self-interest, scarcity, grandiosity and aggression, is deadly to God’s original fruitful purposes. So God intervenes… with a burst of creativity, multiplying their languages. The introduction of linguistic diversity could be an opportunity for creativity and cooperation, but in a society poisoned by fear of outsiders it simply leads to dissension and dissolution” (Crouch 131).

What did this city do with their power?

Power plays a major role in both of these narratives. What did Noah do with his power? What did this city do with their power?

In a world after the Fall, even immediately after the new covenant was made with Noah, humans twist the good gifts of God and go on to abuse the earth, alienate each other, and forget whose image they bear. In these two stories we see how an improper use of power escalates into a pattern of self-interest, domination, and exclusion.

What if this narrative was retold, but with a generous vineyard master?

What if this narrative was retold, but with a generous vineyard master? What if this master, instead of getting drunk off his own wine, went looking high and low for more workers to come, help harvest, and taste of its fruit, treating all of them as equals? This is precisely the picture of the kingdom that Jesus shares in Matthew 20.

This alternative story Jesus tells is that of an upside-down world, where the first will be the last, and the last, first. It is a kingdom where those who have power refrain from using it over others; instead, they use their power for beauty and goodness to be experienced by all. Jesus’ kingdom is one in which power is multiplied as it’s given away. It is a story of generosity, invitation, and shared goodness. How should we use our power if we are a sign, foretaste, and instrument of this upside-down kingdom?

[Photo by Ales Me on Unsplash]

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