Crying Babies and Broken Carpenters
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
“Most people today, whether or not they believe in God, think that God is about power and that power is about the domination of others, through violence if necessary, just as human success is about wealth and career advancement and national greatness is about military triumph” (William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 4).
Bio-terrorists. Bunker-busters. Attack helicopters. Speak softly and carry a strategically big stick. It’s a dog eat dog world out there. Don’t go looking for fights, but be sure you don’t back down from any either. One of the chief criticisms of President Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo centered on his refusal to exercise power when dealing with a potentially hostile Muslim audience. To admit past failures on an international stage is thought to be a projection of weakness. The thinking seems to be that if we’re ever going to whip these Muslims into shape, we better make sure they know who’s calling the global shots.
Strength. Power. Might.
Look in a magazine to any advertisement for the good life. What do you see? Floridians on oxygen? No. You see young, tanned folks frolicking wherever it is that young, tanned folks frolic. Six-pack abs and square jaws make it abundantly clear that it isn’t you who’s making the rules; it’s people named Lance and Margo, people with healthy investment portfolios and the appropriate degrees on the wall.
We know what success looks like. The images are ubiquitous. It’s all about power; and we modern folks know where the power is located—and it ain’t located in Shawnee, or Watts, or Appalachia. If you want to get anything done in this world, you’ve got to have the juice and you’ve got to know where to find it. Which is why Christianity must always appear so weird to the world. Christianity worships at the altar of a God who, rather than throw thunderbolts from the heavens, deposited a wrinkled bundle of skin in a feed trough. How are you going to make that look good on Entertainment Tonight? You wouldn’t last five minutes on Meet the Press with that strategy. There aren’t any sunglasses, no bronzing gel, no overweening paparazzi; there aren’t any thousand dollar suits, no power ties, no manicured hands, only a few raggedy, bottom-of-the-food-chain shepherds, and an assortment of livestock.
God became like us. In a world of upward mobility, God always seems to be moving in the wrong direction. And that’s why the incarnation is such a scandal: it is the audacious declaration that the God of the universe privileged weakness as the ultimate display of power.
We thought that “God is about power and that power is about the domination of others, through violence if necessary.” The gospel reorients our thinking to life in God’s kingdom by redefining power through reference to a new reality in which “a little child shall lead them.” Our expectations of God’s overthrowing of the powers and principalities are always tempered by our memory that God’s greatest show of power is the power of restraint. Retributive justice is what the world has told us we ought to give and receive, but God has steadfastly refused to give us what we deserve.
Potency. Force. Muscle. These are what we’ve come to expect are necessary to rule the world. But God’s got different ideas about what it takes to run a universe. I mean, after all, what do you expect from a God who can’t do any better for power than crying babies and broken carpenters?