Most of my classes last week dealt with the large issues of social structure and power. The Race and Ethnic Relations class was my 400 years of history. The criminology class wrapped up social disorganization theories. Spirituality, Faith, and Justice was, well about Justice from a Christian perspective. I spent today reading Paolo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which explores the nature of oppression and what is required to create alternative possibilities.
Of course, in the broader social context, we’ve been preparing for government shutdown, debt ceiling votes, and implementation of ObamaCare. Contrasting the national news with my courses has led me to reflect on some larger issues of why we can’t deal with the large-scale issues facing us as a society.
For some reason, my mind went to some popular culture references. Two references are old science fiction pieces (geek alert) and the other from the end of Burn Notice. If I wanted to be truly relevant, I’d be blogging about Breaking Bad but I haven’t gotten into it (yet).
I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not so much as to watch reruns all the time, but enough to like the story lines. One of the greatest antagonists in all of television were the Borg. An interconnected web of consciousness, the Borg continually learned from experience and adapted almost immediately. Any creative response made by the Enterprise crew worked for a short time until the Borg adjusted. It seemed to be a logical advantage that was theoretically unbeatable.
This is a common technique in drama. The enemy is all powerful but through some small quirk in the otherwise flawless development, the good guys can prevail. I first read it in War of the Worlds, when the Martians proved allergic to salt.
There’s another movie technique we like. Through some individual’s purity of thought or special ability, the otherwise infallible foe gets beaten. Most famously is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting system and taking Obi Wan Kenobi’s advice to “trust the force”. So he fires the torpedo down the shaft “the size of a womp rat”, blows up the Death Star, and seriously damages the Empire.
But even then, I’m stuck with my Borg problem (I know, Star Wars happened first). The bad guys are just too powerful that it takes tons of suspending disbelief to allow the good guys to win.
I think that Borg and the Emperor are more accurate versions of what Paul called Principalities and Powers. Those sources of oppression addressed by Friere’s Brazil, America’s racial history, contemporary economic injustice, and the alignment of religious and political power. These forces are bigger than our planning, our elected officials, our academics, and our theologians.
Which brings me to Maddie Weston. If you weren’t a Burn Notice fan, it’s hard to summarize seven seasons in a paragraph. Michael Weston and his team are always battling principalities and powers without never knowing who is pulling the strings. Michael’s mother Maddie winds up drawn deeper and deeper into their schemes and strategies. At the end of the series, the bad guys are coming and will kill Michael and troupe, but especially Maddie’s young grandson. (Spoiler alert) Maddie determines that the only way to allow everyone to have a fighting chance is to detonate explosives that will get the seemingly invincible bad guys but kill herself in the process. Her sacrifice, her abandonment of personal security for those she loves, is the only thing that makes the plan work and saves her loved ones.
It strikes me that too often the evangelical church has attempted to deal with principalities and powers with the mistaken belief that if we could just get enough power, then we could do God’s work in society. But then we become just another one of the principalities. Or we hope that some influential individual will have the right combination of gifts to make a persuasive case for good. But when we do that we wind up putting our gifted spokesman (normally a man) against those of the other side. We wind up arguing talking points and points of evidence and want special consideration because of our faith.
What Maddie Weston understood is the true source of power the church possesses. In fact, this is the trump card of the Gospel. It is when we sacrifice our power on behalf of the powerless, the sinful, and the underdeserving, that the principalities begin to fail. They really aren’t versed at sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice undermines the entire social structure.
Imagine the role a sacrificial church could have played in fostering racial equality, in promoting economic justice, or in supporting medical care for the needy.
It reminds me of that famous G.K Chesterton quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”