Reducing to nothing the things that are: a wee reflection on the politics of power

Vince Boudreau’s book Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia begins with these words:

There are times and places about which nothing seems more significant than the sheer energy and violence that states direct against basic freedoms. The snippets of information that filter from these dictatorial seasons – tales of furtive hiding and tragic discovery: hard times and uneasy sleep – describe lives utterly structured by state repression. Authoritarians bent on taking power, consolidating their rule or seizing resources frequently silence opponents with bludgeons, bullets and shallow graves, and those who find themselves in the path of the state juggernaut probably have trouble even imagining protest or resistance without also calculating the severity or likelihood of state repression. Such considerations surely influence whether individuals take action or maintain a frustrated silence, and will over time broadly shape protest and resistance. (p. 1)

My long interest in the people and politics of Burma, in particular, means that I think a lot about this kind of stuff, and particularly about how the community of God might witness to and in the midst of such situations where the abuses of authority birth such blatantly evil fruit and where the climate of hope has been beclouded in fear. [Rose Marie Berger’s recent post on Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed?, for example, recalled such fruit in another part of the world]. Certainly, all human relationships and institutions live under the constant threat of the abuse of power. And even a cursory reading of history will reveal that the Church too has been both victim and perpetrator of such abuse. (I am aware that already I have used the words authority and power interchangeably here. Certainly they are at least related, and the proper understanding and use of each will decide whether the ways being pursued bring the fragrance of life or the stench of death to a situation.)

In my teaching, I am particularly interested to encourage thinking about the relationship between power and pastoral ministry, between the politics of power and what I call the ‘eucharistic ontology’ of Christian witness. Of course, we might do just as well reading 1 Corinthians 1.27–29, and recalling that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak in the world to shame the strong, what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’. I guess that I am concerned with exploring the Church’s option of resistance to powers’ abuse as noted by Boudreau; namely, whether we ‘take action or maintain a frustrated silence’. And if the Church is called, among other things, to participate in Jesus’ work of destroying ‘the works of the devil’ (1 John 3.8), then what weapons does God (for surely, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, that section of humanity in which Christ is taking form must resist the temptation to take up other weapons!) arm the friends of Jesus with?

In his ‘Reflections on the Notification Sent to Jon Sobrino’, published in Getting the Poor Down From the Cross: Christology of Liberation, José Comblin recalls that ‘Christendom has meant that there has been a close alliance between the clergy and the civil powers, meaning the civil authorities. A long reflection that is not only theory, but that has emerged out of living together with the poorest of the people, has demonstrated that this alliance has left no space for the Church of the Poor. This alliance has treated the poor like beggars, and has not allowed them to grow socially and/or culturally. This has been the case despite the pretty speeches of the authorities, meaning the dominant aristocracies’ (p. 75).

The fact is, as Duncan Forrester has also reminded us of in his Theological Fragments, Christian worship loses its integrity when it becomes either isolated from the realities of life, or an escape from the implications of oppression. ‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’ (pp. 109, 110).

So the need to keep worshipping, to keep being confronted by the Word who puts us and our schemes to death and then calls us to participate in his action, and to keep hoping, like John the Baptist, that the One we encounter on the road might be ‘the one who is to come’ (Matt 11.3//Luke 7.19–20).

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