Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula
On the whole, in group settings at least, power has more often been abused than used justly and to the benefit of those over whom the power held sway. As Lord Acton wrote in his letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even in a democracy, there are abuses of power. The torturing of political prisoners is one example of brute power being exercised.
I learned a few things, or think I did, while trying to understand the Enron scandals that were, among other things, power abuses of those who had pensions with the company. I’m glad I’m not an accountant and glad that smart, ethical people like Jason Hale are.
I gather that regarding a typical 401K plan, an employee usually makes a contribution to her or his retirement plan that is matched by the employer with stock. Enron supplied their employees with an equal contribution in Enron stock only. Under legit circumstances, the employer is supposed to supply employees with diverse stock options; however, again, Enron stock was the only stock offered to Enron employees. No one was complaining because the stock was doing so well. When Enron’s crooked executives discovered that the financial collapse of the company was inevitable they put a “lock-out” on employee stock, which kept employees from trading Enron. This “lock-out” forced employees to lose half or more of their retirement pensions because of the company’s failure. Such jerks!
Before we look down our noses at the business world and the professional politicians for abusing power, let’s take a little time to recall that some of the most extreme abuses of power in human history have been committed by institutional religion with certain Christian institutions being chief among culprits. This has been particularly in evidence when the church has been in settings where the principles of separation of church and state did NOT prevail; not only in such settings because various expressions of institutional Christianity in the United States, even as we speak, are abusing their power in one way or another.
One of the chief reasons that Martin Luther was compelled to protest the practices of the very powerful Roman Catholic Church of his day was the abuse of power by the church hierarchy over the naive and trusting laity. This became solidified in a trip Brother Martin, the young priest and professor in Wittenberg, made to the Vatican.
The year was 1510, and the opportunity for a monk to visit Rome was thrilling; we can imagine that many monks never got to go to Rome in those days. So, Brother Martin couldn’t have been more excited, and when he first beheld Rome from the pathway on which he traveled, he fell to his knees and said, “I greet thee, thou Holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs.” His excitement would very quickly be turned to disillusionment as a result of what he saw.
The abuses of power on blatant display would forever thereafter be etched in his consciousness, and that rather happenstance visit became, more than any other single factor, the impetus for the Protestant Reformation. Two practices in particular horrified the young German monk who was one of the rising-star scripture scholars in service to the Roman Catholic Church of the day: the sale of Indulgences and Simony.
As I tell you a little more about this story, I want to make sure you understand that this is not a slam against Roman Catholicism; there are plenty of power abuses, past and present, in Protestantism and in religious other than Christianity. No expression of institutional religion SO FAR has escaped corruption and the abuse of power so let’s not look at the situation I’m describing as the basis for diminishing Catholics and building up Protestants. Back to Indulgences and Simony.
Indulgences were prayers that someone could buy--or on rare occasions earn. These prayers could pray the souls of your loved ones, and your own soul to when the time came, out of purgatory. Purgatory was the unpleasant waiting room where souls had to stay until the more permanent assignment of hell or heaven was ascertained. If a person had led an iffy moral or spiritual life, she or he would have time in purgatory extended. The sooner one was out of there the better both because it was unpleasant and because the longer one waited the possibility of hell was ever-present. Once in heaven, though, even if by the skin of one’s teeth, the assignment was eternal.
There was a couple of exceptions to the norm. One, those who had committed mortal sins could not be sprung from purgatory; they were hell-bound no matter what. Two, saints skipped purgatory altogether and were put on the express train to heaven.
When Luther got to Rome, he saw Indulgences for sale everywhere, and he discovered that the big push happens to have been ON at that moment because the Church needed to pay for St. Peter’s in Rome. The trusting, but uninformed, rank and file Christian knew nothing at all about faith except what their priests told them, and when the priests alongside the professional Indulgence hawkers such as Johann Tetzel portrayed for them how close their deceased loved ones’ souls were to the fires of hell and how they too would one day be there, all who possibly could including the extraordinarily poor did what they had to do, including going without food, to buy their Indulgences.
While Luther was in Rome, he saw the “scala sanctum,” the holy stairs. These are marble stairs said to have been the steps originally in or around the palace of Pontius Pilate on which Jesus entered to be sentenced and exited to be crucified. How they got from Jerusalem to Rome is a matter of some great debate as you can well imagine, but the most highly regarded perspective is that angels brought them there. The Pope was giving away indulgences on the day when Luther visited to all who ascended the stairs on their knees seeking forgiveness. That was very generous of the Pope. He must have believed that the people who were there for the free indulgence would buy something else as they entered or waited or departed.
Geoffrey Chaucer has the Pardoner tell one of his “Canterbury Tales.” The Pardoner is an indulgence, and Chaucer paints him in an appropriately negative light. Here is part of what the Pardoner says:
Now, good men, God forgive you each trespass,
And keep you from the sin of avarice.
My holy pardon cures and will suffice,
So that it brings me gold, or silver brings,
Or else, I care not--brooches, spoons or rings.
Bow down your heads before this holy bull!
Come up, you wives, and offer of your wool!
Your names I’ll enter on my roll, anon,
And into Heaven’s bliss you'll go, each one.
For I'll absolve you, by my special power,
You that make offering, as clean this hour
As you were born.
And lo, sirs, thus I preach.
And Jesus Christ, who is our souls’ great leech,
So grant you each his pardon to receive;
For that is best; I will not you deceive.
The other practice that Luther observed and objected to was Simony. Simony is the selling, trading, bartering of something spiritual. Priests, some of them--certainly not all of them, got into the bad habit of getting some personal advantage in exchange for giving a pastoral blessing, for example. Power positions in the church hierarchy were also frequently obtained up through the Reformation Era by payment or favor. The laws against Simony, which came to be regarded as an ecclesiastical crime, expressly prohibit granting a pastoral service or an impressive church position in exchange for money, for public endorsement, or the performance of some favor or service.
I must work in here, amid all the thoughts we are having about how the Church and its practitioners have abused trusting and unsuspecting constituents, that there are almost as many stories about the shoe being on the other foot. Many, many local congregations and religious hierarchies have abused their clergy too. Clergypersons are frequently abused because of the power wielding of both laypersons and institutional functionaries. While clergy-induced power scandals are much more newsworthy, an incalculable number of devoted, hardworking clergypersons have suffered the loss of their jobs, yea their careers, because of abusive congregations flexing their power. “Ain’t that what power’s for?”
Many of you know that my younger son, Carson, and I were the guests of Arbender Robinson the weekend he as Prince Eric’s understudy in Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid” took the lead role for several performances. What wonderful gifts those prime seats! And what a magically magnificent musical! “The Little Mermaid” isn’t just for kids!
When my sons were little boys, I got to watch the film version of “The Little Mermaid” several times, and I loved the evil sea witch Ursula whose voice was that of veteran actor and Emmy Award winner, Pat Caroll. Ursula’s featured song in the film was terrifically sinister, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” that is the song on which I had originally intended to base my sermon response to “The Little Mermaid.” In the end, I was more gripped by a song Ursula sings on Broadway, a song that wasn’t included in the film. The title of the song, and you will hear it later in our gathering, is “I Want the Good Times Back.” Broadway’s Ursula is less classically, but thoroughly, evil too. She is portrayed by an astounding actor and singer, Sherie Rene Scott.
By the way, “The Little Mermaid,” was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and the original story has a considerably different ending that either Disney’s movie or musical. The sea witch whom Disney names Ursula has no name in the original; she is an unnamed sea witch. There’s really no indication in the story of what she looked like. At one point, she is feeding toads out of her mouth, and when she bleeds the blood is black.
Both the Andersen and the Disney versions have the Little Mermaid paying for her chance to become human and marry the Prince by giving over her voice to the sea witch. In the original version, the sea witch also cuts out her tongue to make sure she never sings or speaks again. That is payment enough for the original sea witch, but in the Disney version Ursula is power hungry; and she wants control not only over the Little Mermaid but also over all the world’s seas. In the song from “The Little Mermaid” that you will hear later in our Gathering, I want you to listen especially for Ursula’s rhetorical question, “Ain’t That What Power’s For?”
I am thinking today about biblical power abusers, and they were found inside and outside the groups who identified themselves as God’s people. The God of the ancients could also be a bully as well, so it’s tough to criticize those who thought of themselves as God’s people for following suit.
One stunning example of power abuse was the Egyptian Pharaoh who was in power when Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. The ironic thing about the background to the Exodus is that originally the Egyptians had warmly welcomed the Hebrews. Whether or not it was the sterling contributions of Joseph who went there as a slave and rose to the ranks of CFO for the nation as a whole or whether the pattern of Hebrew acceptance was already in place before Joseph ever arrived is unclear. What is evident, however, is that for generations the Hebrews were highly respected in Egyptian culture--at least according to biblical accounts; the Egyptians didn’t bother to note any Hebrews in their history annals.
Sticking with biblical records, though, there came a time when the powerful Pharaoh in power didn’t know about the story of Joseph. Maybe that’s because no one wrote about them in any history books! All this Pharaoh, an extraordinarily powerful man, knew was that there surely were a lot of Hebrews in his land, and he with his advisors became convinced that they day could very well come when the Hebrews could become formidable foes; in other words, there could be enough of them to take over the nation.--to turn the tables and take charge of the land. We certainly understand the Pharaoh’s concern since that very argument is made today by those who fear the unmonitored entrance into the United States by immigrants from all over, especially Mexican immigrants.
So the Pharaoh made a proclamation one day that went something like this: “From this day forward every Hebrew in the land becomes a slave to the Egyptian government. They, henceforth, will be stripped of opportunities to serve in official government capacities, and they will from now on tend to our landscaping, be our maids and nannies, do the hard labor of building pyramids, and occasionally work in sushi bars since most Egyptians will not be able to tell them from parts of the world where sushi is actually eaten. We will stop teaching Hebrew as a second language in our schools, and if future generations of Hebrews want to talk to Egyptians they will have to learn Egyptian. In fact, we already have more Hebrews than we know what to do with so I order all midwives who deliver Egyptian babies to drown or otherwise kill those babies at the moment of birth.”
The Hebrews were sorely abused, no question about it, but the midwives--at least a couple of them whose names have survived, Shiphrah and Puah--wouldn’t kill the Hebrew babies, and there’s check to abusive power by them when they keep on letting those babies live, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women were so fertile and so strong to boot that they delivered their babies on their own and were back to work expecting new ones before they, the midwives, could even get to a home to try to deliver a baby.
The power abuse of the Pharaoh led to the Exodus, the escape of the Hebrews out of the land of their one-time-friends-turned-overlords. It wasn’t an easy solution, taking about forty years to resolve, but the Hebrews freed themselves from Pharaoh’s abuse as God led them to freedom through a flawed, but gifted, leader named Moses.
There are many portrayals of God in scripture, and they can’t all be reconciled. It’s not just a matter of Hebrew scripture verses Christian scripture though that is one great divide to be sure.
The god of Job is a real oddball. With gods like that, who needs enemies? The god of Job loves Job so much, that god could just about pop. There is this other being, evidently a heavenly being, who is very close to Job’s god and has the ear of Job’s god. This being is never named as far as we know; he is simply called “the adversary,” “the satan.” I suppose that can be taken as a proper noun if you like, but it has nothing with the devil or with a place that would come to be thought about much later and called “hell.”
One morning at heavenly coffee, the god of the book of Job is bragging about Job, and the adversary says, “Give it a rest. Your Job is so spiritual and so honoring of you because you give him everything any human could ever want: a great family, a fabulous bank account, and the best stock broker on earth.”
“Well, he deserves it. No one is more respectful of me or more consistent in expressing sincere gratitude,” Job’s god explains.
“Oh, please!” the adversary retorts. “You take all his advantages and privileges away, and call you evil, or worse, deny that you even exist.”
“No way!” says Job’s god getting a little hot under the halo.
“God, god, god. You’re too busy to take in the truth, and the truth would hurt you so much. But if you’re willing to make a little wager, I’ll prove my point.”
“OK. If you’re right, you can be the god for a day, and I’ll be the adversary.”
“You can take away what you think Job values more than me; the only thing you can’t do is to hurt Job physically to the degree that he dies. That, I won’t tolerate.”
“You’d better practice being the adversary because you’re going to lose the bet!”
And with that, the adversary killed off most of Job’s relatives including his beloved children. He destroyed everything he had of value and, for icing on the cake, gave Job an agonizing dermatological condition. The adversary did all of this with Job’s god’s full approval.
The book of Job, certainly not alone, has thereby become one of the several reasons why people of faith take the horrible things that happen to them as “tests” and “trials,” buying wholeheartedly into the notion that their all-powerful, power-abusing god is allowing them to be hurt to the point of devastation and even death in their helplessness. By the way, the god of Job won the bet, but the adversary had a hay day anyway. Even so, that is no god for me.
Christian scripture has its kid killer as did Hebrew scripture. The glaringly different thing about him is that he is a Jew, descendent to the Hebrews whom the Pharaoh tried to kill, and the babies he orders killed are his fellow Jews. He was much more successful on average than the Pharaoh. He was able to have killed off all the little Jewish boys living in the region of his palace except one--a toddler named Yeshua, whose parents escaped with him to Egypt of all places, before the massacre began. Crazy old power-mongering Herod, but when you have the power you can do what you wish. He was a puppet king, King of the Jews but with power meted out by Rome. The Jews couldn’t pronounce the death penalty, but babies had no rights; and except for first-born sons they were regarded as little more than objects of property. What I’m saying is, Herod didn’t have the legal authority to have Jewish babies put to death, but why should Rome care about a few less Jews in its mighty Empire? And to whom were the bereaved parents going to make their complaints?
Herod the Great was aging by the time he head that Jesus had been born in his jurisdiction, and some said that this Jesus was born to be King of the Jews. Well, Herod was King of the Jews, and evidently he thought he was going to live forever. When he heard that someone else had be born upon whom that title would be bestowed he took cruel action. The oddest thing was, Rome had allowed him to have that title. He hadn’t earned it. It wasn’t given to him by virtue of the circumstances of his birth. Rome could have given the title to anyone else at any moment it chose, a fact which only added to Herod’s insecurity.
The most rabid power abuser in Christian scripture is very prominent, but never named. He was Roman Emperor Domitian who ruled almost to the end of the first Christian century. He was the beast of the book of Revelation, the entity torturing and often putting to death Christians who wouldn’t worship the statues he had erected of himself throughout the Empire.
Domitian thought himself divine and on par with numerous other deities worshipped by Roman nationals and those peoples whom Rome had conquered. Domitian had absolutely no issue with the Christians or the Jews having their God, but even if they professed monotheism, which was required for those who wanted to identify themselves as either Jews or Christians, he still required them, as with all of his subjects, Roman and otherwise to bow down before his statue in a posture of worship whenever the signal was given. Those who refused were punished, and imprisonment and torture very often led to execution.
What we know of Domitian is told to us in the code language of the book of Revelation, written to encourage the faithful in those dangers days for Christians in the Roman Empire not to give up either faith or hope. Blatantly naming Domitian as the evil beast, who by the way is ultimately defeated by God’s heavenly forces, would have brought even more suffering to the Palestinian and Mediterranean Christians living until Domitian died in the year 96.
Domitian was a madman, and for a while his brutal power was incontestable.
In God’s economy, things won’t ultimately work they way they have often worked in human history. Some stunning reversals will ultimately take place.
Those who were the most powerful and snug in their abusive power positions will one day find themselves without any power at all, having been replaced by those who up to the point of reversal were utterly powerless. No one likes hearing that--well, no one with any kind of power or position or prestige.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sang this telling song of praise to God:
God’s mercy is for those who awe God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, she sang. Indeed, all the scraping and jockeying for power in God’s realm is utterly useless. The one presumed to be powerful may not have any power at all in God’s system. A nation claiming to be Christian that also insists on being one of the world’s super powers in terms of military might and nuclear advantage is an oxymoron indeed.
It was a struggle, but at the very outset of his public ministry Jesus settled the matter of how to deal with the power that would potentially be his. Think of the profound inner struggle this story conveys.
The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then temptation took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘God will command God’s angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, temptation took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to the tempter, “Away with you, Adversary! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’”
In Jesus’ mind, it was settled at the get-go. God is the powerful one, period. Jesus’ response to God and to God’s people had nothing to do with power bolstering; it was all about service.
The mother of two of the guys in Jesus’ men’s circle, the disciples, came up to Jesus one day and said, “My sons are too shy to ask, but I’m not. I’m not a stage mother for nothing! So, just give us the bottom line, Jesus. What do we have to do to ensure James and John key places in your cabinet when you become president? Evidently, that woman is going to be your vice-president--one of the many Marys in your women’s circle, Magdalene, maybe. So that position is out. Fine. We all know that that loud mouth, Peter, is going to get the Secretary of Defense slot. Matthew’s got the Secretary of the Treasury job sewn up. What spots are open for my boys? I want one on your left and one on your right. How about Secretary of State for one and Secretary of the Interior for the other? They’re both scrappy and are loyal to a fault. No one will mess with you with them around; we don’t call them sons of thunder for nothing!”
The other ten disciples were angry in the face of blatant requests for political favoritism. Jesus himself wasn’t angry, but he said, “Lady, anything I’m involved in, God calls the shots. God will speak to me about what I should do, and God will speak to others about what they should do. It’s not my call.”
She was both skeptical and disappointed. Jesus went on to say:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve....
The only power with which we should be worried as those who want to respond to God the way Jesus did is the power to serve. That’s tough in a Domitian kind of world, isn’t it? That’s tough in an Enron kind of world, isn’t it? Yes.