Published on 30 Jul 2012
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 29, 2012
The Rev. Dixie Black
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
Images of Power
A poem by Susan McCaslin called Spirit of Peace and Reconciliation.
When the saints come marching in
Let’s have them galloping, skipping, bounding,
let’s have them rung in with tympani or sung
with bel canto
or dancing like ladies or leaping lords.
Let’s have them chanting om or halleluiah,
feasted or fasted, lumbering or still,
or creeping in like fog on “little cat feet.”
Rough golden codgers or slick newborns dropped,
trailing clouds of gaiety, or glory,
amazing themselves that there are so many ways to be.
Let’s have them ululating or rumbaing,
shaking their glorious boodies,
gleefully naked or clad in gold tissue
but please, please, don’t let them be marching,
marching, marching, goose-stepping and proud
as to jihad, crusade, or war.
Poetry always highlights the power of words to create images in our minds.
What images come to mind when we listen to the first lesson from Samuel this morning? A man with absolute power sees a woman he desires, sends his messengers to “get her”, has sex with her and impregnates her. When he can’t arrange for it to appear to be her husband’s child, he has the husband murdered. A story of rape and murder.
And, as always in the case of rape, this is not a story about sex, it is about power.
Is rape too strong a word? Likely the writer and the listeners of the story living in a strongly patriarchal world, where men have absolute power over women, may not have seen it that way. But I imagine that Bathsheba might have experienced it as, in our modern parlance, “non-consensual sex.” But she knew she didn’t have any choice.
We have harassment laws now that define sex as “non-consensual” wherever there is a difference in power by age, status, or social circumstance to protect people from this very kind of abuse.
The Hebrew in v.4 translated in modern English translations as “get her” has far stronger tones in Hebrew with its meaning “to grasp her” – a far more violent act. The older versions of the bible use the verb, “took her” which is closer to the Hebrew than “get her”.
In contrast to this brief sex scene we have in vv.6-25 the long drawn out scenes of David’s plan to get Uriah to have sexual relations with his wife so that the child will be known as Uriah’s. When that ploy fails David tells his Army commander to make sure Uriah is left in a vulnerable position in the battlefield so that he will be killed. The detail given to David’s actions emphasize his deviousness and his abuse of power.
How did David come to this? Up until now David has been a hero. In the first ten chapters of 2 Samuel David has been triumphant, his career a litany of successes, military victory to secure the kingdom; he established the capital city of Jerusalem with the presence of the ark, he built the palace and he collected all the materials necessary for Solomon to build the future temple. At the pinnacle of his power; success and fame.
Chapters 11 to 20, beginning with this story chronical his fall in shame, sorrow and adversity. Looking at the story in the context of the whole, it is not so much a tale of the mistreatment of women but is a serious warning about the corruption that comes with unchecked power.
Recent research in the psychology of power explains a lot about what happened to King David as he attained mid-life with all the fruits of his accomplishments. It turns out that there is some truth in British historian Lord Acton’s famous saying “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The research challenges longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people achieve it, and how they should use it. There is a myth that attaining power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. Some of us assume that positions of power demand this kind of conduct—that to run smoothly, society needs leaders who are willing and able to use power this way. Yet years of study suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.
But another key research finding is that something happens to people once they acquire power and that transformation appears to be psychological. Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist the the University of California at Berkeley, cites a number of studies that show that once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. He states that this presents us with a paradox: the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.
Here is King David’s story. He began as a charismatic, skilled and talented leader who accomplished high goals. At the peak of his power he became impulsive, entitled and self-serving, which led to his downfall.
It would be easy to believe that this story is a warning only to kings and other people in positions of power. Rather, it is meant for any and all of us. In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources – such as food, money, knowledge, and affection – or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism.
The emphasis in this definition shifts from behaviour to conscious awareness of one individual’s affect on another and reminds us that power is part of every social interaction. It is not something we should – or can – avoid; we are negotiating power in every waking moment of our lives and need to take responsibility for how we live it out. It is not surprising that not having power forces us to see things from other people’s perspective and increases empathy and socially responsible behaviour. Having power allows us to ignore other points of view – depriving us of the skills that led to power in the first place.
I believe that as humans we are evolving in consciousness. We no longer accept the practice of slavery in any form; we consider women to be persons, and not chattels; we do not condone prejudice according to race, religion, gender or sexual orientation; we have a world charter of human rights; and we are learning that compassion is a higher value in human interactions than pure self-interest. A better understanding of the nature of power and our individual responsibility may help us to actually live into these ideals more fully.
The wisdom teachings of Jesus give us a very different image of power than the one of David. Servanthood, inclusion, equality,healing and abundance are the hallmarks of power in his ministry. He would always reject attempts to make him a leader in the worldly sense.
Let’s pray together this prayer by Walter Brueggemann called On God’s New Governance:
We say so easily, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”
We rush to the next item as though that mantra was obvious or unimportant.
We mouth your rule,
And then we settle back to our habitual ways, of initiative and control, of despair and resentment, of varying degrees of fatigue, or cynicism, or anxiety.
Having made the affirmation, we find ourselves still waiting,
waiting for your fresh word, waiting for your powerful appearance,
waiting for your new disclosure, waiting in eager longing,
but inured to a wait that has no end.
We present ourselves to you at the break of day.
We are here, awake, alert, wanting your role to overrule our disorder; trusting in your glory that will drive out our demons and silence our idols.
Yours is indeed the kingdom, the power, and the glory.
We submit -as did he- to your good rule.
Come soon, come here, with your lively way through our numbness.
Brueggemann, Walter, Prayers for a Privileged People, 2008.
McCaslin, Susan, “Spirit of Peace and Reconciliation”, Arousing the Spirit, 2011.
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