This past week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading everything I can pertaining to the unresolved murder of Trayvon Martin. I also delivered a sermon for our 10am service about the temptation to dominate. These are very interrelated, I think.
Power Over, Power Under
By the Rev. Thomas M. Ryberg
Text: Luke 4:1-2, 5-8, 13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Is it in you? I’m talking about the desire to dominate. To be the best. To have authority. Power over others. Who wouldn’t want to be known as the greatest one on the job, at school, at church, at the social club, at the service center?
Is it in you? This desire to dominate. To be the one others need to answer to. To have control. Power over others. Who wouldn’t want to be the most revered leader, the sharpest tool in the shed, the most necessary cog in the machine?
The desire to dominate isn’t satisfied with simply doing one’s personal best. It isn’t about being all that I can be. It’s a step past that, because it factors in how others are doing in relation to me, and it says I need to be better than they are. Dominating isn’t ultimately about doing my best. It’s about being better than someone else.
Is it in you? This desire to dominate. Is it in me? Is it in us?
Was it in George Zimmerman, a self-appointed captain of his neighborhood watch organization, who on the evening of February 26 took a break from the basketball game he was watching on TV and headed out to patrol the neighborhood. He saw a teenage, African American boy dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, carrying something, and he thought the boy looked suspicious. George called the police, and they told him they were sending someone out to investigate. While on the phone with the dispatcher, you can hear George talking to himself as he follows the young man in his car. You can hear the excitement and frustration in his voice as the boy apparently starts to run away, and he says on the phone, “these [expletive – people] always get away.”
The police dispatcher assured George that someone was coming, and he should not be following the boy. What happened next is known only to George Zimmerman. But for some reason, shortly after making the call, he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in a nearby field. Trayvon, who was seventeen, did not have a weapon. He had a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, and had been on his way home from a nearby convenience store. George says that he shot Trayvon in self defense, and by making that claim he has been shielded from legal repercussions. Thanks to a broad “stand your ground” provision in Florida, anyone who feels threatened can use lethal force, anywhere they are, without having to try to retreat.
And at the end of it all, a teenager lay dead, after being pursued and shot by an armed vigilante who thought the boy looked suspicious.
Somewhere along the line, something shifted in neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. What began as a desire to protect his own neighborhood shifted into a desire to chase down and subjugate Trayvon Martin. Somewhere along the line, for some reason, George Zimmerman decided that because this young man looked suspicious to him, the young man needed to be controlled.
The desire to dominate.
I do not know what is in George Zimmerman’s heart, but I do know that there is a long and terrible history in America of primarily white people using violence to assert dominance over dark-skinned people, especially in the name of safety and keeping the peace. From slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to the “war on drugs,” there are strong forces that have been, and still are, engaged in the business of asserting and enforcing power over black and brown people. If history is any indicator, the desire to dominate is certainly a strong part of our collective inheritance, especially when it comes to how white people have engaged with people of color.
There is a cost to giving into the temptation of dominance. whether we are tempted in big or small ways, whether we seek to dominate the board room or subjugate those on the street on the street, there is a cost to giving in to the temptation of dominance. Certainly there is a cost for the people being dominated, but there is also a moral, spiritual cost for those seeking to dominate. Our scripture today makes this plain.
Jesus has been fasting in the wilderness for forty days. He is weak and hungry, and in this vulnerable state, he is visited by the devil. In this story, the devil comes at him in three different ways, and we explored the first last week: IF you are the son of God, says the devil, prove it by turning a rock into bread, so that you might eat. And Jesus declines, saying “One does not live by bread alone.” This time, the devil doesn’t try to appeal to Jesus’ bodily needs, but rather his greed. He leads Jesus up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil declares that he has the means to give them over to Jesus.
Let’s pause here for just a moment. If you ask me, there is pretty much no one I would rather have in charge of all the kingdoms of the world than Jesus Christ. Just think of it – if Jesus had actually taken charge of all of the people everywhere, way back then, doesn’t it seem likely that we would be living in much better harmony today? For all of our talk about the return of the kingdom of God, it sounds like Jesus had an opportunity to enact this already – to take control of the world and make it his – and he turned it down. Jesus rejected the opportunity to seize power because there is a cost to giving in to the temptation to dominate. In this story, the cost is explicit: in doing so, Jesus would have to worship the devil. And that is truly the bottom line for us as well: when we seek to seize power over others, we are opting into a system of domination whereby our efforts to control others just make us further beholden to the work of the devil.
Whatever gains Jesus might have made by being able to control the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus would have had to exchange the power and authority bestowed by God for the power and authority bestowed by the devil. It is the devil, not God, who tempts us to seize power over one another. And when we do, along with our newfound power and control, we end up in the clutches of the devil, whose interests we now serve. The game is rigged.
There is an essential difference between the power of the devil and the power of God: the devil offers POWER OVER others, but God’s power comes from the underside. It is POWER UNDER. The deal of the devil says, I will offer you power over others, and if you take it, I now have power over you. This is coercive power. It is power that is predicated on the loss of freedom. But God’s power is POWER UNDER. The power of God comes to us when we love and serve others. In so doing, we are in turn filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s power is predicated upon love, grace, service, and salvation. It is not the loss of freedom through coercion, but rather the promise of new life through invitation. God’s power is not over but is under us, beneath our feet, power which can uplift our spirits and lighten our heavy burdens.
Think about the ways that we order our lives according to who has power over whom: how much of our foreign policy objectives have to do with asserting military power over misbehaving countries. What if our foreign policy efforts were more attentive to the power under, building up the lives of those who are hungry and thirsty, or who lack good housing or medical care? Many of our notions of civil government have to do with power over – one presidential leader will solve all of our problems and fix the country, or this legislative branch, or this judicial wing. What if we believed in power under, that all of us have the power to work together to improve all of our lives. Some of us may be on career paths where we need to navigate this temptation of seizing power over others at the expense of losing one’s soul along the way. But power under is collaborative and sustainable. It is supports the community rather than elevating individuals. Even at church, how easy it is to slip into a power over way of doing things, where the pastor is the source through which the power of God comes into the church – as opposed to a power under approach in which all people are conduits of the Holy Spirit of God.
Rather than give into the temptation to take power over overs, the power of the devil, following the faithful path is one of power under, the power of God. When we face the temptation to take power over others, and quite possibly lose ourselves in the process, let us respond as Jesus did: I will worship the Lord my God, and serve only God. Not power over. Power under. May that be so. Amen.