1 Lent C, 2022
I think I will incorporate at least one film into my Lenten discipline. Bruce Almighty stars Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Anniston. The film is a comedic meditation on the purpose and use of power.
Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a wannabe TV anchor whose career aspirations seem to be blocked at every turn. Bruce complains to God about the sorry state of his life. Bruce declares that if he were in charge, life would be so much better.
Freeman, as God, accepts the challenge. He gives Bruce a measure of Divine Power. Bruce runs across water, raises women’s skirts with a breath, and gets even with a gang that attacked him the day before. I wish that scene did not depend on racist stereotypes for some of its force, and that has simply to be acknowledged here. Nonetheless, in just over three minutes the film summarizes every adolescent revenge fantasy most of us have had.
Is that what power is for? In an instant, Bruce becomes no better than his tormentors. Do we have power simply to satisfy our selfish desires? Do we have power simply to rule over others and bask in that grab for glory? Do we have power simply to ensure our personal safety and survival? That is the case which the Diabolical One presents to Jesus in the Wilderness Testing.
We can certainly exercise power for self, sovereignty, and security. That exercise of power, Jesus declares, contradicts God’s intentions as witnessed in Book of Deuteronomy. The quotations from Deuteronomy come from another time of Wilderness Testing when Israel was faced with its own power problems.
I believe God does not wish for us to be powerless. God has not created us to be powerless. Even though the Christian faith has been used far too often by the powerful to valorize victimization, that is a perversion of the Divine purpose. God gives us great power, but its appropriate use is always for others and not merely for self (Yes, I’m thinking of Spiderman too).
I would argue that this understanding of power, power for others, is at the heart of authentic humanity and genuine human community. I don’t think that empathy, compassion, and altruism are essentially human emotional and/or social constructions. I believe that empathy, compassion, and altruism make us more fully human. And I believe that callousness, cruelty, and crass selfishness make us less human.
Current events present a case study in this regard. I’m thinking of the personal responses around the world to the actions of Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Put aside, for a moment, political perspectives and evaluations. Zelensky is using his power for the sake of others even if it means personal sacrifice. Putin is using his power for self-protection, self-aggrandizement, and self-deification. The world recognizes which set of behaviors is more fully human.
Bruce Nolan learns that the one thing power can’t get you is love. He has a real relationship with his girlfriend, Grace (played by Anniston). Her love for him is not connected to his power or position. It is unconditional and freely given – thus, Anniston’s character’s name. Bruce uses his power first to impress Grace, then to change her, and finally to control her. As a result, he nearly destroys their relationship and turns himself into a minor moral monster.
If you are the Son of God, what do you do with all that power? What’s it good for? This is one of the questions raised in the Wilderness Testing of Jesus. This could be the power to fulfill one’s every desire. This could be the power to rule the world. This could be the power to banish the fear of one’s own death. What’s not to like?
In fact, the Test is about taking the place of God. This is part of the genius, I think, of Bruce Almighty. Bruce takes God’s place, at God’s invitation. And it doesn’t go well. When Bruce says yes to every prayer request, the daily lottery payout drops to seventeen dollars per person. When Bruce changes the moon’s orbit to impress Grace, he unleashes wild weather events and sends astronomers into shock.
It’s hard to be God – especially if you want to be a selfish god.
Martin Luther sometimes reminds us that the First Commandment is the First Commandment because it is the First Commandment. He notes in the Large Catechism that all the other commandments refer to and rely on that First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods.” And a violation of any other commandment is a violation of the First Commandment.
In essence, the First Commandment declares that God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news! That’s the first lesson Bruce Nolan learns in his sojourn as a divinity. When Bruce has made a complete mess of things, he kneels down and surrenders his will to God. It would be a modern recasting of the Evangelical “sinner’s prayer” except for one thing.
Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway and in front of an oncoming truck.
In the next scene, Bruce finds himself in “heaven.” He asks how this could happen, just when he had seen the light. Seeing the light doesn’t work so well when it’s a pair of headlights bearing down on you. “You can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway,” God observes, “and expect to survive.”
Bruce wonders what God wants. God wants Bruce to pray. The first prayer is a generic wish list that could double as a Miss America speech. God asks Bruce what he really wants. What Bruce really wants is Grace. But this time, he wants what is best for Grace, what makes her happy, no matter how it affects him.
“Now that’s a prayer,” God responds.
It’s a movie. It’s a comedy. A happy ending is required. God sends Bruce back to life with this new understanding of the purpose of power. Bruce gets Grace, and she gets him. He uses his position and platform to lift up the needs of others rather than to satisfy himself. Everyone lives happily ever after.
If only it worked out that way in real life.
Using our power for the sake of others usually costs us something – sometimes everything. That’s how we know we’re using our power for others, when it doesn’t benefit us. Volodymyr Zelensky may well lose his life as the war in Ukraine unfolds. His family members may be captured, wounded, or killed. Hundreds are dying and thousand are being displaced. Zelensky may lose his official power and position. Ukraine may suffer military defeat.
The war in Ukraine isn’t a movie.
I am certain, however, that Zelensky will not lose his humanity. We can discuss the impact of doing violence on human beings, and that’s a problem here. But Zelensky is not using violence for himself. In fact, I think he is using his power for love. The world has watched him become more fully and deeply human in the process. Some of this is thanks to the advent of the “Tik-tok War” as he enacts his leadership on that social media platform. But what we see is more than performance. We’re watching a human being grow more and more into the image and likeness of God.
I know and celebrate that Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew. I don’t intend that the previous paragraph should hijack him for Christian apologetic purposes or should turn him into an “unconscious” or “anonymous” Christian. I don’t believe that Jesus comes to make us “Christian.” I don’t believe that Jesus comes to increase the roster of his favorite religious “team.” Jesus comes to restore us to the full image and likeness of God in which we are created. Theological labels do not define or delimit that image and likeness.
I am also certain that Putin and all who support him and his purposes are descending deeper into their selfish, sub-human existence. We need only point to the most obvious manifestation here. Using the threat of a nuclear response as a way to stabilize his deteriorating position is a sign of his continuing descent into profound inhumanity. The fact that a certain part of the Christian community supports this descent is a horrific commentary on what happens when power trumps love.
“If you, then, will worship me,” the Diabolical One says, “it will all be yours.”
This is the promise of power used for self, of power over rather than for and with. This is the false promise the Diabolical One offers Jesus and which Jesus rejects as the deceit it truly is. Anyone or anything that promises rewards for worship of self is the crassest form of idolatry and the deepest rejection of the divine image and likeness within us.
The Good News, from our Christian perspective, is that Jesus comes as God’s power for the life of the world. This power cannot be exercised over others, because it then becomes a perversion of itself. This power can only be exercised for others, with others, and through others. This power can only be exercised through self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Thus, we begin our journey to and through the cross with this meditation on the nature of authentic power.
As we hear this Good News, we can then reflect on our own power, position, privilege, and property. Will we, for example, use our White privilege to further enrich ourselves and thus plunge more deeply into the inhumanity of White Supremacy? Or will we use that power, position, privilege, and property to work as allies and advocates in the cause of racial justice?
That’s just one example for reflection. There are no powerless Christians, since we are all filled with the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. The important question, always, is what are called to do with what we have been given?
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