I listened to Ezra Klein’s conversation with Masha Gessen regarding Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine. She suggested that it’s not enough for an autocrat to control what people think. The real control focuses on how people think. I heard something more here. It’s not enough to shape and restrict what people think is practical. What’s necessary for an autocrat is to shape and restrict what people think is possible.
Autocrats seek to dominate and control the imagination of the subject population. If that is accomplished, then the flow of false information goes smoothly. Contradictions and conundrums disappear, not because they are resolved, but simply because they are “impossible.” The predictive power of George Orwell’s 1984 continues to astound me in his understanding of the mechanisms of such autocracy.
Today I’m reading Luke 13:31-35 as a collision of two imaginaries – that of the “fox” and that of the “hen.” Whether the Pharisees who come to Jesus want to warn him or warn him off is immaterial here. They have accepted the “fox” narrative as the true description of their reality. I think it’s an odd and unfortunate coincidence that a certain cable news network goes by the same name. I’m not making any causal or intentional connections here. It’s just interesting.
In fox-world, the ultimate authority is violent death. The one who controls the machinery of violent death controls the way the world works. Herod Antipas controls that machinery at the relatively local level of his tetrarchy. He does so on behalf of the Roman Imperial state. He is subject to the same regime of violence, coercion, expropriation, and deception as everyone else. He’s just a bit higher up in the food chain.
In fact, it will be just a few years after our text that Antipas is exiled to what is now Spain by the emperor Caligula. Readers of the Lukan account would likely know what was for them recent history. Ancient sources suggested that in fact Caligula ultimately had Antipas executed. Modern historians doubt the accuracy of those reports. Nonetheless, Antipas lived by the Imperial sword and died by it as well. He lived in the Imperial imaginary where violent death trumped all other factors.
Those who warn Jesus live in that same Imperial imaginary. Jesus does not. He puts Herod Antipas in his place by calling him a fox, a “little dog.” I suspect it’s no coincidence that Jesus (and/or the Lukan author) uses this image. Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, were – according to the myth – raised by a she-wolf as “cubs.” Rome was the big dog who ate first. The little dogs, like Antipas, only got to eat afterwards from what was left behind.
Jesus brings the values and imagination of “hen-world.” These are the values and imagination of the kin(g)dom of God. In hen-world, it is compassion, gentleness, and loving self-sacrifice that define the limits of the possible. Jesus rejects the power of fox-world to define and determine his course and his destiny. Violent death will certainly be part of his journey (see verse 33). But that violent death will not determine the course or conclusion of that journey.
The good news of this text is that hen-world values are Kin(g)dom values. Fox-world values are not. Hen-world reflects God’s desires and longings, God’s plans and goals. Jesus is on the divinely necessary path through fox-world, but he will not live or die there. Instead, he subverts and transforms those values and that world. He overcomes death by dying, and by living he brings new life.
In light of that good news, we can interrogate our own imaginations. What do we believe is possible? Do we limit our vision of the possible to the values of fox-world? Or do we allow Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to expand our vision of the possible to the values of hen-world? The values of fox-world in the end will produce only destruction, despair, and death. The values of hen-world will produce creativity, hope, and life.
I can’t help but think about the current war by Russia in Ukraine. The war has large doses of fox-world values at work. That’s the nature of war. It is violent, brutal, destructive, and evil. That being said, the most notable parts of this war are the ways in which hen-world values are having an impact. I think about the Russian soldiers who have surrendered and then received food, medical care, and a chance to call their parents to tell them they are alive.
I think about the use of humor, both in the rhetoric of leadership and in the actions of the people. The videos of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks and planes by towing them away with their tractors is both hilarious and astonishing. The creative resistance and assistance demonstrated by the Ukrainian people show a population that has not yet lost its human heart to the inhumanity of war.
I don’t want to valorize any of the conflict. Nor would I suggest that Jesus had violent resistance in mind as a hen-world value. But even in the most brutal situations, hen-world values can leak through and have an out-sized impact. Of course, the values of fox-world are not easily overcome. We have only to see the discrimination based on color in the treatment of those fleeing the war to know that fox-world is alive and well even in the warmest of human hearts.
We can and should interrogate our own imaginations through the lens of this text. When it comes to our own White supremacy in American Christianity, this is a matter, first of all, of imagination. Is it possible to imagine a society where skin tone is not determinative of one’s worth as a person and a people? I know that many of us White people cannot yet imagine such a society, no matter how many times we quote a small clip from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Why do we resist the positive power of a new imagination? Because we were so familiar and comfortable with the old model. It’s time for an oldie but a goodie. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? It takes ten: one to change the bulb, and nine to reminisce about how much they liked and miss the old bulb. As my CPE supervisor often said, people believe that bad breath is better than no breath at all. Better the Devil you know…etc.
A new imaginary means that some things about the old imaginary weren’t working. We often experience that as some sort of judgment or failing. I’ve worked with congregations who fervently resisted and resented hearing about the successes and innovations of other congregations. People feared that such new imagination would cast a shadow on the existing imagination and make people feel bad. I wish I was exaggerating.
The first step in bringing about constructive change is identifying a good reason for the change. Otherwise, making a change is irrational – literally, without a reason. The best reason to make a change is because what we’re doing now isn’t working. Someone, typically someone in leadership, is tasked with saying out loud that things as they are aren’t working as they should. That’s no way to win popularity contests. I speak from experience.
The alternative, of course, is Einstein’s “definition” of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Identifying things that don’t work is the first and necessary step to a new imagination. The things that work may not seem that important at first. After all, Einstein was bothered by the fact that the orbit of Mercury didn’t seem to obey with precision Newton’s law of gravity. That wasn’t going to change life for most people, but it was the beginning of a revolution in thought.
What are the things about fox-world imagination that aren’t working – in the world, in our society, in our community, in our congregation? That’s a question worth asking and allowing listeners to think about and answer for themselves. Fear and coercion, violence and death, hierarchy and privilege – these things are not making life better for any but a very few people at the peak of the power pyramid. If that’s good enough for most folks, then there’s no reason to seek a different world.
But we know that’s not good enough – certainly not good enough in the Church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can imagine together the newest ways we’re being called to bring hen-world values to bear in our congregations, neighborhoods, and communities.
The first response will be that we don’t have enough resources, time, energy, and resolve to even take care of ourselves much less to spread our wings and gather in others. That’s fox-world thinking. When there’s not enough pie to go around, don’t make the slices smaller. Figure out how to create a bigger pie! For the church, that will mean new partners and platforms, new ways of seeing the world and being seen by the world.
I would refer you to an RNS article reporting an interview with ECUSA Bishop Michael Curry. It’s not only our imagination as church people that’s at stake here, according to the survey upon which the article was based. It is the imagination that people outside the church have of us. “When asked how well Christians represent the values and teachings of Jesus,” the article reports, “many religiously unaffiliated respondents said ‘not at all’ (29%), while only 2% said Christians represent Jesus’ values and teachings ‘a lot.’”
Those outside the church see us Christians as largely living in fox-world, when we see ourselves as largely living in hen-world. It’s time for a bit more imaginative thinking and doing on our part.
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