Pádraig Ó Tuama on using power well

Gollon, Chris_Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–2017), Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Jesus Draws in the Dust) (triptych), 2015. Acrylic on canvas, each panel 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm).

Jesus of Nazareth was not a powerless man. . . . Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and he just used a different kind of power. When, in John’s Gospel [8:1–11], I read about a woman being stoned, I see Jesus using power. He bent down and scribbled in the ground, writing words that we do not know. He did that, knowing—I am guessing—that many of those who were about to throw stones couldn’t read the words even if they could have strained their necks to see them. He used his privilege to deflect attention, and in so doing he undid the story that held the slew of stoners together. This was not powerlessness. It was power and it is deep in us.

The woman was about to be stoned because of the addictions of the stoners. They were addicted to a violent kind of belonging, a kind of community that forges its borders through selective exclusion. She was about to be stoned with their bone-breaking morals that would prefer to kill a woman rather than examine their own complicity. We all need to be rescued from this kind of power—from both its appeal and its effect. An undoing of this power is seen when power is used for love. Power, used well, should be empowering, contagious, and protective. It should be self-critical, curious, and brave. It should know its own limits and be prepared to risk its own reputation. This kind of power asks questions to which it does not know the answers and listens because in listening is learning, and in learning is life.

Hello to the power of learning.

—Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 240–41

Let Justice Roll Down (Artful Devotion)

Misty Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain by Katsushika Hokusai
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Misty Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain, ca. 1833. Woodblock print on dyed paper, 37.6 × 27 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

God condemns the two-facedness of his people, who offer praise to him in song and sacrifice but fail to uphold his laws of social justice:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

—Amos 5:21–24

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SONG: “Instead of a Show” by Jon Foreman, from Summer (2008)

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I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle A, click here.