Monday, February 15, 2016

True Power and the Test of Ambition

“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.  St. Luke 4:6-7

 “If anything unites America in this fractious moment,” says the New York Times’ David Brooks in a recent column, it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.”[1]  “The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power,” he continues, “but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do.”  He goes on to cite a recent Pew study which asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of us, majorities of both parties, believe our side has been losing more.

People respond to this feeling of powerlessness, Brooks says, with “pointless acts of self-destruction.”  When we believe we have no power, compromise is suspicious.  If we believe we have no power, utopian dreams seem the only possible escape.  If we have no power, we must get behind the one who promises to “start winning again,” no matter what real abilities he might have to keep his promise.   This sense of powerlessness, Brooks says, is very dangerous in a political system like ours, which attempts to draw together a deeply diverse society through common citizenship and shared institutions. 

And as in many past elections, there’s plenty of religiosity in the hysterical rhetoric we’re hearing.  Candidates are appealing to the fact that so many of our fellow Christians feel particularly powerless.  They can see that church attendance is declining, that religious voices are taken less seriously in the places where real decisions are made. 

Episcopalian blogger Rachel Held Evans wondered in a recent post[2] why polls show that the embarrassingly secular Donald Trump is the favored candidate of America’s evangelicals.  She found a pretty shameful reason in one of his recent speeches.  “I’ll tell you one thing,” Trump told a crowd in Sioux Center, Iowa, “I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘merry Christmas’ again…And by the way, Christianity will have power…because if I’m there, you’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well.”

“This is the gospel of Donald Trump,” Held Evans continued, “his ‘good news’ to Christian voters:  Stick with me and you’ll be a winner. Stick with me and I’ll give you power, protection, prestige.”   She notes, “It’s also the very thing Satan promised Jesus when he tempted him in the desert.”

Now hear me on this.  I don’t think there are little red horns somewhere in the Donald’s big hair.  But I do think Held Evans is on to something in holding up this moment in our society against the choice offered by Satan to Jesus, standing on that high peak with all the kingdoms of the world spread before Him.

Commentators often rank this as the most serious of Jesus’ three temptations, the defining choice that points most directly to heart of His life and work.  The stakes are the highest.  The choice is also phrased most directly. Will Jesus bow down to God or Satan?  For whose ends will He devote His talents? 

Saint Ambrose, who wrote one of the early church’s greatest commentaries on this passage call this temptation ambition, the willingness to sacrifice moral principle in pursuit of a larger aim.  Saint Ambrose knew something about ambition.  Before his ordination he had been a Roman consular prefect, a man of great wealth and influence.  He turned his back on a world dominated by ambition to serve Christ in the church.  And he says that ambition is driven by a fear of powerlessness, and it reveals the weakness of the one who chooses it.  “That ambition might govern, he says, it makes itself slave to another.  It wants to be exalted, but it is made to stoop.”[3] 

Satan was inviting Jesus to stoop, to become his slave, to turn away from the Holy Spirit poured out on Him in Baptism.   Satan was urging Him to forsake His beloved Father, to abandon His moral integrity, to reject the purpose for which He had been sent into the world.  And because it was Jesus, it sounds at first to us like an impossible choice.  Yet the Scriptures tell us that He was tempted in every way as we are, tempted even to ambition, tempted to betray all He was, all He was meant to do.

Because this trade, loyalty for power, stooping so as to be exalted, how often we make it.  The temptation to ambition is a constant feature, not just in the world of election cycles, but in the long and tragic history of the Church.  Again and again, we have felt powerless, and our leaders have made deals for the sake of a little more influence, a little more money.  And sometimes we’ve managed to get ahead, but not without spending a great deal of our moral capital.  Exalted in the eyes of world, but feeble and shameful in the eyes of the One whose judgement really matters.

It’s a choice that is before us in this election season, and there’s more than one candidate eager to cut us a deal.  But how often this choice also lurks in different ways in all the smaller political arenas of life: the office, the club, the community organization, the family.  We hear that ancient voice, don’t we?  “Pushing back’s the only way to get a little respect around here.”  “She’s spent all her second chances.” “Cut him down to size and they’ll start taking you seriously.” “ Just look the other way and we’ll take care of you next time.”

The true power, that which always endures and conquers, is God’s gift.  It can’t be won in an election, bartered across a breakroom table, or bought for millions of dollars.  It has nothing to do with fame or flashy talent.  The Spirit poured out on Jesus in Baptism rests also on us.  By Christ’s grace, the Lenten preface proclaims, “we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”  Saint Paul assures us that temptations will come, “but he will provide a way out so that you can endure it.”[4][5] 

I think David Brooks is right.  People respond to the feeling of powerlessness with pointless acts of self-destruction. And I expect that in some part of our life, right now, we each feel powerless.  And the tempter is there, stroking our ambition, offering some plan that promises to put us back on top of the world again.   That temptation looks like conquest, but it’s actually self-destruction. 

The truly powerful act, the one enabled by God’s grace is to stand fast, to hold fast to your integrity, to remain true to the One who has created and will judge all things.  Jesus was promised all the kingdoms of this world, and left the desert still a poor man, with no followers, lacking even a place to lay His head.  But Jesus held that head high, because in the test of ambition, He had preserved all that was most precious in the life God had set before Him.  He’s beside you today, as you face the test of ambition.  Will you call on Him for help?  Will you let Him make you strong?

[1] Brooks, David.  “The Anxieties of Impotence.”  The New York Times.  22 Jan. 2016, A25.  Brooks is quoting the International New York Times’ Anand Giriharadas here. 
[2] “Donald Trump and A Tale of Two Gospels.”  26 Jan. 2016. 
[3] In Luc. c.v.11
[4] Proper Prefaces.  The Holy Eucharist, Rite II.  The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 379.
[5] I Cor. 10:13.

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