A tremendous powerlessness

Matthias Grünewald  (1512–1516 )
Letter from the Caucuses
Paul, Sarah Jane, Fiona

Last week I watched footage of Donald Trump directing the Chinese government to investigate a political rival. He said: “If they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous, power.”

The power to make something happen in the human world. We are well acquainted with power in these terms. So much of human history is a wrestling match to try to gain or limit this kind of power.

In the wrong hands power turns against truth and the unimaginable is given terrible form. As Joseph Stalin remarked: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”

 “We have tremendous power.”

How does such expressions of human power compare with the power of God?

There are ways of speaking about God that sound like “We have tremendous power.” Usually when the sovereignty of God is put at odds with what we understand and experience as love. But I don’t think that voice is authentic – no more than a bit of theological ventriloquism.   

So what does the power of God look like in the world?

…like a child born in a basement where animals are sheltered. like a family seeking asylum in Egypt to escape a deadly tin-pot tyrant. Like a hand reaching into the isolation of a leper. Like a beggar at a well, asking for a drink from a woman no one else wanted anything from. Like a man staggering under the weight of a cross beam.

God’s power shows up in an abandoned, rejected life that is crucified. A man who might have said: “I have tremendous powerlessness.”

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us...

…Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

Letters and papers from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I remember one morning listening to an interview on Radio 4. An Jewish man was recounting his experience as a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. He described the day that the SS guards dragged out a group of failed escapees. They were to be executed in front of the whole camp. However, the executioners wouldn’t come from among the guards; it would be friends of the condemned men who were forced to execute them.

He described how the hands of one man shook and shook as he held the executioner’s noose. His condemned friend bent low, put his own head through the noose and kissed the trembling hands of his friend.

A tremendous powerlessness.

The Nazi guard was furious. he kicked away the condemned man’s chair.

I wrote the song Letter from the Caucuses after reading an article in the Guardian about trophy war photo’s many years ago. It tries to catch something Hanna Arendt wrote about Eichmann, one of the engineers of the holocaust.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , Hannah Arendt

The banality of evil she called it. I try to voice that banality in the letter writer who even refers to St Christopher without any irony.

The Cello piece (played beautifully by Sarah Jane) are the growing voices of the silenced.

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