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Power in the Bible

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civilta Cattolica - Wed, Aug 21st 2019

What does the Bible say about “power”? The subject is current and of great interest,[1] but not at all simple. Anyone searching for the word “power” in the Old Testament would be disappointed: it does not exist in Hebrew.

Is that because Sacred Scripture does not provide any cause for reflection about power? Far from it. However, we do not find any theoretical statement about it since the biblical tradition is a lived experience that becomes clearer over the course of the narration. It is necessary, therefore, to bear in mind that conceptualizations and language have evolved over time, and that certain realities are often connected to a particular period in history. This is why the term exousia, “authority,” and some others that belong to the same semantic domain, such as dynamis, “strength,” and kratos, “force,” appear in the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Power and the strength of God

The discourse on power begins with the first page of Genesis, where the strength of God unfolds, culminating in the creation of the human person, God’s most luminous exaltation. Such dynamism, when in reference to God, is a positive thing, since it creates, liberates and saves. It manifests as wisdom and a perennial gift. It is a force without limits. Dynamic strength belongs to the Creator and defines power when it refers entirely to God: it is the manifestation of God’s glory. We rejoice in the glory of God, which is revealed through the creative act and in the gift that has been given to us. Indeed, the encounter with infinitely divine strength makes us who we are as free creatures.

Like children of Adam, however, we betrayed God’s original design and were removed from paradise to experience poverty, misery and, above all, the loneliness and precariousness that threaten our existence. God did not ignore the failure, nor has God abandoned us in sin.

The event that would seem to nullify divine power is revealed instead as a new creation. So begins the story of salvation in which divine omnipotence paradoxically speaks the language of fragility and sharing. This was not a show of strength, but was “the condition needed to reach humanity from the bottom, from the roots. Salvation does not come from someone who has everything and gives a bit or even most of that everything, overwhelming us with abundance. It is, instead, the strength of someone who places himself at your level, beginning from the lowest level, and raises you up, transforming you. He is someone who shares of his fullness, after having participated in your misery. In this effective communion with impotence and misery, which is well known and not imaginary, and is suffered daily, he guarantees the real substance of his fullness, which he wants to share with you.”[2]

The strength of God is thus communicated to people through the face of mercy and forgiveness,[3] which is neither compensation nor counterbalance, but is the most direct consequence. God does not have excessive temptations, ambitions, insecurities or empty spaces to be filled. God does not aim to crush or destroy humankind, but to save us. And this happens precisely because God is omnipotent.

In the Book of Wisdom, divine strength is founded upon love for humanity: “But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis11:23-24).[4] Salvation takes place, therefore, thanks to a power that combines many different aspects: mercy, wisdom and limitless strength, even when speaking the language of human weakness and humiliation. The “power” of human beings is quite different: limited, tending to defend itself and so destroy any opponents, it becomes arrogant out of the fear that another power may prevail. Humans know that they can come out from any fight as a loser, and that is why they destroy, crush and do not raise up.

The Book of Exodus

The beginning of the Book of Exodus highlights the political power of the pharaoh who oppressed and exploited the Hebrews (cf. Exod 1). What follows recounts the vocation of Moses, who went from lack of interest in his brothers to making an effort in their favor, resulting in violence. The murder of an Egyptian forces him to flee to Midian where he has an encounter with God, who sends him back to his brothers, entrusting him with a mission of salvation. The assent of Moses had an immediate and practical consequence: a subservient and oppressed tribe became a people. Jacob’s family had entered Egypt, but now the people of Israel were leaving it. The troubles that led to the exit from the land of the pharaohs gave rise to a group of free people. Easter teaches that this freedom is a gift. It is communion through listening to the Lord and practicing religion (cf. Exod 12-13). The passage through the desert indicates the goal, which is the establishment of a community of faith not concerned with size and proceeding toward the creation of a unified people.

However, adhesion to the call of God deteriorates with the hardships of the journey, leading to lamentation and murmuring: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt […], the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num 11:5). The price of freedom was too high.[5] Nevertheless, the merciful strength of God anticipates and accompanies even at this time. The 40 years in the desert also mark the civil path of the people and, through this, solidification of the covenant. The Lord offers Israel the Ten Commandments as the foundation of the pact for building the community in faith and fidelity, an unfailing fidelity on the part of God, which is demonstrated by his presence in the Tent of the Covenant (cf. Exod 20-24).[6] It is the Lord who guides Israel, protects it and saves it: power and authority belong to him.

In the Book of Exodus, everything is already germinating. There is also the certainty that will be reflected in the Book of Revelation[7]: idolatry is not only religious infidelity (cf. Exod 32), but also involves the acceptance of unlimited slavery, exploitation, oppression and all the whims of power.

Political power in the people of God

In the Old Testament, the fact that God’s people constitute a political unit is contingent and provisional, as the relationship between God and the people expresses an existing, widespread situation in the ancient world. Therefore, whatever is said here does not establish any permanent model. Rather, since their situation originated from a vocation, it indicates the originality of the people of God in this land that they apparently share with other people. It is something received from on high, accepted, and is an experience of faith.

In any case, even without providing ideas or models for civil coexistence, the Bible says a few things about political power. Above all, power must not remove equality from those who unify (see the polemic in 1 Sam8:11-18 about the request to have a king). Equality is lived in diversity, that is, in the variety of vocations, of which the New Testament does not exclude the exercise of power. Those who exercise power are called to a commitment that is not only a debate on principles or prophetic intelligence regarding situations, but also involvement and responsibility in history.

Lastly, it is worth noting the difference of Israel in comparison to the peoples of the ancient world: political power was not sacralized. The Old Testament placed people into direct dependency upon God for a relationship of faith alone and not – as was customary in the historical context of the time – to deify, and therefore absolutize, political power. The total desacralization of political power, as mentioned in the life of Jesus, was prepared for in this way[8] and then developed in positive terms with Paul,[9] and negatively in Revelation. Here, as in the Old Testament, its sacralization was equivalent to demonization,[10] for service to humanity, which is the meaning of political power, is transformed into manipulation of people according to the whims of those who hold onto political power.

Authority: the greatness and fragility of power

Another term that is close to the reality of power is “authority.” In Greek it is exousia and there is no equivalent in Hebrew. It is derived from exesti, an impersonal verbal form that means “what is lawful,” “what can be done” and what one has the freedom to do.[11] Basically, it means the power to achieve what one wants. It can be noted that the etymology of the word indicates that authority expresses itself in freedom: “Freedom from conditions and freedom to condition; freedom to impose my way of life on others; freedom in which I insist upon a certain behavior in dealing with me, and I limit the scope of movements in relation to me. …The original relationship between authority and freedom remains beyond any abuse; it is indestructible. It resembles a feeling about a situation in which authority is directly related to freedom.”[12]

The term exousia can be found in the New Testament in Rom 13:1: “for there is no authority [exousia] except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” The authority that is the ability to provide for others comes from God. The practice of authority as dependent upon the will of God is already presupposed in the Old Testament. Therefore, whoever possesses it in any form – king, priest, prophet, scribe – must act in the name of God, giving a visible sign of this through their governing.

Paul did not want to make a speech about authority itself, nor about the legitimacy of power, but only to affirm respect toward those who hold it, precisely because this can show God’s intervention in history.[13]

The fact that authority comes from God touches the root of the tie that binds power and authority. It indicates the task for those who hold authority, which is to manage goods for others and to exercise power for accomplishing the will of God, and not one’s own will. Authority is not a title of merit, but instead denotes a dependence, a responsibility, a service; those who hold it cannot do what they want regarding others, nor deal with them however they please, but must give a moment-by-moment account of what they have done.

The treaty of good governance

In the Old Testament, the Book of Wisdom is a treatise about good governance. It is an explanation about the duty those with responsibility have for others, and therefore the way they must exercise political power. This promotes justice among people, because “strength [of God] is the source of righteousness” (Wis 12:16). It is folly to think otherwise. Power is not exercised without wisdom, which is a gift from God, because orderly cohabitation, or civil life, is only obtained through God’s benevolence. Throughout history, it was initiated by God among us and was marked by fraternal love.[14]

The Book of Wisdom also explains indirectly, but radically, the dangers of those who badly exercise the authority entrusted to them and the whims of those who have political power: “his illusions of power, his tendency to feel originally different from the others, his fundamental atheism (he is god to himself and imposes himself as a god to others), his propensity to build idolatrous institutions in which he projects his own image; … the rejection of the humble and the poor – more accurately the ‘just poor’; and, therefore, the complicity that surrounds his abuses, the human degradation that spreads around him, and that, in the language of the Bible, has as its beginning and end the idolatrous transfiguration accomplished through power.”[15]

Furthermore, due to the fact of being simply received and coming from God, human power is never absolute. This is another sign that reveals the human being’s original condition of dependency. It follows that political absolutism conflicts with God’s plan and with human freedom; it is an abuse of power, a form of atheism and idolatry.

If one reads the Old Testament thoroughly, it is clear that the entire Bible is filled with this vision. The word that we listen to and welcome indicates the encounter between the divine and the human, and brings complex religious and political, criminal and administrative legislation that serves to temper the exercise of authority. It dictates the commandments that are the duties of all, but gives rights to everyone, including the slave, the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the prisoner.[16] It touches upon the family and social sphere – the relationship between husband and wife, between parents and children, between masters and slaves[17] – and pays particular attention to the political sphere, the place where one is more easily tempted to go beyond the limits.

Political and economic power

This danger is very evident in the cases of Lamech (cf. Gen 4:23-24), Nimrod (cf. Gen 10:9), the King of Tyre (cf. Ezek 28:1-19) and Nebuchadnezzar (in the Book of Judith), where the human delusion of being able to overcome the weak human condition is played out in a process that leads them to identify with the divinity. Ezekiel’s prophecy is addressed to the King of Tyre: “Because your heart is proud and you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a mortal, and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god. … By your wisdom and your understanding you have amassed wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasuries. … You have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: Because you compare your mind with the mind of a god, therefore, I will bring strangers against you. … They shall thrust you down to the Pit, and you shall die” (Ezek 28:2-8).[18] Death, therefore, constitutes the most eloquent sign of the human condition, and the most evident sign that man is not “god.”[19]

The process of identifying with the divinity is complex and multifaceted. Since people cannot persuasively divinize themselves, they attempt to resort to a symbol, a statue or an icon that represents them. The author of Revelation has before his eyes the Roman emperors who were deified after death or while still alive, identifying themselves with the goddess Roma, the deity of the Empire, who reveals herself specifically to the emperors through successive epiphanies (cf. Rev 13:1-10). Everyone, from the West to the East, must worship her. In Revelation, it is the beast that rises from the sea and is even a personification of the demon. It seems almost derived from an enormous dragon (cf. Rev 12:1-18) that, in imitation of the Father, generates the child in a sloppy effort to counterfeit the divine. The beast is the embodiment of power – political, military and economic power in its visibility and tangibility – and of every effective form of oppression and violence that is exerted upon people. It can destroy any resistance and opposition. It is the clearest image of the abuse of power: idolatry that imitates the divine by distorting it and that is the product of the divinization of a human being.

The truth of humanity

The text of Revelation has a direct relationship with chapter 3 of Genesis. A superficial reading sees the violation of a conventional food precept (that may or may not be there). “In reality, this sin is a claim to power: ‘I do what I want; I am a law unto myself.’ The knowledge of good and evil, whatever interpretation is given to it…, leads back to the possibility of deciding for myself what is good and what is bad, without depending upon anyone. At this point, God, precisely what humanity depends upon, is put out of the discussion.”[20] It follows that the dependence of human beings upon God is nothing but a myth, an empty fable, which no longer even needs to be talked about… The human person is autonomous and self-sufficient. Yet, when Adam committed this apparently banal sin, he discovers he is something else and experiences fragility and precariousness, the uneasiness of his own nudity, the need to hide and to escape. He condemns the dark of loneliness and is pushed toward oppression.

Another aspect is highlighted here: the theme of power illuminates the truth of being human. Specifically, we do not build ourselves up as individuals, moment by moment, unless we exercise a power that can be expressed both privately and publicly. This also applies to institutions. The Bible puts a negative view on this discussion and the believer has the task of reconstructing it positively, not theoretically, but existentially, through personal experiences illuminated by faith. The Spirit of God does not impose specific decisions, nor is it a substitute for personal freedom, but it challenges human creativity and intelligence,[21] and even exposes itself to rejection.

The power of the spiritual person

The subject of the divinization of humans and the idolatry of power also touches on the religious and spiritual realm. It is no longer a matter of making an idol or an icon, but of pretension in disposing of the absolute, of reducing God to one’s own awareness and ideal of holiness. In other words, it is the ability to make an image of God according to personal holiness, which is based on one’s own spiritual merits.

The apostle Paul grasps the problem well, not only as it pertains to the idolatry of the pagans, but also pertaining to comparisons between Israel and orthodox Judaism. It is a new issue that emerges in the New Testament, where the relativization of the law leads to a discussion about power. A prime example is in chapter 2 of the Letter to the Romans, which is an unrelenting polemic against the Pharisee who is aware of being observant to the entire law, and therefore of being “just,” but whose faithfulness to the law becomes a matter of prestige and, in the end, pride in his own holiness.

The word that comes from God and is accepted and fully observed through sacrifice, becomes something that I possess, a privilege of which I am proud. This “divine” becomes a title of vindication, not only toward others, but above all toward God, who is in some ways a creditor to me. Consciousness born of this attitude becomes absolute: it gives the awareness of being superior to others, of being able to command or at least to judge. It is even a heritage that can be passed on to one’s descendants. It is a presumed spiritual authority that, if it does not become political revenge, has, nevertheless, this intention and plan. In the Gospel, the rejection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, derives from the spiritual power of the doctors, the scribes and the Pharisees.

‘Power’ in the Bible

The initial question returns: what, then, is “power” in the biblical tradition? Power is the right to decide for others with an authority that comes from God and whose purpose is serving others; this is expressed with the law. It is no coincidence that the Old Testament attaches great importance to legislation that embraces all aspects of existence. This is a characteristic that seems to have been lost in the New Testament. Paul’s polemic against the Law, both in the Letter to the Romans and the one to the Galatians, concerns every law and juridical expression that regulates spiritual and civic life.[22] In fact, the Mosaic Law, which God wanted for salvation, can paradoxically become an instrument of sin and death, according to the dynamic that Paul identifies in Romans 7, where even the good coming from the Spirit of God can be exploited for one’s own selfishness.

Power, therefore, must be turned toward promoting unity among the members of society, toward giving consistency to collaboration among people and toward working for the good of all, with special attention to the poor, the excluded, the least. The capacity to grow that is inherent in every person must be freed to promote the awareness and freedom that develop in interpersonal relationships and are brought to realization through the shared accomplishment of life.[23] In this sense, power is not only a sign of unity, but it is also the underlying motivation.

In this respect, the law, after having disappeared in the New Testament, reemerges in the life of the Church. The same apostle Paul, the theologian of salvation through faith and not through observation of the law, when he cares about the life of the community, finds himself giving advice and normative answers to the problems that are brought to him. Indeed, to safeguard order and establish peace, authority is needed in every society and, therefore, so is the exercise of power, which must be considered as a norm.

It should be remembered that within the community there is also a charismatic richness. When Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, speaks of the charismatic gifts, that is, of the light and grace proper to the Spirit of God, he vigorously affirms that they must be used for the good of the community, and not carelessly. Furthermore, confrontation with the authority of the Church is indispensable (cf. 1 Cor 12:1-31; 14:1-40). A charism that disregards authority is destructive and senseless, while on the other hand, authority that weakens charism loses its true meaning and becomes profane. It follows that the proposals of ecclesiastical politics, if they are purely administrative and only governmental, can destroy the very identity of the Church, which is a “mystery.” They cannot be reduced to a simple game of strength or to numerical majorities, since communion in the Church does not have the goal of everyone getting along well together, but of building unity for God’s people in the Lord Jesus (cf. John 17:11, 21-23; Matt 18:20).

[1].Cf. A. Spadaro, Il nuovo mondo di Francesco. Come il Vaticano sta cambiando la politica globale, Venice, Marsilio, 2018; P. Prodi, Il sacramento del potere. Il giuramento politico nella storia costituzionale dell’Occidente, Bologna, il Mulino, 20172; L. Bianchi (ed.), La vita dei cristiani e il potere civile. Questioni storiche e prospettive attuali in Oriente e Occidente, Padua, San Leopoldo, 2015; AA.VV., Il potere, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2014; C. Versaci, Il delirio dell’onnipotenza. La critica al potere e alla sua storia in Is 14, 4b-20. Esegesi e intertestualità della pericope, Bologna, EDB, 2014; M. Cacciari, Il potere che frena, Milan, Adelphi, 2013; P. Prodi, Cristianesimo e potere, Bologna, il Mulino, 2012; S. Corradino, Il potere nella Bibbia, Roma, Acli, 1977; Idem, Il potere nella Bibbia. L’autorità come servizio, Villa Verucchio (Rn), Pazzini, 2011; P. Arciprete, Apocalittica e violenza politica nelle tre grandi religioni abramitiche, Trapani, il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2011. Cf. P. Brown, Potere e cristianesimo nella tarda antichità, Bari, Laterza, 1995; P. Prodi – L. Sartori (eds), Cristianesimo e potere. Atti del seminario tenuto a Trento il 21-22 giugno 1985, Bologna, EDB, 1986.

[2].S. Corradino, Il potere nella Bibbia, cit., 4; edited by F. Fabrizi, 13.

[3].Note the collect for the 26th Sunday of the liturgical year: “O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy, bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us…”. This had already appeared in the eighth century, among the Eucharistic texts of the Sacramentarium Gelasianum, one of the oldest missals for the celebration of the Eucharist.

[4].Cf. Also Wis 11:24-26; and further on 12:2, 16-19.

[5].The regrets and murmurings of the fleeing people are significant: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exod 14:12; cf. 16:2-8).

[6].Cf. Exod 25-40: note that the importance of the Tent of the Covenant, or Tabernacle, is also shown by the length of the text, the longest of the Book of Exodus.

[7].Cf. Rev 13; S. Corradino, L’Apocalisse, Palermo, Pietro Vittorietti, 2014, 106.

[8].Cf. The passage about the taxes owed to Caesar: Matt 22:15-22.

[9].Political power is at the service of the common good (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Tim 2:1-2 and 3:1). Paul affirms this when the persecutions had already begun; cf. also 1 Pet 2:13-15.

[10].Cf. in particular Rev 13.

[11].G. Segalla, “Exousia nel Nuovo Testamento. Il potere fra autorità di servizio ed autorità di dominio,” in P. Prodi – L. Sartori (eds), Cristianesimo e potere…, op. cit., 38.

[12].S. Corradino, Il potere nella Bibbia…, Cit., 9; ed. F. Fabrizi, 21f.

[13].Cf. M. Pesce, “Marginalità e sottomissione. La concezione escatologica del potere politico in Paolo,” in P. Prodi – L. Sartori (eds), Cristianesimo e potere…, op. cit., 44-49; 63.

[14].Cf. Wis 12:19. “Only power that is bathed in love is truly human”: as interpreted by A. Bonora, “Il potere ‘politico’ nell’Antico Testamento,” in P. Prodi – L. Sartori (eds), Cristianesimo e potere…, op. cit., 36.

[15].S. Corradino, Il potere nell Bibbia…, op. cit., 10; edited by F. Fabrizi, 22.

[16].Cf. Exod 20-23:9; Deut 5:1-21; 21:10-14.

[17].Cf. Lev 11-15; 18-20; 25:25-55.

[18].The originality of the poem about the King of Tyre consists in singing about the sovereign as a primordial man who, placed in the paradise of God, sins and is chased away (cf. L. Alonso Schökel – J. L. Sicre Diaz, I Profeti, Rome, Borla, 1984, 886-891).

[19].Even in the Book of Exodus, the Pharaoh is not a deity like the Lord God, precisely because he dies, covered by the Red Sea (Exod 14:26-28).

[20].S. Corradinio, Il potere nella Bibbia…, cit., 12; edited by F. Fabrizi, 29.

[21].Keep in mind that Christians who lead a community and exercise power do not have, in themselves, a different task from that of a non-Christian who has power. They can exercise it well, but can also exercise it badly. However, if Christians in power perpetrate the same abuses and the same oppression as others, they turn out to be worse than the latter since this behavior constitutes the betrayal of a privileged vocation.

[22].Cf. S. Corradino, Il potere della Bibbia, op. cit., 27; edited by F. Fabrizi, op. cit., 61.

[23].Cf. L. Sartori, “Puntualizzazioni per un quadro di sintesi,” in P. Prodi – L. Sartori (eds), Cristianesimo e potere…, op. cit., 18.

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