Power

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 29, 2018
2 Samuel 11:1-17 (NRSV)

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.

 

Over the last month I have been here in Jackson, I have been in a lot of meetings. I have had meetings with City officials, with school board members, with local activists, with bankers, with normal folks who just want Jackson to be better for them and their children.

But the biggest thing I have been trying to figure out since I have gotten here is how does Power work here. In community organizing circles, they call it power mapping, or power analysis. It’s important as a first step, because sometimes the people who look like they are in power really aren’t, and the ones who look like they don’t have any actually have a lot.

You have seen this first hand in your relationships. Like, when granddad bullies and blusters, but grandma is the one who really decides things. Granddad thinks he has the power, but really, he doesn’t.

Power mapping isn’t just useful in community organizing. It is helpful in personal relationships. It is helpful at work. And most importantly for our purposes today, it is a powerful spiritual practice.

Take, for example, today’s story.

History, they say, is written by the victors.

It has also largely been written by men.

Here in the US, we often talk about the Founding Fathers – men like George Washington, John Addams, Benjamin Franklin. Where were the women in these stories? Other than Betsy Ross, who was only notable because the Founding Fathers asked her to do something, I would be hard pressed to tell you any of their stories. Where were the women?

They were there, but their stories were not told. Mostly, I suspect, because it was men doing the telling.

And why did the men get to tell the stories? Because men had power, and in those societies, women did not.

You see this constantly in the Bible stories, too. You could, if you grew up in the church, perhaps tell me the story of Noah and the ark. If you were a hard-core Sunday School attendee, you could perhaps even tell me the name of his three children. But I bet you could not tell me the name of Mrs. Noah. Or the names of his son’s wives.

You couldn’t do it because their names were not considered important enough for us to learn. Because they were women, and it was men telling the story when it was first written down.

It’s about power. Men had the power, and they got to tell the story. And whoever tells the story gets to shape the story.

Like in this story. There are multiple ways of telling the story, depending largely on who does the telling.

The way I learned it was that David, God’s favorite, saw a beautiful woman, and they slept together. Then she got pregnant, and to cover it up, he had Uriah killed. That is the way I learned the story, and largely the way the story has been taught for generations.

That is how the story gets told – but that isn’t what happened.

What happened is that David, who was King and thus had power, saw something he wanted and he took it. Nowhere is the story is it even implied that Bathsheba was a willing participant. In fact, when one party has all the power and the other doesn’t, it is hard for there to be any consent. When the person who literally has the power of life and death over your spouse tells you to do something, you don’t really feel like you have a choice.

What we call the story of David’s adultery was actually the story of the sexual assault of Bathsheba.

But even that way of telling the story centers David. It centers the man, the person in power.

Another way of telling the story would be to center the story on Bathsheba.

Her husband Uriah was sent to war because, the Bible tells us, it was springtime, and that was the time to go to war. But David didn’t go – he stayed home, where it was safe, but men like Uriah got sent off instead.

So one night, after she got finished with her bath, she got summoned to the King’s palace, where she was sexually assaulted by the King. And then she discovered she was pregnant, and the King had her husband killed and made her move into the palace.

Bathsheba was a woman in a system that allowed no power to women, and on top of that, she was pregnant. And your only option is to fend for yourself or be protected by the man who sexually assaulted you and killed your husband.

Some choice.

Let’s look at this story from the framework of power.

In the story, we have four main characters: David, Bathsheba, Joab, and Uriah. Let’s rank them in order, according to who has power and who doesn’t.

David is king, appointed by God. David has ultimate power.

Joab is a military commander, in charge of men. He has the next amount of power.

Uriah is a man and a soldier. He has the next amount of power.

And Bathsheba is a woman, in a society run by men. She has the least amount of power.

Having mapped out the power, let’s look back at the story. The way it is written, who is the story about? Who is the main character? David, the person with the most power.

To who is no blame attached, but was complicit in the crimes? Joab, the person with the second most amount of power.

Who are we made to feel sorry for? Uriah, another person with power.

And who is the only person in the story who is only passive, who only has things happen to her, but doesn’t have any agency of her own? Bathsheba, the person with the least amount of power.

So that is a different way of telling the story. A story that centers the voice of the victim, the story of the person with the least amount of power.

I have spent, at this point, nearly 1000 words telling you about power analysis because I think it is perhaps one of the most important things we in the church can do. I think the Jesus story is ultimately about power, who has it and who doesn’t, how you use it if you do, and for whom.

Jesus was incredibly concerned with power. Most of the healing stories in the New Testament are about people who have little power being restored to a position of equality. Think about the man born blind, whose sight is restored. Or the woman who was constantly bleeding and thus considered impure being made whole, so she could return to society. The man possessed by demons, the man who could not get healed because he couldn’t get to the pool to get in because, you guessed it, people with more power than he had got there first.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus told the Pharisees that the one without sin should cast the first stone, whose side did Jesus take? The side of the one with the least amount of power.

In the parables Jesus told, they were always stories about power as well. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is all about power. I mean, the rich man is in hell and still thinks he has the power to tell Lazarus what to do. The wealthy landowner that won’t forgive debts, the rich young ruler who stored up his riches, the inequity of pay in the story of the talents.

Over and over again, the Jesus story is all about power. And I believe that is because God is concerned about power. The Exodus story is about people with Power using it against people who don’t, and God taking the side of the ones who don’t. The stories of the exile – Daniel and the lion’s den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace and all the rest – are stories of God taking the side of the people with the least amount of power. The prophets constantly warned those in power that they were not aligned with God’s will.

Power is not bad – it just is. What is bad, however, is when those of us with power use it to harm others. Instead, Jesus believed that those of us with power had an obligation to use it on the behalf of those who do not.

The apostle Paul gave an example of Jesus doing this in Philipians when he quoted an old hymn as saying that Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Jesus had power, but didn’t use it for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

This story today is the story of power, and who has it and who doesn’t. And the clear witness of scripture is that God is always on the side of the one with the least amount of power.

So where does this leave us? I think it means that as followers of Jesus, we have to look for the power dynamics around us, and ask who has the power and who doesn’t. And then if we want to be like Jesus, we have to be on the side of the people with the least amount of power.

And if we are with them, then God is with us.

Amen.

 

1 Reply to “Power”

Comments are closed.