Abuse of Religious Power by Henri Nouwen
The passages below on power are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Finding My Way Home,” published in 2001:
When God looks at our world, God must weep. God must weep because the lust for power has entrapped and corrupted the human spirit. In the news and even in our families and ourselves we see that instead of gratitude there is resentment, instead of forgiveness there is revenge, instead of healing there is wounding, instead of compassion there is competition, instead of cooperation there is violence, and instead of love there is immense fear.
God must weep when God looks at our beautiful planet and see thousands of maimed bodies lying on the battlefields, lonely children roaming the streets of big cities, prisoners locked behind bars and thick walls, mentally ill men and women wasting their time in the wards of large institutions, and millions of people dying from starvation and neglect. God must weep because God knows the agony and anguish we have brought upon ourselves by wanting to take our destiny in our own hands and lord it over others.
When we look around and within us with the eyes of God, it is not hard to see the all-pervading lust for power. Why are Serbs and Moslems killing each other? Why are Protestants and Catholics throwing bombs at each other? Why is the president murdered, the prime minister kidnapped, and why do political leaders commit suicide?
Let’s look into our hearts! Aren’t we constantly concerned with whether we are noticed or not, appreciated or not, rewarded or not? Aren’t we always asking ourselves whether we are better or worse, stronger or weaker, faster or slower than the one who stands beside us? Haven’t we, from elementary school on, experienced most of our fellow human beings as rivals in the race for success, influence, and popularity? And. . . .aren’t we so insecure about who we are that we will grab any, yes any, form of power that gives us a little bit of control over who we are, what we do, and where we go?
When we are willing to look at things through God’s eyes, we soon see that what is happening in Bosnia, South Africa, Ireland, or Los Angeles is not so far away from what is happening in our own hearts. As soon as our own safety is threatened we grab for the first stick or gun available and we say that our survival is what really counts, even when thousands of others are not going to make it.
I know my sticks and my guns! Sometimes it is a friend with more influence than I, sometimes it is money or a degree, sometimes it is a little talent that others don’t have, and sometimes it is a special knowledge, or a hidden memory, or even a cold stare. . . .and I will grab it quickly and without much hesitation when I need it to stay in control. Before I fully realise it I have pushed my friends away, perhaps wounding them in the process.
God looks at us and weeps because wherever we use power to give us a sense of ourselves, we separate ourselves from God and each other, and our lives become diabolic, in the literal meaning of the word: divisive.
But there is something worse than our exercise of economic and political power. It is religious power. When God looks at our world, God not only must weep but must also be angry—angry because many of us who pray, offer praise, and call out to God, “Lord, Lord!” are also corrupted by power. In anger God says “These people honour me only with lip service, while their hearts are far away from Me. Their reverence of Me is worthless, the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments.” (Isaiah 29:13)
The most insidious, divisive, and wounding power is the power used in the service of God. The number of people who “have been wounded by religion” overwhelms me. An unfriendly or judgemental word by a minister or priest, a critical remark in church about a certain lifestyle, a refusal to welcome people at the table, an absence during an illness or death, and countless other hurts often remain longer in people’s memories than other more world-like rejections. Thousands of separated and divorced men and women, numerous gay and lesbian people, and all of the homeless people who felt unwelcome in the house of worship of their brothers and sisters in the human family have turned away from God because they experienced the use of power when they expected an expression of love.
The devastating influence of power in the hands of God’s people becomes very clear when we think of the crusades, the pogroms, the policies of apartheid, and the long history of religious wars up to these very days. It might be harder though to realise that many contemporary religious movements create the fertile soil for these immense human tragedies to happen again.
In these days of great economic and political uncertainty, one of the great temptations is to use our faith as a way to exercise power over others and thereby supplant God’s commandments with human commandants.
It is easy to understand why so many people have turned away in disgust from anything vaguely connected with religion. When power is used to proclaim good news, good news very soon becomes bad, very bad news. And that’s what I believe causes God’s anger.
But God looks at our world not only with sad or angry eyes; God’s mercy is far greater than God’s sadness and anger. As the Psalmist says: “God’s anger lasts but a moment.” (Psalms 30:5) In an all-embracing mercy God chooses to disarm the power of evil through powerlessness—God’s own powerlessness.
What was and is God’s response to the diabolic power that rules the world and destroys people and their lands? The answer is a deep and complete mystery because God chose powerlessness. God chose to enter into human history in complete weakness. That divine choice forms the center of the Christian faith. In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the illusion of power, to disarm the prince of darkness who rules the world, and to bring the divided human race to a new unity. It is through total and unmitigated powerlessness that God shows us divine mercy. The radical, divine choice is the choice to reveal glory, beauty, truth, peace, joy, and, most of all, love in and through the complete divestment of power. It is very hard—if not impossible—for us to grasp this divine mystery. We keep praying to the “almighty and powerful God.” But all might and power is absent from the One who reveals God to us saying: “When you see Me you see the Father.” If we truly want to love God, we have to look at the man of Nazareth, whose life was wrapped in weakness. And His weakness opens for us the way to the heart of God.