I Peter and the problem of power
When I was in college, I played a lot of Risk. If you aren’t familiar with “The Game of Strategic Conquest,” as the board game styles itself, it is about literally taking over the world. The game board is a map of the world, with continents divided into territories. Players move armies around, attack other players and attempt to control as much territory as possible. Naturally, the game is over when one player controls the entire world. Playing the game well involves making (and breaking!) alliances, knowing which continents are worth pursuing, etc.
I loved Risk, but the problem was finding other players. I attended a Christian university and for some odd reason, most of my dorm mates insisted on playing the game like … Christians. My view was that you can’t play Risk like a Christian — it makes no sense. We have no interest in dominating the world through conquest, so what would a “Christian” approach even look like? But my friends would try! They were very polite and they always kept their word and alliances remained firm. And they were always shocked when I stabbed them in the back and invaded their territories. If you have played the game you know what I am talking about. In Risk, the best players (in my opinion) know that alliances are meant to last only as long as they are advantageous.
No one likes to lose, but I never understood their frustration with me. Risk is a game, and the point is to win. Insofar as I can do that within the rules, why wouldn’t I? Not all of my friends were frustrated by my style of play. A good friend (and an infuriating opponent in Risk) plays the same way I do. For whatever it’s worth, he’s currently the pastor of a fast-growing church out West.
All that being said, my Risk persona is just that — a character. I don’t live life the way I play a game, with a “the-ends-justify-the-means” attitude. Such a Machiavellian approach to life is, I think, basically incompatible with Christianity. You can’t really play Risk like a Christian and you can’t live a Christian life as though you were playing Risk. If I treat life like a game, where what matters most is winning, then I give myself an excuse to take my “Christian” hat off to do what needs to be done.
During the past year or so, I’ve seen this mentality creep into the way many Christians view politics and I, for one, am sick of all the winning. It’s enough to make me pine for a time when “winning” politically wasn’t even a remote possibility for the church. Proximity to power tends to warp our perspective. After all the early church didn’t rock the vote, for the very good reason that there was not, technically, such a thing as “voting” in the Roman Empire.
Jesus made a number of profoundly political statements during his ministry. One of them came just before his death, when he explained to Pilate that the Kingdom of God was not of this world. Pilate didn’t need to worry about insurrection or unrest as far as Jesus’ followers were concerned.
Peter expands on this idea in one of his letters, writing: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:13-17 (ESV)
These are common themes throughout the New Testament. As far as possible, Christians should get along with everybody. They should submit to the governing authorities, recognizing that all authority ultimately comes from God. Everything goes back to the distinction Jesus made between his kingdom and the kingdoms of men. His encounter with Pilate was essentially Jesus living out his own exhortation to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, ESV)
Because we are Christ’s, we are to live as he did — by being subject to the institutions that govern our lives while recognizing the source of their authority. We can “live as people who are free” because we truly are. We don’t need for our freedoms to be enshrined politically for them to be real. We are free because we serve God. Serving the God from whom all power derives means that we should be free from the temptation to worship power in itself.
Pursuing power for its own sake should be obviously futile to a people who serve God. It is tempting though! The idea of acquiring power and getting back at the people and groups who oppose us is very attractive. Besides, think of how we could advance the kingdom of God if “our” people were in charge! The thought of using power for good is a seductive one. Of course, anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings knows how that works out. No, we lie to ourselves when we believe that we would be different, that we want power for the “right” reasons.
Winning feels good, though, and political victories can seem more real than spiritual ones. But having power is no guarantee of success. In the end, every game of Risk comes down to dice. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned, how perfectly you’ve timed your invasions — every battle is a literal roll of the dice. Relying on chance makes sense for a board game, not so much for a people who serve the One who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). As we learned from Ecclesiastes last year, all of our works will fade away; we cannot find hope in the kingdoms of this world, even if we could control them.
The problem is that we forget: The greatest display of Christ’s power wasn’t in his miracles, or his teachings. It wasn’t even in the Resurrection. The perfect picture of Jesus’ understanding of power is the Cross, a moment of helplessness. Our understanding of power comes not from the military or money or political capital, but from a man submitting to an unjust death at the hands of the state. We aren’t interested in overthrowing the government; neither do we seek to control it ourselves. We can submit the “earthly institutions” free of fear or insecurity because we see them for what they are — the babysitter, given temporary authority. But Dad will be home soon.
Jack Hoey III is the minister of research and theology at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, where he lives with his family; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.