Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Power as a Zero-Sum Game: The Politics of John 8:31-36

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[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

In contemporary Western society we like to pride ourselves on having done away with what we would term ‘archaic’ systems, such as slavery.   And so, when we hear such a system mentioned or even alluded to in a text like John 8:31-36, it is easy to write Jesus’ words off as anachronistic to our more ‘civilized’ approach.  If we’re among the majority of such Westerners who know of no slavery in our ancestral background (or, if we do, whose ancestors were the slaveholders), then we may be tempted to object with Jesus’ disciples:

“‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’” (8:33)

The first disciples resisted Jesus’ slave imagery, but not without irony. After all, the children of Abraham with whom they identify are the same children of Jacob who traveled to Egypt and were made slaves. Moses and Aaron led their ancestors through the wilderness so that they—the disciples, all the Jews, and by extension believers today—are children of the exodus; children for whom the reality of slavery is very real and near. And yet they resist this, practicing a form of selective amnesia rather than think of themselves as slaves.

So too, we are tempted to resist, but not without an irony of our own.  For to do so dismisses the continued effect, for example, that the American history of slavery has on the U.S. economy.  Or the continued abuses of human rights that confront us every day around the globe.

The slavery that Jesus is talking about is not that of eighteenth century slavery in the Americas, nor is it narrowly limited to the situation of house slaves in the Roman empire, or even the Israelite experience of bondage under Pharaoh.  In its own way, the good news of Jesus’ promise addresses each of these situations and so many more; however, Jesus is not bound by them.

The politics of slavery are, of course, power.  By slavery one person holds power over another person—even power over his or her very life.  In most political systems today, despite best efforts to avoid such terms and good laws that have hindered and prohibited many abuses, at its base level, this sort of imbalance of power continues to exist.  Economic and political structures that prohibit entire segments of the population from participating due to lack of privilege and unequal distribution may not be as heinous as previous manifestations of slavery, but they are systems in which real human beings hold real power over other real human beings, nonetheless.  Think of a migrant farmer, a child sex worker, a green card wedding, just to name a few.

We are both slaves and slaveholders one and the same. We live in a society in which power is the political capital of choice.  We become so caught up in negotiating and maneuvering to increase our power that it blinds us to those from whom power is being wrested along the way.

We may want to ignore this—to pretend that there is plenty of power to go around—just as the disciples seem to want to do in John’s gospel lesson.  We may even want to ignore the most biting moments when we ourselves experienced powerlessness… but to do so would be missing Jesus’ point.    Power is a zero-sum game.  And so, for us to have power, others must lose it and vis versa.

Therefore, Jesus insists that power—particularly power over human life—be returned to where it belongs: God.  Anything less, Jesus insists, is a manifestation of sin (John 8:36).  Jesus requires a complete rethinking of who we are and how we live in this world’s political structures.  But the good news is, once we consent—once we acknowledge that control over the lives of human beings belongs properly and only to God—the structures change.  When we give our quests for power over to God, God gives us a new kind of power in return.

This is what Jesus says it means that

“the truth will make you free.” (8:32b)

In God’s Kingdom we are made free from the abuse and exploitation that claims hold of humans as God’s good creation.  Jesus frees us from power grabbing and position scheming.  The amazing thing is, he frees us by making us slaves—God’s slaves.  And, with the old structures of power stripped away, Jesus calls us to live as God’s slaves—human beings claimed and owned by a gracious and powerful God.  It is a slavery that is both totalizing and liberating, for in subjecting our entire lives to God, we throw off the shackles of human maneuvering and are able to live freely in service to the Most High.

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The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.

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  • David True

    Thanks Amy. Would you mind saying a bit more about how God’s liberation relate to the presidential campaign and partisan politics?

  • http://twitter.com/gapowellca Greg Powell (@gapowellca)

    Great piece. This particularly resonates with my current thinking: “Power is a zero-sum game. And so, for us to have power, others must lose it and vis versa.”

    As people become aware of their privilege, there is a temptation to think that enlarging the “power pie” makes a difference for a marginalized person. But as long as the privileged person’s slice is larger than the marginalized person’s slice, we’re no closer to equity. And that assumes that enlarging the power pie is even possible (I do not think it is).