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Power: Reflections on Numbers 16 and 17

Many of us studying this lesson will be able to sidestep the real questions it raises because we do not consider that we have much power, and therefore that the questions raised are for others to answer. Instead we will identify misuse of power by others in the public arena, at work, in the church, possibly against ourselves. Any discomfort raised by the study may thus be conveniently avoided. The lesson study may simply then become a safe pastime, an opportunity perhaps for indulging in criticism and a little self-pity.
So the indispensable starting point for any conversation on this theme is the admission that most of us exercise some power over others, however limited it may be, however remotely it may be exercised. Adults have power over children. Men have power over women. Elders and pastors have power over members of congregations; Sabbath School teachers over class members! Line managers over rank and file workers, and employers over employees. We are all, then, open to the possibility of abusing our power and being corrupted by it. Influence is power. For example, economic influence, which we all possess in some measure, if only at the supermarket checkout, is real power.
For an honest conversation about the lesson, we must also admit that victims of abuse too often themselves become victimizers. Admitting the force of these two assertions takes the conversation into deeply threatening territory. For who wants to admit—to a Sabbath School class—that they may have abused their power over others? Who knows where that kind of conversation may lead?
The lesson seems to recognize the dangers of such difficult conversation—and they are undoubtedly real—and so steers a safer course. It focuses on a story of rebellion, and the rebellion is not just against Moses, but against God, and none of us are in favor of that! And so, attention is drawn to an epic story of power, ambition and rivalry, where the lines of engagement are clearly drawn up in terms of salvation history. We thus are enabled to distance our small selves from the demands of the story.
There are three problems here for us as we try to appropriate the sacred text for our own contemporary purposes. First, the issues of power are seldom as clear-cut as we would like them to be, as they are in epics. The earthquake and the budding of Aaron’s rod in Numbers 16 and 17 are clear indications of what the Lord intends, and of the destructive will to power of the rebellion led by Korah and his followers against Moses and Aaron. However, the dissonant fact is that we have all benefited hugely from the courage of those rebels who, at some stage in our shared history, dared to challenge some powerful status quo for the sake of an ideal, for freedom, for dignity.
Second, we view the ancient narratives with the benefit of sacred hindsight which we do not enjoy in the moment of our own exercise of power. Søren Kierkegaard, the influential Danish philosopher and theologian, said that we live our lives forwards and understand them backwards. In many circumstances in life we have to live with the tension of making choices based only on fragmentary evidence. Not for us the comfort of the budding rod.
Third, most of us are tempted to abuse of power in very local, unimportant and largely hidden contexts. Most of us, most of the time, do not face a moral struggle over the far-reaching effects of our action. Rather we often face the question: What difference, if any, will my action make in the grand scheme of things? Edmund Burke offers an answer: “No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do so little.” And that raises the related question of our sins of omission. Are we not culpable on occasion if we fail to protest, fail to rebel? After all, our own Adventist forbears were in significant ways true rebels.
The pyramids of power are present in all our human relationships. And you can be sure that on this very Sabbath, abuses of power, small ones for the most part, will be taking place all over the world in our churches. We are not exceptional in that regard. It happens in all forms of social organization. The abuse of power often comes in respectable disguises. For example, for the Pharisees, the demands of the purity code gave excellent camouflage for their aspirations to power and privilege. In the UK at present we are in the midst of a political scandal over expenses paid to Members of Parliament. Some have defrauded the system and the taxpayer, by inflating their expenses claims to augment their modest (in their view) salaries. And these were highly respected representatives, elected by people who trusted their use of power and privilege. Respectability is no guard against abuse of power.
And here is the great enigma for those of us who call ourselves Christian and who unavoidably participate in power structures of varying types. We follow the One who seemed to be most comfortable in the presence of the powerless, the marginalized, little children, abused women, miserable lepers, the despised disabled. Jesus aspired, by any conventional measure, to powerlessness, and yet He is the greatest iconoclast of them all! Now there is something worth talking about!

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