Having kids means watching kids’ movies, and as a father, I’ve watched my share. One of the films I never minded watching over and over was “Night at the Museum,” the Ben Stiller movie in which a ne’er-do-well single dad takes a job at the Smithsonian only to find that all of the displays come alive at night. In one scene, Stiller’s character meets a miniature, ostentatious, and confrontational cowboy named Jedediah (Owen Wilson) who lives in a wild west diorama. Stiller picks up Jedediah, who reaches for his six-guns to shoot Stiller. The guns, of course, are miniatures and don’t work. And this is when Jedediah laments with anguished disappointment in his classic western drawl and third-person perspective the line that always made me laugh out loud, “Jedediah’s impotent rage…his guns don’t fire, take me away!”
I think the reason this line always struck me as funny is because it is so relatable. It’s common to act with bluster and confidence only to realize at some point that one is small, insignificant, and even powerless in the face of larger problems. Jedediah’s predicament is his humanity, miniscule as it may be…his reflection that he is not as strong as he would like to be.
As peaceful Christians, however, we live a bit of a paradox about this. On the one hand, our acknowledgement of God as all-powerful means that we accept and confess our own finitude and powerlessness. Similarly, our acknowledgement of Jesus as King means that we understand that powerlessness (the way of the cross) is actually the proper way to live, meaning that a rejection of violence and the pursuit of power is central (think, here, the kind of power which wins both national and cultural wars). We understand that following Jesus means living a life of self-sacrifice and service motivated by love rather than the pursuit of power, wealth, and security at the cost of doing violence to the other. In other words, rather than the useless guns of Jedediah, we have set aside our guns entirely–for words.
The paradox, however, is one of many in the Gospel that the apostle Paul understood so carefully: the greatest in the Kingdom is the servant, the last will be first in the Kingdom, and the list of beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the oppressed.” The aforementioned apostle knew this well in his own life when, in 2 Co 12:9, he mentions his mysterious suffering as something he must continue to bear because “Christ’s strength is perfected in weakness.”
The paradox is that it is in our weakness, insignificance, and powerlessness that we are actually strong and powerful. It is our willingness to die for the Gospel which really makes us live. It is when we become irrelevant to the world’s way of thinking that we truly have anything meaningful to add to its conversations.
Paul’s opening monologue in 1 Co 1 reveals this paradox most completely:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Of course, what Paul must prove to the Corinthians is that he is wise enough to be their source of correct teaching not because he has great status and power, but because he does not. He is competing with messengers who look more impressive than he does. So Paul falls back on the paradox of power and powerlessness in the Gospel of the Kingdom.
“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” why is it so? The Jews simply could not imagine how getting crucified would be an effective way to change their political and cultural situation. They needed a king with an army, not a dead guy with a handful of disappointed followers. And the Gentiles were incredulous about it. “Power is to be able to crucify people, not be crucified. That’s stupid!” But, Paul says, this foolishness or stupidity is God’s real power, because this life of self-sacrifice is exactly the kind of thing that is needed to truly change a world that has always been enamored with strength and power wielded with violence.
In other words, we Jesus followers, we few, are a people who are strong because we have accepted the weakness of Christ into ourselves. And we recognize that this Kingdom life is the only one with the power to really make a change in this world.
It is this power in peacefulness that is often most misunderstood, especially by those whose imaginations are held by violence. People have a tendency to believe that a “pacifist” Christian must be, at all times, passive. They tend to think that Christians must be nice, non-confrontational, and always amicable…especially when approaching the powers that be, people in authority, etc. “You’ll never win them by driving them away, etc.”
This thinking forgets the great tradition of the prophets who ravaged their listeners’ ears with fiery messages: from priests and kings to nations of people whose hearts were hardened. It forgets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Amos. It forgets John the Baptist shouting at Herod outside of the temple. It forgets Jesus confronting the Pharisees in his last week and forgets that he was crucified for offending the sensibilities of the corrupt leaders. It forgets the suffering of the apostles in Acts, their unwillingness to give in when power attempted to shut them up. It forgets their martyrdom and that of the readers of Revelation, many of whom were killed because they refused to say what Caesar wanted them to say.
The great paradox of the power of the Gospel includes this: that while we may beat our swords into ploughshares, we still hold fast to the tradition of the prophets and follow the King whose image in Revelation is a warrior with a sword coming from his mouth, not in his hand. The paradox is that we are not powerful by the world’s standards of power, but we have a greater power, that of our ability to speak the truth boldly…confrontationally…in some cases condemningly to the powers that be–and this is possible only because we have put down the sword to pick up the cross. Our unwillingness to kill means that our deaths mean more and we speak all the more prophetically understanding this.
This weekend, mega-church minister and self-styled, semi-progressive Southern Baptist minister David Platt had just such an opportunity. In response to Franklin Graham’s Twitter challenge of May 26 to pray for Donald Trump (in response to the constant “attacks” he is under), the President, seemingly at random, chose Platt’s church for a surprise visit, sending his people on ahead to say “The President wants you to pray for him.” When Trump himself arrived at Platt’s church, Platt (who claims he was surprised by the event) not only agreed to let the President disrupt their communion service, barge in, and receive his prayer but he stood up and, putting his hands on Trump’s shoulder, prayed that Trump would know how much he is loved, that he would have wisdom, and included a vague reference to Trump making decisions that would be “good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path.” Words which were guaranteed to bounce off of their target.
Platt, who has been occasionally critical of Trump, had a unique opportunity to speak in a way that was unmistakable about the evils Trump has done. If he was going to mention “justice” he might have mentioned God’s love for migrant children or shithole countries. If he was going to mention “equity” he might have mentioned the humanity of women and their status as being more than just walking “pussies” to “grab.” If he was going to mention “peaceful lives” he might have mentioned the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. He prayed for “blessings” but left out convictions. He prayed for “justice” but was purposefully ambiguous about what that meant. There wasn’t anything in that prayer that challenged Trump in a way Trump would understand. If he had, he’d certainly have tweeted about it the next day. Nothing. Failure.
David Platt had an opportunity that John the Baptist literally gave his head for. And he blew it. One would expect this of a higher-up in the SBC, desperately afraid of saying something that isn’t politic in a religion rife with hypocrisy on such issues. One would assume that he has members of the “social justice” crowd who donate to his buildings as well as Trump supporters. So, of course, he needed to maintain a sense of social justice for the “SJ” crowd without bothering the “MAGA” folks. In the end, he said nothing at all.
And nothing is a great thing to say, if you’re sure you don’t want to get crucified, stoned, or beaten up–or lose members. It’s perfect if you’re hoping to impress everyone with your eloquence and grace under pressure. It’s the right way to make sure you say exactly what everyone wants to hear without actually saying anything at all. If only John the Baptist had stood outside Herod’s temple and passively shouted, “Kings must do what is right!” It’s true and Herod, I’m sure, would have no problem with it, because isn’t Herod always doing what’s right? If only Peter had said, “We must obey God…” and not included “and not men.” For, isn’t everyone basically interested in obeying God? They’d all probably have escaped the sword and club and cross. But, then again, they’d have denied the real power that the Gospel has: its truthfulness.
David Platt had a chance to speak the truth. He had a chance to stand with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs and speak. But he flaked out like a good mega-church preacher. And the saddest thing is, I think he knows his words were about as useless as Jedediah’s guns.
I picture him saying to himself, “David Platt’s impotent prayer…his words don’t fire. Take me away.”