When I was younger I sought to memorize the Bible. You know, for those moments when you need it the most. I believe I read it somewhere in a story on Christians in Communist Russia. The story glorified the martyrs and heroes in the faith that sat in prison and recited the Bible which they had memorized. In doing this they saved souls. Saving souls was the most important thing I could think of doing as a Christian. I thought that was what a “real” Christians did.
Sword drills. Bible Clubs. Countless hours spent on writing the Word upon my heart. Never really getting to the point in which the Word became anything other than words.
Years passed, I fall in and out of faith. I find myself as a high school youth director at a church. I am responsible for the faith formation of a bunch of amazing high schoolers. My ideas around Christianity have changed. My understanding of faith shifted. So, I did what I knew how to do and set up a challenge. Memorize the most Bible verses and win a prize.
We negotiated the prize together. They wanted the winner to chose a drawing that I would get tattooed on my body. The buzz was exciting. The students immediately set out to find the perfect drawing. There were unicorns, Disney characters, Loony Toons, a few dragons, and Power Puff Girls.
They went strong for the first couple of weeks. I kept a chart in my office. Almost everyday after school students would come to my office and hang out. They would show me the images I would get tattooed on my body when they won. They were very excited to be able to permanently mark themselves on my body. I got a bit nervous when I saw what some of them wanted to tattoo on me.
The theme became lets put the silliest tattoo on Ryan.
The semester came and went. Summer arrived. Not one student had memorized a single Bible verse. The power they eagerly dreamed of disappeared in time. Washed away with the other social responsibilities of teenage life. Say for one student. He won the contest with “Jesus Wept.” and John 3:16. He still insists that I get the Power Puff Girls tattoo that he lovingly decided that I ought to get.
I offered my students a degree of power over me. I was submitting myself to their authority. In hindsight the power that I offer them and that I gave up was not the most responsible act I have ever committed.
Imagine a world with out power. Total anarchy? The absence of power might be more terrifying that the utter dominance of power.
My quest to memorize the Bible was a quest for power. It is what I knew so I offered it as normative to my students. They responded to the need for power.
The Bible is replete with stories of power. The struggle for power is at the center of the great love story between God and creation. Power is at the root of the fruits from the garden. Power is the stage to which the story of Susanna plays out.
Susanna, is a very beautiful and God-fearing woman. She is married to the wealthy, Joakim. The couple lives in Babylon in a fine house with an orchard. Being wealthy and respected, many Jews come to the couple’s house to settle their disagreements in the presence of two elders chosen from among the people for their wisdom. Bestowing great power upon them.
In the afternoon when the people have departed, Susanna is in the habit of walking in the orchard. The two elders pass her every day and, without admitting it to one another because they are ashamed, begin to desire her passionately.
One day, having parted for dinner and unable to bear it any longer, they each separately retrace their steps to spy on her. In doing so they meet up again. They confess their desire for Susanna to one another and decide to act together.
As they hid in the orchard waiting for the right moment, the two lustful elders overhear a conversation between Susanna and two maids accompanying her. Susanna asks them to close the doors of the orchard and to fetch oil and perfumes so she can bathe, as it is hot.
When the maids have left, the elders come out of their hiding place and try to blackmail Susanna, saying: “Behold the doors of the orchard are shut, and nobody knows we are here, and we are in love with you. Because of this you must consent to and lie with us. But if you will not, we will bear witness against you, that a young man was with you, after you had sent away your maidservants.”
Thinking she is lost whatever she decides, Susanna chooses not to give in to them to avoid sinning. So she cries out, as do the two crafty elders while at the same time opening the doors of the orchard. People come running and listen to the elders’ lies.
The next day, the people are assembled at Joakim’s house. The two elders, who have the power that accompanies their role as judges of the people, reiterate their accusation:
“As we walked in the orchard alone, this woman came in with two maids, and shut the doors of the orchard, and sent away the maids from her. Then a young man came to her, and lay with her. But we that were in a corner of the orchard, seeing this wickedness, ran up to them, and we saw them lie together. He could not apprehend the young man because he was stronger than us. We asked who the young man was but she would not tell us.”
Susanna replies: “O’ eternal God, who knows hidden things, who knows all things before they come to pass, You know that they have borne false witness against me; and behold I must die, whereas I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.”
God hears Susanna and awakens the holy spirit of Daniel, a young boy, as she is being led to her death. Daniel then asks to question the two elders separately. He asks the first under what tree Susanna and her lover were conversing. The man claims that it was a mastic tree.
The second elder, to whom Daniel puts the same question, mentions a holm-oak. Daniel having proved that the two elders were lying, they are condemned to death and Susanna is cleared of the suspicion of adultery. “And Daniel became great in the sight of the people from that day, and thence forward.”
Power is intoxicating. Power can leave us exhausted, depleted, and empty. As Lord Acton offers us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While I believe this to be most certainly true for humanity I worry that if applied to God that we assert a power over God that is not possible. God is God and we are not. Power and the quest for it orients the world we live in but power certainly does not fashion nor fuel the existence of God.
Often power and lust are the same. Power clouds, veils, and perverts the beauty and goodness of God’s fearfully and wonderfully made creation. We, God’s creatures, suffer from exposure to power. The cultural stripes to which this community bears in the not so distant memories of “separate, but equal” bears witness of the false testimony of those in power that lie in wait. Seeking to do harm in secret. Institutionalizing the suppression of God’s grand goodness for all.
The story of Susanna warns us of the dangers of power. God teaches us that power is something to be engaged in community and with great awareness. Power warms over the peace that Christ calls us to. Power reveals the best and worst of us all.
We can look to Uncle Ben, the uncle of Spiderman who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Perhaps this is the best statement of power applied to our understanding of God. God’s whispers bring about creation. Surely, destruction can also be whispered. With what delicate balance do we entertain our understanding of God?
Where do you find yourself in the story of Susanna? Again, Imagine a world with out power and I will show you heaven.