Questioning Power


(system) #1

My patience, thin and fraying, gave way with a not-so-gentle snap. My hands steered the misplaced, unfocused student back to her desk while my brain frantically tried to manage the multiple tasks occupying its own scattered focus. Distraction soon led my gaze back to the wayward second grader. Her head was bent over her desk, and her back shook with silent sobs. I left the papers I had been trying to grade and came to her side.

“What’s wrong, Lisa?”

Her answer was not a statement but a question, said without bitterness or disrespect. It was a genuine asking: “Why did you shove me?”

She caught me—caught my breath, my heart—and I was suddenly fully present to her and myself. Why? Why did I push her? Had my hands turning her shoulders felt like a push? I had intended (though I don’t think any awareness had gone into the action) to bring her back to task. But my reaction came across as a power display, an invasion and take-over of Lisa’s personal volition.

I gave her no excuse; I simply apologized and asked for forgiveness. Lisa’s question haunted me the rest of the day and longer, its echoes lingering even now.

What is my tendency in response to antagonistic power? Fight? Flight? The night he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus told Peter to resheath his sword. Then the disciples ran into the black, deserting him. What if, rather than arguing, accusing, forcing or retreating, cowering or hiding in the face of conflict, we pose questions?

Questioning is a middle way that makes use of relational language and wit, cutting power sharper than any two-edged sword. It is a way to remain present to injustice without silently acquiescing or resorting to violence. We see Jesus, himself the Way, using questions to speak to power. He was neither aggressive nor passive, but stepped between the two, holding the tension in potent, subversive questions.

Jesus met challenges to his authority with riddles, koans that left his criticizers silent and, I imagine, confused. Like his parables, Jesus’ questions are left to fester without answer or interpretation. The only option for hearers is continued unconsciousness or an authentic encounter with mystery that inevitably shakes and transforms. Jesus’ questions hold up mirrors that if looked into deeply provide necessary self-awareness to effect growth.

Priests and leaders wanted to trap Jesus, but found themselves snared in meaningless debates over inane arguments even as Jesus spoke of deeper, kingdom things. “The Jewish leaders began harassing Jesus for breaking the Sabbath rules. Jesus replied, ‘My Father never stops working, so why should I?’”[1] Jesus met their accusations of blasphemy with a declaration of his identity as God’s Son, backed up by scripture’s revelation of him: “If you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”[2] “Once again the Jewish leaders picked up stones to kill him. Jesus said, ‘At my Father’s direction I have done many things to help the people. For which one of these good deeds are you killing me?’”[3]

Throughout Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and trial he met violence with non-violence punctuated by a question mark. The battalion of Roman soldiers and temple guards accompanying Judas to the garden found a gentle, “Whom are you looking for?”[4] To Judas’ greeting, Jesus said, “Judas, how can you betray me, the Son of Man, with a kiss?”[5] To the mob: “Am I some dangerous criminal, that you have come armed with swords and clubs to arrest me? Why didn’t you arrest me in the Temple?”[6]

At his trial, a guard struck Jesus because he seemed to disrespect the high priest. Jesus said, “Should you hit a man for telling the truth?”[7]

Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus spoke to his interrogator in a query: “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?”[8]

Finally, speaking to the Power that seemed to have abandoned him, Jesus cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[9]

Jesus was often asking, “Would you like to get well? Why are you afraid? Do you believe…? What do you want me to do for you? Who do you say I am?” Three times he asked Peter, “Do you love me?”[10] Questions are an invitation to awareness, a letting go of ego which is the root of violence. They offer power a chance to step into the humility and vulnerability of unknowing. When I risk loving and living the questions, as Rainer Maria Rilke puts it to his young poet friend, I simply begin living into Answer. My encounter with Mystery through a daily practice of examen, asking the difficult questions, draws me to authentic identity grounded in desire for Love. I believe that when we act out of our desire for God, who is love, we will act as Jesus did—with compassion and healing.

Bringing this closer to home now, if I could speak to the vitriolic voices spouting demeaning, far-from-gospel things about my gender and its role in church leadership at this present moment, I would ask some questions: What are you afraid of? Does women’s strength, intelligence, and tenderness frighten you? Are you fearful of a vengeful God’s judgment? To the men: What happens if you give up the appearance of power? To the women: Why are you reluctant to claim your dignity and responsibility? To all: How is the One—who created male and female in “his” image—most fully represented within a human religious culture?

I hope, if they were willing to listen to these questions, that the ardent defenders of inequality would let themselves marinate in the wondering. When questions are fully listened to and absorbed, they grumble at the backs of our minds, the places where subconscious and conscious meet. Questions call for awareness, another word for truth. Jesus said the truth would set us free. Questions wriggle a wedge in stuck doors so that what was once rigidly shut can swing open to let us pass through into a new paradigm, into fearless peace.

What power in your sphere of influence or the world at large needs your questions?

What questions lurk in your own soul?

Is there anything you want to ask God?

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[1] John 5:16,17 [2] John 5: 46, 47 [3] John 10:31, 32 [4] John 18:4 [5] Luke 22:48 [6] Matthew 26:55 [7] John 18:23 [8] John 18:33, 34 [9] Mark 15:34 [10] John 21:15-17

Joelle Chase is an intern at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This article is expanded from a short piece originally printed in the March/April, 2010 edition of Alive Now.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2325