Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Political Power and Divine Weakness: An Advent Reflection

Timothy Sherratt


by Timothy Sherratt

At breakfast with colleagues the other day, talk turned to the pain of the world and to the great Christian paradox, punctuated in this Advent season by images of the Christ child: that power is made perfect in weakness. From Bethlehem to Calvary, the Gospel narrative confronts us with this paradox. How are we supposed to embrace the truth proclaimed by the Scripture and to allow its insights to shed light on the political order and our current controversies?

On the face of it, weakness appears decidedly unhelpful, not least in government. Injustices of quite horrendous kinds abound, and we cannot simply accede to pseudo-pacifist inferences that could be drawn from viewing helplessness as integral to God’s power at work in the world. But if Calvary is the archetype of power made perfect in weakness, if it owns the true meaning of power so to speak, then we must pursue its implications.

Let me suggest three manifestations of this principle—that power is perfected in weakness—in the political sphere.

The first is trust. When the congressional super-committee failed to report out a proposal for cutting the deficit last month, that was Congress’s second failure. The first was the replacement of democratic deliberation with binary options and automatic cuts in the first place. Putting public policy on autopilot undermines trust. Democracy runs on trust. Without it, government actions are little more than force masquerading as authority.

The second expression of the principle is courtesy. Whether displayed in gaining familiarity with the issue in question, in listening to and trying to persuade one’s opponents, or in reaching agreement at some cost to one’s preferred position, courtesy makes a necessary contribution to the effective working of the political system.

But courtesy alone does not direct the polity to serve its proper ends. For that, one needs a humility that rejects the temptation to omni-competence. The Christian paradox of power made perfect in weakness comes most sharply into focus when God-in-Christ yields to his executioners. He who alone has full title to divinity and to sinlessness surrenders both. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21, ESV).

In politics, when the cause becomes idolatrous, compromise becomes
impossible as policy decisions are evaluated not on the degree to
which they advance justice but on the degree to which they advance the cause. An all-powerful market is as ugly in this respect as an all-powerful state. Both rob human beings of their dignity. No political position, Kenneth Minogue insists, should be mistaken for “a revelation.”  

These three expressions of the paradox barely scratch its surface or check our inclinations, I suspect. Whether it concerns the political impasse over our economic circumstances or the conflict over the proper distribution of authority to the state, the marketplace or the civil society, or the proper response to the savage repression of its citizens by the Syrian regime, the instinct to leverage conventional power is compelling.

The power made perfect in weakness possesses another characteristic of great contemporary relevance, however: it resists easy pigeonholing into any of the unhelpful categories that sour our political discourse. For Christians, this may have the salutary effect of qualifying our political allegiances, even our necessary or prudent ones, that align us with Democratic or Republican parties, or with policy commitments of one kind or another. That these are rendered provisional may be the source of a political disposition turned to its proper ends.

The institution of government, Jonathan Chaplin has reminded us, is divinely ordained. It is not a democratic act. Government’s end is to serve God by doing public justice, an end that both empowers and limits it. Against the temptations to the abuse of this divine authority, Advent poses a timeless and timely challenge to contemplate the biblical truth that weakness does not dislocate the power of God in the world but may constitute its truest location.

Come, Emmanuel.

—Timothy Sherratt is a professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”