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Double Binds And Paradoxes

Double Binds And Paradoxes October 18, 2021

The Revised Common Lectionary this week gave us an attempted double bind by the disciples James and John. It is a classic example of people believing too much in their own cleverness. “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left.'” (Mark 10:35-37 NRSV) You see the paradox beginning here. It is like getting only three wishes and trying to use one to wish for more. First, they ask, agree to do whatever we ask. But what if the request is impossible?

The Paradox for James and John

The sons of Zebedee attempt to fulfill their ambition with cleverness. My culture creates a similar paradox. “You need to have some ambition. But don’t get too big for your britches.” You fear asking too much and are appalled by the thought of asking too little. Jesus could question them. “Which one of you gets to be on the right hand side?” But Jesus won’t get to his major point if he simply starts a dispute by being more clever. The paradox though would exist. Would James envy John for being on the right hand side? Or would James fear John’s ambition to take his place if James got the higher position?

The potential double bind for Jesus would be that very problem. How could he grant both their requests if they both wanted the same position? It could not be done. This is the problem many church leaders face. How can two irreconcilable desires be fulfilled? What happens when goals conflict?

The Double Bind For Leaders

Solomon decided to split the baby believing the real mother would rather give up the child rather than see it killed. It worked in the story. But what mother would not fight to keep her child from a what is obviously a bad parent? Suppose the two mothers made the same choice? Solomon’s approach was clever. The outcome could have been different.

Religious leaders are always condemned for seeking power. Those who do are judged based on the next part of the text of Mark 10. “So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” (42-44)

How do we do that and maintain authority? A title used in one seminary class was titled “Pastor Power.” Many students objected to the idea. But we are given power and authority to do whatever needs to be done. Every church I have served included difficult people. Some had people who desired to be tyrants. If they do not get their way, they are more than happy to destroy everything. Wounded clergy limp away from these situations because they do not know how to confront such people.

Leadership Paradox

The classic double bind is described this way. A parent demands attention from the child and then tells the child to leave the parent alone. The double bind for clergy is to “take thou authority” and keep the people happy. It is almost impossible. But it is not so much everyone telling the clergy person to keep them happy. It is trying to reach out to the person who demands they (and only they) be made happy.

The way I approached this was how I learned to do it at home. I took the passive-aggressive approach. I took perverse satisfaction in making the person angrier. But being passive-aggressive never satisfies me. It should not.

Taking on people demanding the church do things their way is a challenge. Often, such people have persuaded others to go along with their agenda. And then there is always the lie that they know how to make a church succeed. Many claim to draw on their “business experience” for their credentials. One cannot offer to split the baby with such people. They will take the opportunity to be the tyrant.

Double Binding the Demonic

Jesus told the early disciples to serve and told them over and over again. Milton used the voice of Satan to explain why. “Tis better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” But that did not mean he didn’t want to rule Heaven. All of the Stygian Council in Paradise Lost do. Milton the Puritan understood how the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell fell apart. The Commonwealth succumbed to imperial ambitions just as the Kings had before it. The leaders destroyed their own vision.

Ruling over others is the way of every empire and tyrant. And what tyrant doesn’t want an empire. Power like wealth seeks for more of itself. Our call to serve binds this demonic desire in ourselves. Clergy can recognize the desire for more power in themselves. The trick is recognizing it is not a good desire. Leaders must bind the demonic in themselves.

The lay person who demands that everyone bow to their will requires the leader to expose the lie that is at the root of the other person’s claim. Attempts to satisfy will always be made until it is recognized as a hunger for destruction. The importance of exposing it cannot be overstated. So Solomon called for a sword to expose the person who wanted the other woman to lose her child too.


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