Christians have had a long and complicated relationship with power, often taking shortcuts to accruing power by similar means as the world. Jesus, and Gandalf, both show the wisdom in resisting shortcuts to power.
As a thirty-something American evangelical pastor, I am bound by law to love The Lord of the Rings. The movies were released during a very formative time in my life, at the end of high school and beginning of college. There probably weren’t too many nights in my dorm at a Christian university where someone wasn’t watching LoTR.
For those of you with zero cultural awareness, The Lord of the Rings is the story of good overcoming evil. Its main characters are hobbits—think of a barefoot, half-sized Victorian Englishman and you pretty much know what a hobbit is. One hobbit, Frodo, comes into the possession of a great Ring of Power, whose creator, Sauron, is the epitome of all evil–and he wants the ring back.
A Fight Against the Power of Evil
The only way to defeat Sauron is to destroy the ring, for his life-force is bound to the ring. Great many things could potentially be done with this ring, including the destruction of one’s enemies. At various points in the books some character or another suggests they use the ring against Sauron and destroy him that way. That brings up a good question—why not just use the ring to defeat Sauron? Why sneak into his homeland of Mordor and drop the ring into the fires of Mount Doom?
Because The Lord of the Rings is a cautionary tale of the corrupting nature of power. When Frodo suggests that his wizard friend, Gandalf, take the ring, he refuses. He knows that a powerful being such as himself would be corrupted and his powerful goodness turned into powerful evil. He tells Frodo,
“Understand, Frodo, I would use the Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”
Evil cannot be defeated through evil means. Good cannot fight evil with evil. As soon as Good turns to Evil for weapons against Evil, Evil wins. And power, being one of those weapons, corrupts good and turns it into great evil.
No Shortcuts to Power
Jesus understood this, far better than today’s Christians. He was offered a One Ring of Power of a sort and refused. Satan tempted Jesus to accomplish his mission using a shortcut—Satan would grant him all the earthly power there was. It was his to offer Jesus. Jesus could skip the cross and all that nasty business and do what he came to do without it—become the Lord of all the world. All Jesus would have to do is bow down and worship Satan.
We can see here the corrupting nature of power. What other temptation could possibly even come close to getting Jesus to abandon his mission than the offer of power and authority. Of achieving glory without first suffering the humiliation of the cross. Should he take Satan’s offer, though, Jesus would have power over the earth at the cost of subjecting himself to the source of his power. How you gain power is the kind of power you will wield. Just like Gandalf would end up serving the One Ring and its master, Sauron, Jesus would end up serving Satan. Shortcuts to power do not end in true power.
Earthly Power is Opposed to the Jesus Way
The power and authority of the world is directly opposed to the way of Jesus and God’s intentions for the world. God did not intend earthly powers to oppress and subjugate people created in God’s image. God did not intend earthly powers to war with one another with innocents serving as collateral damage. The power Satan is offering Jesus, though he suggests it could be used for a good end, is an evil means. It bypasses God’s plan. Good ends cannot be achieved through evil means no matter what your intention.
And power has the ability to become evil and self-serving in most people’s hands.
Why else would Jesus tell his disciples that they should not lord over people like the lords of their world but should seek greatness by seeking humility. By humbly serving people. True power does not look like the world’s power, it looks like Jesus dying on the cross and his followers feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the unhoused, dignifying the undignified. Power such as Sauron’s could not achieve a good end even with good intentions. And power such as the world’s cannot bring about Christ-like ends, though we have tried repeatedly.
The Church and Power
When we seek to use the levers of power in this world for kingdom ends, we end up using that power for earthly goals. Christians may go into politics or seek wealth or some other form of earthly power with good intentions. They may enter into it to bring the world more into alignment with God’s vision for it. Usually, however, they end up discovering that political power and wealth are ends in and of themselves. Rather than using it to do the good they wanted to do, they end up using all their energy and power to maintain whatever power and wealth they have accrued and gain more of it.
Very, very few people have the wisdom and integrity to avoid the compromises with evil that are necessary to earn and maintain earthly power. The wisest among us, like Gandalf, recognize the corrupting force of power and wealth and refuse it. We must do the things of Jesus in the way of Jesus, or else we are not doing the things of Jesus.
Doing Things Jesus’ Way
Previously, I wrote about gentleness. Power and gentleness can rarely be sought at the same time, if at all. Yet, gentleness is a part of the Jesus way. Paul urged the Philippians to let their gentleness be known to all people–suggesting that gentleness is a key aspect of the Christian’s public witness to the Good News. But in a world in which power is a zero-sum game, gentleness is next to useless. If we are to be gentle, as Jesus wants us to be, we need to be comfortable not having earthly power.
The Good News here is that we don’t need to pursue earthly power. We don’t need power as the world knows it to achieve Kingdom goals. We are servants of the true King, the true Power of this universe and he achieved that power the long way: by first humbling himself by dying on the cross. Jesus is the uncorruptible Lord because he refused shortcuts to power and chose obedience to his Father instead. And he can work in us and through us to achieve his vision for this world through our simple, humble acts of ministry.
Small Things by Ordinary Folk
Gandalf understands that while Good cannot fight Evil using Evil’s weapons. He also knows how Good can fight against the darkness.
“Some believe that only great power can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I found that it is the small things, every day deeds by ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” We don’t fight power with power; we fight it every day by doing simple acts of service and ministry for the people we encounter. Jesus didn’t feed 5000 people with a battalion of food trucks; he fed them with a young boy’s Lunchable. Whatever small act of ministry we bring to Jesus, he can take it and do greater things than we can imagine for the sake of his Kingdom.
You can’t fight Sauron with Sauron’s ring and you can’t fight Satan with Satan’s power. Evil means can only lead to evil ends. We must do the things of Jesus in the ways of Jesus. Simple acts of love and goodness are our true power and are the weapons of goodness in the fight against evil.