Power Is Perfected In Weakness

Catholic social teaching is imbued with an optimism about the our ability to effectively manipulate our world. Guadium Et Spes reflects that joyful hope: we as the People of God working together with God can eliminate structures of sin and bring about a just society. We just need to work hard, seek God’s grace, and all will be well. In many ways, this seems similar to the heady optimism of (at least in the United States) the Camelot generation.

The sociological premise of this approach is that unjust “power structures” exist. An article about individual spirituality put it well:

The optimism and hope of the Fathers of Vatican II that “changes in the economic, political, and social arrangements in our society” can eliminate “poverty and [bring] an end to these injustices” seems to suffer from an internal contradiction. The people who either intentionally or passively adopted the unjust structures which plague society did so because they thought those structures were just, promoted human dignity, and advanced the common good as they saw it. Their understanding, though, was spiritually deficient. Indeed, it is possible to tinker endlessly and get nowhere like some bizarre version of the movie Groundhog Day: we simply trade one oppressive structure for another, trapped in injustice, while congratulating ourselves about our progress. Can we escape?

We can. Escape, though, requires us to recognize the nature of the trap. The trap is that we fight power with power. We fight the assertion of others – that we deem unjust – with the assertion of ourselves – that we deem just. As we seek to be strong, we accept and reinforce the fundamental social injustice: that it is just for the strong to dominate the weak, especially when we are the strong. We tell ourselves that it is all to the good because our intentions and our ends are good. We tell ourselves that this is all OK as we agonize in face of human misery – that of the people who need help and our own need to help them. We also remind ourselves that the weak we are dominating we’re unjust so in some sense they deserve to have our preferences – just as they ate – imposed on them.

Is there a way out? There is. It is hard. It is agonizingly slow. It demands supernatural faith. It demands that rather meeting power with power, we meet power with weakness. It is the way of the Cross.

The Passion was principally a supernatural drama. We can see the root of it in the temptation of Christ in the desert. There, Satan made it easy for Christ to give in. Satan said, in essence, if you acknowledge my power over this world, I will make you King and you can do all the good you want. We know, of course, that this is a trap if for no other reason than the being that was offering the deal. Christ says no. He – the Almighty Master of the Universe – chooses the path of an itinerant preacher, traveling from place to place, proclaiming the Good News and waiting for people to voluntarily accept it. He – the Omnipotent One – chose weakness over power. He refused to play Satan’s game.

But Satan entered into Judas. Satan, through Judas, tried to force Jesus’ hand. “If I force Jesus into a direct, palpable choice between life itself and exercising His power selfishly,” Satan thought, “Christ will surely choose power….giving the lie to all He taught.” The pain of Gethsemene was thus more than fear of physical suffering; it was a battle within Christ Himself about whether to exercise power or to exercise weakness. Christ chose weakness.

Satan’s fury exploded. The physical violence of the Passion that is so shocking is simply the concrete form of Satan’s last desperate attempt to goad Christ into self-assertion. Even at the end, Christ turned away from resentment, refusing to condemn those who had been the instruments of Satan’s plan – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Satan must have known that he had been defeated. Christ had refused to play Satan’s game. Christ showed us that Satan had no power of his own; his only power came from our choice to give Satan that power. When we fight power with power, we invigorate the very structures of sin that so challenge us, so outrage us, so compel us to act. If power is made perfect in weakness, then weakness in imitation of Christ is the path to true social justice.

If this is correct, we need a new approach for the praxis of Catholic Social Teaching. Later posts will attempt, while remaing firmly within the current teaching of the Church, to sketch a way forward that is grounded on weakness, but is not indifferent to the misery we see all around us.


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