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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Take The Long Way | First Sunday in Lent 2019

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, 'To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.'" Luke 4:5-6 (NRSV)

A couple of years ago, while a struggle for power was taking place in a major US corporation, a friend and I talked about it. They commented on how strange it was that the CEO didn't simply step down and go live on an island somewhere, since he had so much money. I responded that money isn't the only motivator, and that power itself is often an even stronger incentive for people. Though I have no idea if that's what was going on in that particular instance, I stand by the concept. Fame is attractive to some, money to others, and many want both in heaping measures. Still, nothing is more alluring than power, and in the end, that's the true aim of seeking money and fame.

It isn't just the presidents of nations or of corporations who get an overbearing swagger from their position. From the manager of a small store who runs roughshod over employees, to the insecure 'man-of-the-house' who controls his family through intimidation, the world is full of swaggering lordlings as well. What's good for the 1% is grand for the 99%, it seems.

The text from the Gospel of Luke for today portrays Jesus being tempted, and one of Satan's offers was authority over the nations, in return for worship. Christian theologians have long debated whether the devil even really had the ability to give over the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, or even if Jesus was capable of falling for such a trick. Suspend disbelief with me for a few moments, taking this story as factual in describing the devil as having dominion over all peoples. What would that even mean? In practice, nothing visible, as only the deeply delusional would say that they literally see the devil reigning over the nations. Instead, for them, the world is filled with unseen demons who are persuading people to be feminists, have abortions, spread communism, and stamp out Christianity. It's all just...behind the scenes.

Certainly there's something attractive about thinking you have the inside story on what's really going on. Conspiracy theories abound, and each one seems more ludicrous than the last. Those who believe them aren't usually the wealthy and well-connected, with some glaring exceptions. Often, it's people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder who cling to these fictions. The National Enquirer—which I suspect will be around well after all other newspapers stop printing—figured out its market long ago and stuck with it. Feeling as though one is 'in the know' about secret activities that are driving world events conveys a sense of power to people who feel powerless in every other portion of their lives.

It's just a shame that what helps them feel better about themselves is so terribly damaging to a democratic society. They vote for con artists and support misguided causes that either work against them, or distract them from real problems. Some conspiracy theories, like 'Pizzagate,' end up instigating harassment and violence, while the anti-vaccination myths put the lives of children (all of us, really) in danger. This is why I support for a free quality education and universal healthcare for everyone. By advocating for these and other basic human rights, we can seek to set people free, thereby unleashing the largely untapped potential of humanity for good.

The thing is, none of this comes about by taking a shortcut, and that's what conspiracy theories represent—a shortcut. Rather than do the long, hard work of studying science and the humanities, people turn to the internet for ready-made answers. The fact that they had to 'study' the prepared answers to understand them makes them feel as if they've done real research, when of course they haven't.

One suggestion I've already given: study. Knowledge well-comprehended, so much so that we can pass it along to others, gives us power over our circumstances and sheds light on our way. Reason is the flame of truth, and wisdom its light.

Likewise, we shouldn't take shortcuts in our own lives to achieve the kind of power that represents control over our innermost being. In the Enchiridion, a Stoic work, Epictetus says, "We should always be asking ourselves: 'Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?'" There isn't much that I truly control, not even my mood. I have some ability to change how I see things, and beyond that I can only influence events. Neither past nor future are mine to control, and this passing moment is already gone. I step back, evaluate what I can and cannot control, do what I think I should, and try to let go of what is beyond my grasp. When we are faced with chaos swirling around us, the first Leviathan we have to defeat on the way to peace is within ourselves.

Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world and, according to the Gospel story, he turned it all down. The hidden gem within that legendary moment is what went on within him. He used his knowledge of Scripture (it was a theological matter, after all) and remained resolute within himself Satan was defeated the moment Jesus claimed dominion over his own humanity, rejecting the kind oppressive power that is enacted through hate and fear. With study and practice, we can do the same.