A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
I have witnessed the way a number of Christians have interpreted this passage and put it into practice in their lives. It summarizes as, “Nah nah nah nah I can’t hear you!”
Warnings about climate change? “I can’t hear you!”
Women wanting to be equal partners in the church? “I can’t hear you!”
Scientific evidence about vaccines? “I can’t hear you!”
Calls to recognize people who have different sexual or gender orientation as people? “I can’t hear you!”
And why don’t these Christians allow themselves to hear things which challenge their assumptions? Generally the response is, “I’ll stick with God over human folly.”
And, on the surface, this might look like it’s a appropriate application of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. After all, these folks say right out that they are going to remain true to Christ against everything else in the world–because God’s right and therefor people are always wrong. It is a sad irony, then, that, in order to “prove” that God’s ways are better than all other ways, folks with this mind-set often gravitate toward the levers of human power. Why? So God’s wisdom can be imposed as the only real wisdom, and in this way society will conform to their assumptions.
And that’s the tell, right there.
When Christians are tempted with power, what are we really tempted to do? It’s to follow the wisdom of this world. Power is strength. Dominance determines the difference between right and wrong. Victory means we can never be challenged. That’s how this world thinks.
And that’s what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Because standing opposite to the wisdom of this world’s assumptions about power and control is the cross. And it tells us another story. It tells us that God brought a change to reality not through power as this world understands it, but though weakness. Notably, though the greatest sign of human weakness there is, death.
We aren’t called to turn our backs on everything and everyone in the world! How on earth could that reflect what Jesus did when he came into this world out of love for it? We turn our backs, rather, on this world’s understanding of what it means to win. “Winning,” in the way of the Cross, means walking in such a way that the so-called “power” of this world is revealed for the sham that it is.
And history shows us how the powers of this world are false power. War after war after war after war–but does anyone ever really win?
I can just take from 2001 to now as a microcosm which reveals the folly of this world’s wisdom, “Get them so they can’t get us.” The idea that “might makes right.”
On September 11, 2001 people who had become so deluded by hate, and filled with fear that their culture was both being polluted and facing extinction, flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In grief and rage the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation. And then later, using bogus evidence, decided it was time to oust Saddam Hussein–so we invaded Iraq.
The new Iraqi government failed to become truly cohesive, so other folks who felt much the same fear and fury that the 9/11 hijackers felt, decided it was time to raise up in arms and set up the world they way they wanted it. And so Isis became a new threat which had to be confronted.
While this was happening people in Syria stood up and said they didn’t want to live under an oppressive regime any more, but the oppressive regime said, “No” and started killing the protesters. Which led to a brutal civil war.
And this led Russia to intervene, because they wanted to show how mighty they were again after being embarrassed by the end of the of the Cold War–which made a brutal war more brutal. This seems to have emboldened Putin to try to win back Russia’s old Soviet empire–starting with Ukraine because it was threatening to chart a course away from Russia.
First Russia took Crimea, and threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on anyone who interfered. Then they sponsored rebellions in two break-away regions, which started yet another brutal war.
All this time Russia sought to reassert its power by weakening their biggest threat–NATO. So they encouraged misinformation campaigns, indirectly interfered in a presidential election, and encouraged isolationist “americal first” policies. All of which were designed to weaken the Western World, but were dressed up in the garb of patriotism. “Brexit” was pretty much the result of the same mis-information campaigns.
And then Putin grew impatient. He over-estimated his misinformation’s impact on adversarial nations and invaded Ukraine. In so doing he’s destroyed two countries, galvanized NATO, and is threatening again to unleash his nuclear arsenal on any nation which interferes. We’re sending weapons to fight, ordinary Russians are feeling the sting of sanctions while the kleptocrats keep their hoarded wealth, and the Ukrainian people are suffering from the horrific tactics of the Russian army. There is, I might add, a special place in hell for people who order attacks on maternity hospitals and bomb civilan shelters.
Oh, and somewhere in that narrative the Taliban took control of Afghanistan again, so that turned out great as well.
And where has all of this come from?
From the wisdom of this world, from the desire to win and idea that we have it in our power to win in such a way that no one else can ever win again. It is a lie.
And the only proof we have that it is a lie, is the Cross of Christ. People of this world want signs of power to show that the cross is mighty, or to work it somehow into the wisdom of “might makes right.” But the cross is not might, it is weakness. Because it is only weakness that can break the endless cycle of death.
Think of what the cross signifies! It’s a reminder that God the Son entered into Creation itself as a defenseless new born. The incarnate God of the universe became fully one of us. At birth Jesus didn’t have object permanence. He had to learn how to walk, to speak, to be potty trained. He had to learn the skills necessary for life, taught by Joseph, and probably struggled like every other kid learning new things. And, yes, his understanding of Scripture is said to have been immense, but he still had to learn how to read. Aside from those things, the Incarnate Son learned what it was like living with the reality of temptation, the struggle of surviving under an oppressive regime, and the grief associated with losing loved ones to death. This is what the cross signifies–when God determined the time to conquer sin and death had come the Son did not come as a mighty power but as a human born in a backwater province of a mighty empire. And the conquest he would unleash came not through the power he’d learn to wield throughout his lifetime but through his self-sacrifice which emerged from love. And this is who we are meant to be.
There’s a reason the fruit of the Holy Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” And not “strength, power, influence, might, and security.”
I am not saying that Ukraine should just have laid down and said, “Sure, abuse us.” Or that their defense of their land isn’t just. Nor am I saying that the US and NATO should have just allowed Russia to roll over Ukraine and subjugate its people. I’m calling us to recognize that none of these exercises of power will ever lead to actual peace. The Russian regime can’t assuage its paranoia through conquest–really, it’ll make it worse. Ukraine will probably win this war, but now will have an openly hostile nuclear power at their doorstep. NATO could wipe the floor with the Russian armed forces, but the deterrent of mutual assured destruction is truly madness when one side may decide if it can’t win then no one should.
Christ’s disciples, especially in times like these, are called to show the marvelousness of stepping away from power in order to embrace weakness. To show love for the refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. To have compassion on the people of Russia who are bearing the brunt of evil beyond their control. And to demonstrate in our own small ways the wonder of the world made new through Jesus’s conquest of sin and death on the cross. It means to take up this verse in I Have Decided to Follow Jesus and live it.
The world behind me, the Cross before me.
The world behind me, the Cross before me.
The world behind me, the Cross before me.
No turning back. No turning back.
This is the Way. Amen.