The Cross and the Paradox of Power

When we seek the honest perspective, the eyes which see the other as self and the self as other, we can no longer function in this world. Now that we see power for what it is, and how it blinds our conscience, we cannot be content with it. And yet this entire world is made in the image of power. It is power, from the rapist on the street to the thugs who compose our corporate state, which leads us to our ruin. And yet, all organisms need power in order to survive. Power is at once our only hope, and our final reckoning. It is in this paradox that we find the cross, a symbol most absurd and most beautiful, perhaps the one true legacy of our aborted Christian heritage. The cross recognizes the paradox of power, and it seeks to transcend it. How? By surrendering all power, and dying. By being crushed. But in the insanity of the cross, the absurdity of the resurrection, the message of this symbol becomes clear: the dead shall live, and the powerless shall transcend all.

Why do powerful states get away with the same kinds of crimes that small-time dictators are hanged for? Why has not a single banker gone to jail for destroying the US economy? Why are they instead rewarded with taxpayer money, while ordinary Americans must work like animals just to survive? The most fundamental answer to all of these questions is power. Power is the root of hypocrisy and unfairness, the source of all our major problems in the modern world. Why will there be no action on climate change? Because the powerful don’t see it as a priority. Action on climate change, which would potentially save the future of the species, would also cost fossil fuel companies somewhere around ten trillion dollars. The choice that the powerful make it clear – the profits of corporations over the lives of human beings. No amount of idealism can make power behave itself. It is simply absurd to expect elites in any country or any era to create a humane society. All elites claim to be acting in the best interests of their people, and they never are. The rot is fundamental – the rot stems from power, and power burns itself up in the desperate hunt for more power. It is the death drive, symbolized uncannily by climate change. We burn fuel in order to survive, and yet it is the burning of that fuel which will lead to our ultimate extinction.

Power owes no allegiance to the powerful. The moment that somebody else has more power than you and is willing to use it, you will suffer the same fate as a nobody. You will be destroyed, and your only legacy will be a pathetic attempt to control the very forces that led to your demise. That is how power works – we use it, we tap into it to achieve our ends, and it ultimately betrays us. Just as it betrayed the Romans, just as it betrayed the Germans, and just as it will betray us. Adolf Hitler was a man in love with power, a man who sought to achieve his vision through the use of force. And yet in the ultimate irony, he was overpowered. The most power-hungry man in the world died because he did not have enough power. This is because power knows no limits, and no amount of idealistic statesmen can use power to save us.

Or rather, they can. For a time. When Hitler rises in Europe, we can use power to stop him. But in the end, we have stopped only one manifestation of power-hungry madness, and we have become the next. As George Carlin once: “Germany may have lost WWII, but fascism won it”. Defeating Hitler was a foolproof solution to the threat that Nazism posed, but the fundamental problems of power were not touched at all. How could they be? The Allied powers also worshipped power, and in the post-war world, stood on the brink of nuclear war to expand their own spheres of influence. No army or institution may oppose power, because they are fundamentally wedded to power. No matter how much two killers may hate each other, they both have one master: the sword. As long as we are all disciples of the sword, the world will not change. Power will always be the ultimate goal, and the ‘lesser of two evils’ will quickly become the arbiter of a dying world. The game of power must be transcended. But how?

Because we live in a dangerous world, we need weapons and armies. But why is the world dangerous? Because it is filled with weapons and armies. In order to defend ourselves from the powerful, we must attain power. In order to avoid being destroyed, we must destroy. This is the hypocrisy that is forced on us by the very fact of our physical existence. Kill or be killed, an eye for an eye, it is the undeniable order of the natural world. Anyone who disagrees, anyone who rejects power, will be crushed by the people who have embraced it. It is because of this fear that we must play the game – that we must seek power, knowing how empty it is, and knowing that all empires will eventually become dust. This is the way of the world, and who are we to seek to overcome it? Everyone must play the game of power, and accept paradox. The college student, capable of resisting power, must shut up and accept it, because their mountain of debt ensures that they will play by the rules. They need a job that pays, and thus it is wise to focus on their career and unwise to criticize power. As physical organisms who require food and shelter, we are all slaves to power.

Once we see the other as ourselves, we can no longer function in this world, no longer justify any of their suffering. If we ever seek to overcome our ego-driven hypocrisy, then we cannot continue to live in a world where the self must amass power to be used against the other. Paradox upon paradox, contradiction upon contradiction. In such a situation, I suppose it only makes sense that the answer is so truly insane: we must rebel against power itself. The impossible rebellion, the ultimate insanity. And yet this is the molten core of Christianity – the total rejection of power. The utter reversal of the natural order. That is the message of the cross, forgotten by the Christians who refuse to bear it.

Christ was not crucified because his message was well received – his message was hated and reviled because it exposed the darkest depths of our moral failures. He was crucified not because he was loved and worshipped, but because he was a criminal being executed by the state for stirring up social unrest. Christ was a dissident, and his message was one of radical dissent. Of course, in an honest world, his message is not radical at all. The hypocrisy of power is what is truly radical – the notion that we can murder and destroy as many people as we want and be praised for it, all while condemning other people for their moral atrocities. That is the radical doctrine of ego and power, and it is the doctrine that our society has accepted. Why? Because it is easy. It is easy to serve power, and difficult to fight tooth and nail against it.

The message of the cross is that the powerful win and the pacifist gets crucified. And yet it represents a gleeful insanity, because to choose the path of power is to choose hypocrisy. We must choose the path of love instead, and accept that we will be metaphorically crucified for it. It will always be easier to accept power. But we must evolve beyond that, and evolving beyond it requires the gut level understanding that we will suffer and be destroyed for it. That’s why choosing love over power is so insane – it does require faith. Not faith in dogma, but faith that living in dissent ultimately does something to change the world, even if it appears that we’ve just been trampled over and power has won as usual. We must break free from our narrow perspectives and see the other as ourselves if we ever hope to advance morally, otherwise we’ll always be able to justify the suffering of others. We truly must see the suffering of others as our own. There is no self and other. This is an illusion – the way you treat the other is the way you have treated yourself.

The eyes of love and empathy are the eyes that invite the most pain. When one hears of a drone strike murdering five civilians, it is easiest to shrug and move on. What is truly difficult is to gain the perspective of those five people – to see them as yourself, your father, your mother and your two children, all murdered in a single instant. Now it truly becomes unjustifiable, and yet we live in a world where it is considered completely justified. The powerful, from Pontius Pilate to Barack Obama and Donald Trump, know that they are above the law and cannot be tried as the gangsters that they truly are. And this is the world that we have created.

The cross represents the fate of those who challenge power – they will be absolutely obliterated. This is the insane wonder of Christianity, the fury of the messiah, the point where we understand what was meant when Christ said: “I came not to bring peace, but to set the world on fire”. Christ came not to preserve order, but to incite a spiritual rebellion against the way of this world. The symbolism of the resurrection is that the dead shall live. The meek shall inherit the Earth, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is a direct upheaval of the natural order, a complete reversal of the will to power. The will of the powerless is the soul of the cross, for in the cross, divinity itself was rendered utterly powerless. The son of God was crushed and crucified by the powers of the age, and in death, a symbol was born. What is the meaning of the resurrection? That those who have been destroyed by power will triumph over all. If this is true, then there is nothing to fear. But we do not know this. Our empirical understanding of power reveals to us the exact opposite. It tells us to give up, go home, and play the game. But we cannot, so the insanity of the cross is all that we have.

Some Christians have tried to take this message seriously. Liberation Theology was one such example, a Latin American movement in the 1950s that sought to turn the Catholic Church into a force for liberating the powerless, primarily the poor. But it was destroyed by the United States, who used the School of the Americas to crush Liberation Theology. Strains of it remain, but the movement effectively ended in 1989 when six Jesuit priests were murdered by death squads in El Salvador. The United States took the role of the Roman state, and crucified those who dared to take the Gospels seriously. Apparently we’re allowed to have ‘faith’ in Jesus Christ, but not enough faith to actually take his teachings seriously.

Attempts at creating communes, or societies like the early Christian communes, crop up from time to time, in limited places, but never catch fire, never influence the world. Perhaps, like Christ himself, they are only blips, destined to occupy one small place in space and time, never ruling over this world.

The burden of the cross is caused only by a radically vulnerable awareness. Awareness of human suffering, and awareness of how that suffering is fundamentally tied to power. The solution presented by the cross is to refuse to play the game of power, and accept that you will be destroyed as a result. The kingdom of Christ is truly not of this world. If you want to do well in this world, then the message of the cross is true insanity. But even still, it is less insane than the alternative. We must see the true face of power before it destroys us, just as it destroys all who fall in love with it. “Put your sword back in its place,” said Jesus in Matthew 26:52. “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” The Romans refused to see it then, and we refuse to see it now. As long as we are served by power, we will justify it. But the moment it is used against us, we break. It is in that hypocrisy that the way of power breaks down, and where all moral people must dissent.

2 thoughts on “The Cross and the Paradox of Power”

  1. This is a beautiful meditation, as radical as can be.

    I’m glad I came to visit your site, Alexander. I read something you recently wrote on Quillette, opened tabs to follow you on Twitter (thanks for the follow back) and to read your site.

    As I have the misfortunate habit of having literally 100 tabs open at any one time, it’s taken me some time to arrive here. I’m glad I did because it’s not so often you come across someone who writes about both mysticism and politics. I don’t know why it’s as rare as it is. I guess it’s just the pointy abstracted time we live in, at the end of one eon and the next not yet slid in.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

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