I commend The Power of God and the gods of Power for its clarity, wisdom, and insight. However, be warned: intended or not, Daniel Migliore’s thin book reads as an indictment of many American Christians and churches.
Originally published in 1983, the book perhaps is timelier in its republished 2008 version. The book’s first appearance was during “the cold war” of mutually assured destruction, when war against “the evil empire” was threatened but not waged, and there was more of a consensus in the American church that violence was justified only as a necessary evil of last resort.
The world is different today. September 11, 2001, is a hinge date for the nation and the American church. The terrorist attacks brought together an explosive combination of a wealthy and powerful country’s anxiety over security and a naiveté about what war really entails. In the aftermath of the attacks, Afghanistan was invaded for harboring those responsible for the World Trade Center attacks, followed by a preemptive invasion of Iraq. Much of the American church either applauded or was silent as the case was made for the preemptive invasion in the somewhat utopian hope that the use of military power would bring greater security and lasting peace.
Migliore does not present himself as a pacifist or an idealist, and his book is not directly about the invasions and the church’s response. Yet, the timely value of his book is that his theological exegesis of power encourages many American Christians and churches to do some painful soul searching. How many Christians were caught believing that “military supremacy and the capacity for preemptive strikes against nations considered enemies [can] guarantee a safe and peaceful world” (p. 99)? How many ministers and church leaders can now admit what American Church history probably will report: that they participated in a largely uncritical and naïve blessing of a war effort?
Migliore inspires such soul searching with his assertion that “faith in God involves a fundamental decision about the ultimate power at work in the world” (p.9). This Princeton theologian has the pastoral insight to know that fundamental decisions about power usually are made when power is either a real threat or temptation. When we are tempted to exert or shield ourselves we are vulnerable to spiritual adultery. Spiritual affairs usually are carried on not with gods of other names but with gods of other powers. Migliore identifies those powers from the prideful pursuits of what serves us at the expense of others to the shameful pursuits of gods that promise to watch over us.
When gods of power are served in the name of Christ, spiritual misconduct is difficult to recognize and condemn. The worst idolatry of the church is when Jesus is called upon to bless selfish ambition, false claims to righteousness, or a fear-based embrace of any “necessary” means to a more secure end. From baptizing material consumption as evidence of God’s blessings to praying for the sword to bring peace on earth, Christians actually celebrate a failure of nerve in the power of the cross to save.
The abandonment occurs when the church confuses the power of God with what an ambitious and self-serving king would grasp if only given half a chance. Almighty Me is presented as Almighty God — the amplification of one’s own insecurities and ambitions. God is called upon to do what my own sense of righteousness desires through whatever means I would justify.
Honest repentance before the cross is the only cure of this idolatry. “Like nothing else,” Migliore says, “the event of the cross forever shatters the equation of divine power with oppressive rule and self-aggrandizing mastery over others” (p. 52). The power of the cross is seen by much of a naïve world as weakness. But when the world finds itself stuck in cycles of violence with terror inspiring terrorism, the church needs to repent of its own sin and remember what can “save a world in bondage to self-centeredness, compulsion, and violence. From the sickness of seeking mastery and control over others, God can save us only by the exercise of a wholly different kind of power — the power of suffering love” (p. 75).
Again, Migliore’s book is a theological exegesis of power and not specifically a critique of much of the American church’s endorsement of invasions of nations in response to criminal attacks. He addresses the interpersonal abuses of power that take place in the home, at work, and among friends and rivals. However, given recent history, what stung and humbled this reader is the mirror Migliore holds up to the American church, reflecting where trust is placed in a time of high anxiety.
George C. Anderson is pastor of Second Church, Roanoke, Va.