By Mark Rodgers
“(The Ring) is a gift. A gift to the foes of Mordor. Why not use this ring? Long has my father, the Steward of Gondor, kept the forces of Mordor at bay. By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe. Give Gondor the weapon of the enemy. Let us use it against him.” — Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring
“I would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” –The Rev. Billy Graham, 2011 interview in Christianity Today
For many of us, Billy Graham was the model Evangelical leader whose life’s ministry reflected an integrity of character and conviction. However, I was reminded that despite the justifiable accolades, the one black mark on his record was recorded in the Oval Office when President Nixon expressed anti-semitic sentiments and Graham concurred: “The Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” Graham said to Nixon. “I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.”
When he heard the tape decades later, Graham was horrified. “If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it. I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself, I couldn’t believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”
Billy Graham was a good man, humble and courageous. When it came to race, Graham famously confronted segregation early in his career, but like many of us, in the presence of power he flinched. I’ve been re-watching The Lord of the Rings to be reminded of the seductive power of politics. The ring is hard to resist, and Christians aren’t immune. In fact, like Boromir, some Evangelicals are too quick to turn to earthly power to pursue their heavenly objectives and thus, the ring can become a master rather than a slave.
In a recent Politico interview about President Trump, one leader said that Evangelicals were “tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists, and I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
In his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch cautioned, “here is what we need to discover about power: it is both better and worse than we could imagine.”
The paradox of power is thoughtfully explored in the recently released Black Panther film, whether military or political, armed uprising or arms dealing, or the soft power of diplomacy and foreign assistance.
The comic and the Black Panther Party were both launched in 1966, which Stan Lee called a “strange coincidence”, but the film’s allusion to the Party and commentary on armed revolution was not.
In this case, the “ring” is vibranium, a rare metal that has the power to heal and the power to kill. Some want to use it for personal gain, others to preserve and protect, and others to conquer. The conflict comes down to the perspectives embodied in revolutionary Erik Killmonger and Wakanda King T’Challa, the two main characters who are adversaries in the film.
Killmonger, as his name implies, has been radicalized both by his father’s death and his view of injustice: “I’ve waited my whole life for this. The world’s going to start over. I’m going to burn it all!” T’Challa is aware of the temptations of power, but also the failure of his ancestral fathers’ rejection of a responsible use of power for the common good: “Wise build bridges. Foolish build barriers.”
At the end, the filmmakers side with T’Challa, but their endorsement is qualified by the words his father expressed to him, “The world is changing. Soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
These are good words for my fellow Evangelicals who see in this moment an opportunity to use political power to “punch the bully.” As I reflect on my Lenten readings, I am reminded that the power that created the universe overcame death through the cross. This is the ultimate paradox, which reminds us that true power lies not in the throne, but the crown of thorns.
“Power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity—breeding inhumanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power … Power, the truest servant of love, can also be its most implacable enemy.” ― Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power