I just finished reading George Orwell’s book 1984, and it’s a doozy. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a man living in a fictional, totalitarian society where literally everything - right down to people’s thoughts and behaviors - is monitored and controlled by the State and its symbolic figurehead, Big Brother (the popular phrase comes from this book). People are constantly under surveillance, and breaking protocol in any way that might show you question “The Party” will get you “vaporised.” In other words, you will be taken captive, tortured, and killed. But even worse, since the Party controls all media and press in the country, all documents will be tracked down, edited, destroyed, and reprinted to make no mention of you. You literally cease to exist.
It’s a disturbing story, to say the least, and here’s a spoiler alert: it doesn’t end on a happy note. But actually, one of the most disturbing parts for me was a conversation between Winston (the protagonist) and one of the members of the Inner Party. Winston understands the how of it all, since he worked for the Party’s media team, but what he really wants to know is why. Why does the Party want to completely obliterate all human autonomy and freedom, even if that means destroying the quality of life all over the world, living under constant threat of war (which is used to manipulate the people), and even eradicating scientific research and progress because it leads to dangerous independent thought? Why do they want this so badly that even they have to participate in the collective delusion in which all truth has been made utterly moldable by the will of the government? The answer isn’t about money, fame, privilege, comforts, or anything else we might imagine. The answer is simply: power. Here is what the Party leader says:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. ... We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.
The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
-George Orwell, 1984
It’s no coincidence that when we write stories like 1984 and even invent worlds like in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, it is the “bad guys” that are represented first and foremost with strength, might, and yes, power. Even the strength of the “good guys” is always portrayed differently: a quieter, more stable power. The general moral seems to be that the endless search for “power” is a seed of evil that may appear harmless at first, but always blossoms into something ugly and even diabolical if it can survive long enough.
So what is power? This definition is a good one for my intentions here: “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” Now, that sounds pretty sterile and even innocuous. What’s so bad about influence or control? But again, it’s not necessarily power itself that is evil; it is the lust for power.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Tolkien chose the “Rings of Power” to be the source of evil in his story. They were created by Sauron* - the archetypical “Satan” figure in Tolkien’s world** - and always intended for one double-edged reason: to increase the power of the most powerful while simultaneously bringing them under his control. It is telling that the lust for immense power and immortality from the nine kings of Men resulted in them achieving both, but at the cost of forfeiting their souls to pure Evil, the literal “lord of the rings.”
A better story
As a Jesus follower, I have been let in on what is perhaps the universe’s biggest secret: that “power” isn’t real power. The greatest irony of the Cross is that we are told it is the power and glory of God. It is the coronation of a different kind of King, whose throne is the first-century equivalent of the electric chair and whose crown is made out of painfully sharp, bloodletting thorns.
Trying to “bring the Kingdom of God” through earthly power is literally the exact opposite of the foundational principles of the Kingdom. (Click to share on Twitter)
It looks like utter madness to the “natural” mind; and if the self-sacrificial nature of this kingship is unsurprising to us, it is only because the idea has partially drifted into our collective consciousness by two millennia of circulating the story through Western society. It certainly wasn’t what the Jewish people were expecting their victorious king to look like - and they actually had access to the texts we use to explain him.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
The man Jesus of Nazareth was offered the kind of kingly power that comes naturally to us. When he was fasting in the wilderness and preparing for the start of his homeless, hitch-hiking, couch-surfing style of ministry (Luke 10:4-7), the Satan archetype came to him with words similar to Sauron’s:
The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” And Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!” (Matthew 4:8-10)
It’s easy for us to brush off this passage because in hindsight it seems so obvious, and the Satan figure isn’t exactly portrayed in a positive light. And by making Jesus into the super-human God-man (with an over-emphasis on the God part to the point that we forget the man part), it’s not too hard for us to read these words and move on quickly.
But stop for a moment and consider the implications: here was the opportunity, right at the very beginning of his ministry, to get the control he needed to make the world a better place. He had the vision, the wisdom, the teaching skills, and the moral compass needed to bring the Kingdom of God to earth in exactly the way his people were expecting. Surprisingly, though, seizing the power to control and influence nations wasn’t the way this Kingdom was going to work.
In fact, and this is where we really need to listen closely, trying to “bring the Kingdom of God” through earthly power is literally the exact opposite of the foundational principles of the Kingdom. It’s worth listening to Tolkien’s character Elrond here, because we might need to be reminded that, many times, the quest for power and control is done with good intentions (which is also what Orwell said about at least some of the Nazis and Russian Communists).
We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.
Although it might sound blasphemous, I think it is an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened if he had compromised the core message of the Kingdom and chosen to take the power with full intention of saving and serving the best interests of humanity. In Tolkien’s world, even the wisest and most pure-hearted would simply become another Sauron if they ever succeeded in defeating him using his own tactics. So I wonder, if Jesus had taken that offer and defeated Satan (whatever that means in this hypothetical scenario), would he just have become Satan 2.0? I don’t think I’m blaspheming Christ, because Jesus wouldn’t actually be the Christ if he had chosen to take that power, so the question isn’t really even a plausible one; but it is something worth pondering.
Go ye and do likewise
While all of this makes for some (hopefully) fun reading, the question remains to be asked: what does this mean for us? As I said above, we rightly put Jesus in a special God-man category, but because of this, we often reason away the need to take him as a real example when it doesn’t fit our predefined categories.
The fact is that Jesus didn’t just treat his own kingship this way. He clearly stated that the whole Kingdom - and all of its citizens - are to be this way, from the greatest to the least. And in a very telling statement, the greatest and the least are actually reversed when it comes to Kingdom politics. The greatest in the Kingdom is not the one who pursues power, but the one who chooses to serve all; and Jesus chose to make himself the greatest (or lowest?) servant. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the kind of false “service” that we use a euphemism for political power plays and hierarchy. Referring to politics as “public service” might sound nice and even be true in one sense, it is usually just a tricky play on words in an cheap imitation of what Jesus really meant.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
With all of that said, it’s time to wrap up with a question and a challenge. How do you view “power” in your own life? How do you feel about it in the deepest parts of your heart? What are you doing to pursue or deny it? Just a warning, though: this will probably take far more time and require you to go far deeper under the surface than you expect. Ideologies are deeply embedded, and they aren’t rooted out easily. You may need to invite others into this journey, or even have this discussion as part of your small group or over a few beers with some good friends. Whatever it looks like, though, grace and peace to you as we all plod our way along this tricky, narrow path and do our best to become better Kingdom citizens.
*I apologize to any Lord of the Rings enthusiasts who will challenge me and say that the rings were created by Celebrimbor and the Elves, but Sauron played a big role in directing the process and always intended to use them for his own purposes, so it’s just easier to say he created them since this isn’t an article on the history of Middle Earth. :)
**I also apologize to those who will quote the Silmarillion and cite Morgoth as the more accurate “Satan” figure. I’m just referring to the archetype within the trilogy itself.