Enjoy Your Power

October 16, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON

In August, we had Hurricane Irene, as you will recall. I lost power for three days and went to the market to pick up some food on the third night. While I was in the check-out line I received a text message from a neighbor saying, "I just passed your house and the lights are on." I cheered and put away my phone, but not before the cashier noticed. "The electricity is back on," I told her and as she handed me my change she said with a smile, "Enjoy your power." What a great thing to say. It just rang in my ear as something I would remember, even though she meant my electrical power, of course.

"Enjoy your power." As someone who loves history, ancient Scripture, medieval art, and Puritan theology and ecclesiology, I spend a lot of time in previous centuries. And it seems to me that modernism was really about one central shift in human understanding: beginning in the late 1700's, humans began to believe that it was not the gods or God, but humans, who were the most powerful force in the universe.

This is not to say that humans stopped believing in a powerful God or stopped revering Nature as a great force that could certainly shape life and death and reality itself, but the humanistic tradition of which Unitarian Universalism is a part begins with the central proposition that it is humans who have the greatest power to shape the future, as well as to shape themselves. This idea is a comfortable and familiar one to us, but can you imagine what a seismic shift this new worldview was to a species that had, for thousands of years, believed itself playthings in the hands of divine powers? For mankind, this was not just like getting keys to dad's car for the first time, it was like dad threw you the keys and said, "The car is all yours, kid. The house is yours, you can take care of your sister and brother, and I'm outta here. Actually, I may not have ever existed in the first place, but you can decide that. Later, kid." Cue existential crisis!

To create another analogy, the advent of humanism was like the old "Wizard of Oz" scenario. For a long time humans were like Dorothy skipping down the yellow brick road toward that final destination, the home that represents belonging, emotional and spiritual security. Then they had the pulling-back-the-curtain moment and realized that the big, omnipotent Wizard was no such thing. Back in the Renaissance era humans began to figure out that the previously incomprehensible mysteries of the universe. Humankind started feeling its own power, its own agency. And we still haven't figured out what to do with that power. Enjoy your power. What an interesting idea. What would that mean? Why is it important?

Let me introduce you here to Dr. Faustus, the character from Marlowe's Renaissance drama. Faustus is a magician, a necromancer (who conjures the spirits of the dead for purposes of divination), and a scientist. (Yes, back in the day this was not an unheard of combination!) The character of Faustus is based on a real man, a legendary Germanic figure about whom dozens of stories circulated in the late medieval era. His drama is fairly simple: he sells his soul to the devil for the sake of living with magical powers for twenty-four years. You know how that bargain works, you've seen it in enough movies, or in short stories, novels, plays, music -- it's not an uncommon theme. Sell your soul, get power. It's similar to the old "make three wishes" jokes that have never stopped being popular: these are all folkloric ways of reminding human communities that when given power, we don't deal very wisely with it.

Well, neither does Faustus. First of all, he misuses his inherent power of free will, a form of tremendous power that we all have. You and I know that he has free will, but back when Marlowe wrote this play, this idea was very much in debate. Lots of people believed that all fate was pre-ordained by God, but Marlowe's play suggests that he, the playwright, may not have. Faustus uses his free will to make a deal with the devil. Not a good use of that power, as sheer logic tells us that twenty-four years of total power compared to an eternity burning in hell is just not a very smart trade.

When I was in college and first studied this play, what I found tragic about it was the fact that Faustus used his free will to sign on with the devil. My "Intro to Tragedy" professor had managed to make this play extremely vivid for me, and it is to his credit that I remain obsessed with dramatic tragedy. I remember so well he stood at the podium on the last day of class before Christmas break and in the middle of his lecture on the play, suddenly broke into Faustus' last dreadful soliloquy before being dragged off to hell by demons. The class of about 250 students and I watched, huge-eyed and spellbound as our usually soft-spoken professor screeched in terror and clawed at the air:

My god, my god! Look not so fierce on me! Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile! Ugly Hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I'll burn my books! - O Mephostophilis!

Professor Cole collapsed behind his podium while the class sat in abject horror for a moment before bursting into enthusiastic applause. As I said, the tragedy to me at the time was merely that Faustus, the talented and brilliant scholar, magician and scientist had sold his soul to the devil. He had been dragged off to hell. I could picture it. I could imagine it, the flames, the torment, the eternal punishment for the sin of pride, ego... for wanting power too much, and for wanting too much power. And now I see the play differently. I see it as a play that reveals the tragedy of how humans choose to use real power for petty, egotistical purposes.

I finally saw "Dr. Faustus" on stage this summer in London, at the Globe Theatre. It was a thrilling performance, really frightening. Upon reflection, though, once I got past the trauma of having the wits scared out of me, I could see that I had a different sense of what was tragic about it. I am twenty-five or so years older now and have seen many people sell their souls to the devil by this point in my life. You have, too. People who trade their integrity for influence, who cast their lot with ego, pride, vanity and money and turn their back on compassion, relationship, accountability, community.

No, what struck me as being really tragic this time around with Dr. Faustus was that after he had signed away his soul to eternal damnation, he spent his twenty four years of complete power in fairly ridiculous ways. He does things like have the demons conjure a vision of Helen of Troy, because he wants to get a look at the most beautiful woman in history -- which he does, in a kind of supernatural peep show. He makes himself invisible so that he can play mischief on the Pope and some cardinals at a dinner party, upsetting trays and knocking over glasses of sherry and scaring the wits out of them. He does do some noble things, but without any real strategy that would make these things lasting or very meaningful. Basically, given all that power, Faustus acts like a kid in a candy shop. By the time the demons arrived to drag him to hell (and I admit I was clutching my friend Laura's arm at that moment because it was really scary), I still had in the back of my mind the question, "Really, Faustus? You sold your soul to get all that power and that's what you did with it?"

We don't know how to wisely use our power until we acknowledge, first off, that we have a lot of it. We have tremendous power, all of us do. Does someone love you, need you, crave your approval or acceptance? Then you have tremendous power in that person's life, to heal or to harm. Do you belong to an organization? Your presence and participation in it is powerful. Its leaders care what you think, what you say, what you feel. Are you someone's neighbor, someone's relation, someone's student, someone's teacher? In all of those connections, your behavior, your attitudes, your statements, your approval or lack thereof -- are all tremendously powerful. As frustrated or as hopeless as we may become in a world where it seems that power is held by a few and that we have no access to it, we must remember that we do have power as individuals and as communities. That power doesn't just come from money or from being in positions of authority. It comes from the energy generated by people whose lives are inextricably wound in interdependent systems, and that is all of us.

I am watching this Occupy Wall Street movement (especially the local Occupy Boston solidarity protest) and what I see is people who have felt powerless for too long finding their voice, realizing that they are important participants in an economic, political, emotional and cultural eco-system that is shared by rich, middle class and poor. Organizational consultant Meg Wheatley writes, "There is no power greater for change than a community discovering what it cares about." Poor Faustus. He thought he needed magic in order to get power. What he didn't realize was that power is magic, and that already had plenty. We all do. Have you ever felt elated because someone praised you? Have you ever felt sick to your stomach because someone criticized you? That's what I mean by magical power. Without a touch, we can hurt or heal, generate creative energy or destructive force.

Our church covenant begins with the words, "in the bonds of fellowship and love." There it is again. Bonds. Bondage: it has a negative connotation, but it needn't, when considered in this context. Our power comes from our bonds with others, with nature, with family systems, organizational systems, community systems.

If you have ever been part of addiction recovery either as an addict or as the family member of an addicted person, you are familiar with the concept of the hanging mobile, which is sometimes used as a metaphor for the addicted family system: you cannot touch one part of the mobile without the other parts also moving. This is true for any emotional eco-system we are part of. There is that old Jewish saying that someday there will be such closeness between people that when one cries, the other shall taste salt. We don't think of that as an expression of power, but it is. Power is merely energy. It can be used to the good or to the ill.

Faustus didn't really need more power in order to gain wisdom, which is what he said he wanted. He could have gained wisdom all on his own power. What he really wanted was the magical abilities to control others, to manipulate the laws of nature. That's what some people are into. You know the type. They like to see how much power over people and situations they can get. But power isn't just about power over. It can also be power with, power on behalf of. The bonds that tie us together in emotional, political, economic, and spiritual eco-systems don't need to feel like painful bondage. They should feel like ties that bind, and bend and weave together so that our interplay of power feels creative, not destructive, and leads us not into hell but to glories of human moral, intellectual and spiritual achievement that can feel like heaven.

I leave you with this [slightly adapted] quote by Marianne Williamson, which was made popular when Nelson Mandela used it in one of his speeches:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence [and our power] automatically liberate others."

Enjoy your power.

1887, Lord Acton,

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."