Overthrowing the Emperor

March 25, 2010

Overthrowing the Emperor

There was once a mighty emperor who had known only victory and prosperity during his entire life. Such was his success in battle and his absolute power over his subjects, that many considered him divine. The emperor ruled with an iron fist from a majestic palace built high up in the mountains– a vantage point from which he could survey his vast kingdom. Over time, he had built up the largest army that the world had ever known– an army before which every nation trembled. Yet, his thirst for power was unquenchable. He longed for an ever stronger army and continued to oppress and torment his land with impossible demands for absolute obedience.

Yet, one night this great leader had a terrifying dream. In this dream he witnessed his vast army laid waste before him and his great palace in ruins. Then he heard a divine voice saying, “There is a heavenly power at work in your empire that can bring your whole army to its knees, a power that transcends your earthly reign.”

The emperor awoke and said to himself, I must see this divine power for myself.

So he turned to the great religious leaders of his land, visiting their vast cathedrals and diligently engaging in all their elaborate rituals. He offered great sacrifices at the altar of the various gods and promised untold treasure to the religious authorities if they could reveal this divine power to him. However, no matter how hard he tried and no matter what rituals and incantations the religious authorities engaged in, the emperor felt no divine presence and witnessed no mighty acts. So he turned inward, seeking this divine power through private meditation, fasting, and prayer. He spent long hours practicing new forms of asceticism, prolonged periods of isolation, and every form of prayer he could discover. However, despite these great sacrifices, the emperor felt and saw nothing.

Then one morning he overheard two of his servants discussing religious matters. As he listened, he heard them speak of a great mystic who lived in the city. This man was believed to be so close to God that he could uproot trees and part seas with a mere gesture. As the emperor listened, he heard that this great man of God had contracted a terminal disease during his work in the poorer parts of the city. He was approaching death and had only days to live.

The emperor viewed this overheard conversation as a sign that God had finally heard his prayer, and so immediately, he called together an entourage of soldier and servants, demanding that he be brought to the dying man’s bedside without delay.

Within the hour, they left the palace, and, while the journey was long, they reached the city gates by nightfall. After some searching, they found the humble dwelling of the old teacher, and the emperor boldly entered.

While the emperor rarely spoke directly to anyone other than his most trusted advisors, on this occasion he looked directly at the dying man and said, “I have been told that you walk close to God. I am here because I have heard of this God’s power and with to bear witness to it.”

“Is that so?” replied the mystic. “I must warn you that the power of my God is unlike anything you have encountered before. If you truly seek it out, it will break you into pieces and destroy your reign over this land.”

“So be it,” said the emperor, “if what you say is true, then fate has spoken.”

The mystic nodded and then, with the last of his strength, beckoned the emperor to approach his bedside. The emperor complied, and in response, the old man reached up, grabbed him by his fine robes, pulled him down to his knees, and whispered into his ear, “Here is the power of my God: it is to be found in my rotting flesh, in my weakness, in the dirt and disease of this world. You have not seen this power because it is in the people you have refused to heed; it resides in those you have tortured and put to death, those who have suffered under your hand. The power of God is to be found in the face of the widow and the orphan, in the illegal alien, and in the outstretched hand of the starving man. This weakness and fragility is the power of God, a power that can overturn the most evil of tyrants.”

These were the last words of the teacher, for there and then he died in the arms of the emperor. The emperor remained silent for some time, clutching the dead man’s body. He looked around the humble dwelling and saw the poverty of the people who had stayed by this man’s bedside throughout his suffering, and he began to weep.

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We’ve been swirling around this point for a while now with these parables; weakness can overcome power; the seeking of transformation transforms. These two themes get pushed together again in this parable, and I’ll come back to them presently. This story also turns our usual hierarchy of heaven on its head. The religious leaders in their cathedrals didn’t have the answers the emperor was looking for, but the poor mystic did. In this formulation, God is not revealed through top down fiat, but instead delivered by seeping in from the bottom. I should say that I agree with the formulation, and think that it would be good for religious leaders to remember it.

But the idea doesn’t work unless you accept the other ideas that underpin it– the power in weakness and the ability of seeking to transform. First, strength in weakness: it seems counter-intiutive, but the country of India serves notice that it is true. It wasn’t Black Panthers, but nonviolent resisters, that finally won support for passing Civil Rights legislation in the 60s. Civil rights activists and Indian nationalists didn’t speak the language of power; they subverted power by being weak and showing how power was oppressing and dehumanizing them. This is no short-term strategy. It requires years, decades even, of patience and persistence. Power discourses are surely more attractive, but they are fragile in reality. All it takes is a bigger bully to pull the whole facade down. A God who incarnates and suffers and dies understands this.

Which brings us to the second point: seeking’s transformative nature. The process of seeking lays the foundation for transformation, a foundation that the weakness discourse builds upon to lay the framework of ground up, peaceful re/insurrection. The emperor’s desire to understand the power that would eventually overthrow him opened him up to being transformed by the encounter with the weakness that would do just that. It was in desiring to understand the change that was going to occur in his land that the emperor was changed.

One can imagine, then, the emperor leaving the hut of the mystic, and the friends who had attended the sick man going back about their work of subversion of power; slowly, patiently deconstructing and rebuilding the society that the emperor had constructed. Maybe the emperor would have joined them, or maybe not. The rich young ruler went away discouraged after Jesus told him to sell his possessions, after all. The beauty is that we have a choice.

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