In his book, Images of Jesus, the renowned German Benedictine monk and author Anselm Grün offers fifty reflections on Jesus, images of the Nazarene and Son of God. One really struck me, reminding me of St. Francis of Assisi, the Medieval Saint who sought to follow Jesus’s footprints in his efforts to live the Gospel more perfectly. This chapter is titled, “The Jesus Who Refuses Power.” It echoes the scholarly work of the French Medievalist Jacques Dalarun in his book Francis of Assisi and Power.
Grün begins this reflection with these words,
Jesus refused all power. Certainly he preached with divine authority, and to that degree he had power over his hearers. But he didn’t exploit this power by playing the guru. He cast his spell on people and also called them to be his disciples. Men and women followed him because they were fascinated by him. But he himself had not ambitions to build up a community and dictate which way it was to go (22).
Those who are familiar with Christian history understand at least the last part of Grün’s statement. There is little doubt that what we’ve come to recognize as the structure and organization of the Church today is hardly what Jesus set out to do. Nevertheless, the Church, which is the Body of Christ, necessarily needs structure and organization, but it should never be confused with the structure itself. The working of the Holy Spirit has drawn and continues to draw together the community of the Lord, after the kerygmatic proclamation of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Those who are familiar with Franciscan history also recognize the parallels with what the Poverello set out to do after his conversion: preach the Gospel, while living out his Baptismal vocation. He didn’t set out to create the Order of Friars Minor or inspire the founding of an Order of cloistered women or anything of the sort. He makes this clear enough in his last words captured in his Testament, when he recalls that “the Lord gave me brothers,” he didn’t seek them.
Dalarun’s work is indeed informative because it shows the ways in which Francis’s life was marked by his refusal to accept power or participate in the traditional systems of economics and politics. I believe it makes a lot of sense to say that this central aspect of Francis’s life, ministry and example stems not from his own doing, but follows from the truest form of Gospel living modeled after Jesus Himself.
Jesus had no ambition to rise in the hierarchy of the Judaism of his time, as a Pharisaic rabbi, a scribe or a priest. He also refused all political power. He didn’t put himself at the head of a political movement, as the Zealots might perhaps have expected him to do…
Perhaps it is precisely because of his renunciation of power that he has exercised so much power down the centuries. Jesus radiates an inner power that casts its spell on people.
Martin Luther King followed Jesus on his way of non-violence. And like Jesus, politically he achieved a tremendous amount. By renouncing violence he had more power than the President of the United States, who was backed by a highly-equipped army. Martin Luther King also preached love to those against whom he demonstrated with his protest marches. This man, who like Jesus renounced all power, fell victim to power. He paid for his non-violent struggle against racial segregation with his life. He was shot by a young white man in Memphis on 4 April 1968 (22-23).
This point about Jesus’s refusal of power, seen again in the life of the most revered saint in all of Christian history, Francis of Assisi, is a reminder to all Christians — but especially those in leadership positions within the Church, which is the Body of Christ — that we are called to refuse power in our own lives. I can’t help but think of the timeliness of this reflection with the recent episcopal announcements that have consumed the Catholic blogosphere today.