Grace Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020, Pentecost 7A (livestream)
In a letter to an Anglican archbishop in 1887, the English historian and writer Lord Acton took issue with the archbishop’s tendency to judge historical figures, particularly those of renown, with a great deal of deference and leniency, glossing over their corruption and abuses. Lord Acton’s vehement disagreement is suggested in this quote from the letter, part of which has become famous itself in an abridged form:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers’ lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. 
Aside from making it clear, for example, how Lord Acton would likely feel about the removal of statues of Confederate generals, this particular quote also taps into the vein of criticism that Qohelet, our teacher and author of Ecclesiastes, opens up at the beginning of this fourth chapter of the book. As Qohelet shifts his (or her, you never know) perspective from lofty cosmological perspective to the mundane scope of earthly life, the parallels between Qohelet’s world and our own become bracingly clear and stark.
First Qohelet calls out power as an agent of oppression. The word “comfort” as it appears in verse 1 needs to be understood as far more than a pat on the shoulder or even a friendly embrace; here “comfort” involves defending, standing with, advocating for out loud, and even taking action against the other’s oppressor if need be. Qohelet sees no one doing any such thing for the oppressed in his sight, nor anyone calling into account those who wield power to oppress and punish and harm. So bleak is the picture that Qohelet considers that those who have already died are better off not having to suffer through this oppression of power, and even better those not even born into such a world.
Qohelet is not only concerned with oppressors of great position, though. Verse 4 shifts the perspective to consider the striving for advantage of one over another without positions of power. The notion of envy as a motivation for striving and toil might seem farfetched, but take a look at the average luxury car commercial and you will see that those marketers are counting on envy as a powerful motivator. Sloth is no virtue, as Qohelet makes clear in verse 5, but verse 6 puts it all in perspective with its observation that it is better to have enough (“a handful“) with peace than excess (“two handfuls“) with the strain of extreme toil. Even among solitary figures with no dependents Qohelet sees this capacity for envy and inability to be satisfied no matter how much they accumulate. Not only is this “vanity,” to use Qohelet’s keyword, but it also fits with the opening critique of power as well – endless striving to have more than the next person only to find that more is never enough.
In the face of all this, Qohelet turns to something not yet addressed; the power of community, the act of being in partnership with one another. The examples are clear enough; when one falls, the other can help lift up the fallen, and two can withstand an power-mad oppressor better than one alone. The middle example is sometimes taken to suggest that Qohelet is speaking of marriage in particular, but this is not necessarily so; the need to “huddle up” for warmth was not unknown on cold winter nights in the barren plain of Palestine, and no sexual connotation needs to be read into it. Two are better than one, and three are even “more better.”
The final section seems more opaque, although the one who can “come out of prison” to lead is often read as an allusion to Joseph, the ancestor of the people of Israel who came out of Pharaoh’s prisons in Egypt to wield power as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. (In modern times one might think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned many years in South Africa and yet eventually that country’s leader.) Qohelet has the nerve to posit that age does not automatically equate with wisdom, and that a young leader might well be better than an old one (imagine that!). Yet in the end, neither endures, and again all is reduced to “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
It’s hard not to be impressed with the clarity of Qohelet’s vision these days, when even a cursory look at the news headlines puts all sorts of power and oppression on display. Sadly, even the church and those who call themselves “Christians” are no less prone to the grabbing and grasping of power, and to wielding that power oppressively towards decidedly non-churchy ends. In writing of the increasing embrace of exaggerated ideals of masculinity and power-grabbing in modern white American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University, quotes a noted scholar who describes that mindset with recourse to an iconic Hollywood exemplar of masculine power: “the unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul but John Wayne will save your…“, with the sentence finished with a three-letter word that I probably shouldn’t use in a sermon.
Qohelet wouldn’t stand for that, and neither would Paul, who in this letter to the Corinth followers makes clear that this kind of power is not at all what Jesus was about, and not what we who claim to follow should be after. The power of God, Paul says, makes itself strongest in our weakness. That’s a hard saying to bear, but also one can see examples of this and how it works – those who suffer “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ,” and yet persevere in bearing witness to the justice of God (the late John Lewis, perhaps). This is the only power worth striving for, and “striving for” is hardly the way to describe it – this power comes not in striving, but in submission.
No, the power of the world and its oppressiveness – from Hong Kong to Portland and all places in between – is not of God. It may well be the way of the “old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice,” but it is not the way of God, and it is not what we are to pursue. Our charge is to live within God’s provision, and to comfort one another, to care for one another, to stand with and support and to speak up for one another in time of oppression and even to take action for the oppressed, no matter how futile or hopeless it may seem. To do any less would not even rise to the level of Qohelet’s “vanity, and a chasing after the wind.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #356, Sing Praise to God, Whose Mighty Acts); #816, If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee
 Accessed here: https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html