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In the Midst of Powerlessness

By Myke Johnson

A white person, kneeling in front of a basin, is seen washing the foot of a black person as part of a Maundy Thursday service.

In the Christian tradition, the Thursday of Holy Week (the day before Good Friday) is called Maundy Thursday. On that day, many churches and communities practice a foot-washing. Typically, the priest or minister washes the feet of their congregants, imitating the narrative of Jesus practicing the humility of washing his disciples' feet. It's a ritual that reflects the instruction to love one another.

“The Spirit of the Holy is upon me, who has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. That one has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the time of blessing from the Holy.”
—the prophet Isaiah

I wake in the night with pain in my heart for all that is happening in our country, and I feel utterly powerless. I’ve been an activist most of my life, and I believed and hoped that activism might help to change the world for the better. In some ways, it has. But the dream—of a whole society rooted in cooperation and mutuality, in care for all of its people—feels lost in a nightmare of empire that’s re-emerging like a multi-headed dragon from the flames of disaster.

How can we respond to a reign of terror? How can we respond to cruelty after cruelty promulgated by people in power?

In my feelings of powerlessness, an old friend comes to me: Jesus comforts me by reminding me that in many ways I am powerless. I can’t control what “my government” is doing right now. The idea that it is “my government” is an illusion. Democracy itself has become an illusion: a thin veneer over oligarchy, over fascism.

Jesus had no political power. He lived his whole life in the shadow of the Roman empire, and that empire killed him. Yet he was able to respond, to act.

Jesus prayed, he taught, he healed the sick, he listened, he moved among the ordinary people, in the lowly places. He didn’t concern himself very often with the emperor or king or governor—he was clear that those powers were evil. Rather, he went directly to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, those were the ones who caught the eye of the divine blessing. Later, he offered this measure by which all people were judged:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.… Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my relatives, you do for me.” 

There is a certain clarity in all of this, and so I pray:

Prayer
Oh Holy one, you who are with us in the midst of our powerlessness, help us to let go of what we cannot control. Help us to shift our focus to what is possible, to what really matters. Bless those heroes who are risking their lives right now to look after the sick, to bring food to the hungry. Help us to seek your presence among those considered the “least” among us.

About the Author

Myke Johnson

Rev. Myke Johnson is a Unitarian Universalist minister and earth activist in Portland, Maine, practicing and teaching ecological spirituality. She holds a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School. She is the author of Finding Our...

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