Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple and here for green.

To talk about the history of voodoo and santeria in New Orleans is to talk about Marie Laveau. Her name, taken up by at least one daughter after her death, has become synonymous with the practice of the spiritualist folkways in the Big Easy. To this day the curious and the hopeful leave votives at Marie Laveau’s tomb in the hopes that the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans will aid them from beyond the grave. During her life she offered spiritual aid to slave and free, rich and poor alike that they might achieve or receive some elusive desire.

Louisiana voodoo is a relatively young amalgamation of African and European influences but draws from ideas dating back to the dawn of civilization. Throughout history we have often sought any advantage we can find over an existence which refuses to follow our will, giving rise to the kinds of beliefs, rituals, and sympathetic magic still seen today in voodoo. Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote extensively on this drive for control whether or not it is connected to spiritual practices, calling it the “will to power.” According to Nietzsche all living things, including already strong organisms, will ultimately reach for more power even at risk to their own life, affording the will to power a place of influence over the will to survive. It isn’t hard to agree with Nietzsche as we survey a landscape filled with so many of us who are willing to risk livelihoods, relationships, morals and lives to grab power.

ad1a3dbc-3841-41b8-a636-1f242a2b1dfbToday my look at the traditional colors of Mardi Gras concludes with gold, representing power, on the same Sunday many denominations mark as Transfiguration Sunday, a day set aside for Jesus’ dramatic display of power and glory on a mountaintop.This passage showcases Jesus’ power, particularly in connection with Old Testament images of Yahweh, but does little to define Jesus’ notion of power for us. We’ll have to look elsewhere in Scripture for that.

On another mountaintop, Jesus faced the temptation to compromise righteousness in exchange for power.If he would but bow down, the world and a chance to enact justice would be his without walking the road of suffering pointed to the cross. Both of the other two temptations faced by Jesus in this story revolved around the will to power. In each case Jesus is reminded of things to which he has claim but responded by giving it up in order to stay on the path of redemption on our behalf. Jesus knew that the will to power left unchecked does indeed supplant even the will to survival and ultimately leads to self-destruction. Paul therefore says of Jesus that rather than cling to his own deserved glory and power, he gave himself up and emptied himself on our behalf. Power then according to Jesus is having the right to claim something but giving it up to benefit someone else.We see God already indicating this ideology in the Torah when the Israelites are commanded to not harvest to the edges of their fields, pass over a second time, or claim fallen fruit in order that those in need might come and eat. Would common human sensibilities of power and dominion say that the farmer had a right to every bit which could be harvested? Yes. Does this understanding of power line up with the crucified Jesus? Absolutely not. True power belongs to the one who gives it up for another.

What does this mean for us? For starters, we should be eternally thankful that Jesus broke away from the will to power for our enormous benefit. We should also be aware that Jesus’ actions free us as well from power’s siren song. Resisting the will to power is increasingly hard but increasingly vital for a church residing in a nation which constantly dangles Egypt’s gold before our eyes. We must therefore constantly ask ourselves, how are we giving up power to benefit someone else?

Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

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