Images of Power in the Church

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, offers an interesting contrast in understanding ‘power’ in the church and how it is displayed by church leaders.  Within the book there is a parable told by Ivan Karamazov, a rationalist atheist, to his younger brother Alyosha, an innocent believer in God.  The parable is known as “The Grand Inquisitor.”  While it is set in an earlier age in Roman Catholic Spain during the time of the inquisition, one has to wonder to what extent Dostoyevsky also meant the story to be a cryptic critique of his own Russian Orthodox Church.  Certainly Dostoyevsky saw the unbridled power of the imperial Russian Church in his life time.  Dostoyevsky had been taken to the gallows as an enemy of the state, only to be pardoned at the last minute.  So he knew better than to directly criticize the state Church.  It was safe and even sanctioned, however, to lambast the Roman Church of which most Russians would have had a negative view anyway.

In “the Grand Inquisitor”, Christ has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, a time in Dostoyevsky’s thinking when the Church had absolute power over everything.   Dostoyevsky first introduces Christ in the story:

“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. . . . The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments.”  (Kindle Loc. 5031-35)

The power possessed by Christ is love and compassion, to which the people respond with the recognition of rational sheep seeing their trusted shepherd.  As the story unfolds the unnamed Jesus by His divine life-giving power lovingly raises a child from the dead.  This is the power of Christ – to defeat death, and to love all.  It isn’t a matter of merited reward, but graceful and unconditional love of God.

Dostoyevsky then introduces the Cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – who like Jesus possesses power as can be seen by the crowd’s reaction, and yet he is the antithesis of Christ:

“… at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on.”   (Kindle Loc. 5044-52)

The Grand Inquisitor though vested with all the authority of the Church,  in contradistinction to Christ the Life  Giver has only the power of death.  His power is limited to this world and the signs of his power are worldly – imperial and despotic.   Those gloomy souls who side with him are even described as slaves.

The crowd does fear him and they part, moving away from him.  Yes indeed, the people submissively cower before the dark power of the Inquisitor.  He has power over them, but only in this world.  His powers are not eternal though he believes them to be so.

Majesty of Law and the Power of Government

The real power of the Church is the love of Christ, and to love others as he loved us.  The dissimilarity and incongruity in the images of power which Dostoyevsky so brilliantly puts in the text could not be more stark.   The Son of God enters the world in a lowly cave meant to be a shelter for animals and is placed in their feeding trough.  There is no palace for Him.  The King of kings rejects all the power of the world’s kingdoms when offered them by Satan.    God the Son rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem so that He can be recognized as king.  Christ is glorified by being hung on the cross.  Christ’s power is His humility and His love.  These are the only images of power which belong to the church and its leaders.  It is how church leadership imitates Christ.  It is not imperial vestments which make a man recognizable as an image of Christ, but rather the humble willingness to set aside all trappings of power and to gird oneself with a towel and to serve the disciples by washing their feet as did Christ the Lord.

3 thoughts on “Images of Power in the Church

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. guy

    Is it fair to say that at some times and in some places, the Orthodox Church has been corrupted by the kind of power embodied by the Old Inquisitor? i ask, being still quite ignorant of Eastern Church history, and as a catachumen who is still puzzled over whether it’s ever okay to fault the Church.

    But it’s this sort of thing–the Old Inquisitor–why i’m still very skeptical of any church involvement in government or politics.


    1. Fr. Ted

      The Church, the Body of Christ, is composed of humans and we humans all are sinners. So we have sometimes done sinful things as church or in the name of the Church. Some would say that isn’t really the Church because Christ in His Body acts in perfect love and so doesn’t inflict unintentional or intentional harm on anyone.

      It is sometimes hard to know in history if we are actually carrying out God’s will or if we have gone in pursuit of our own goals. In every generation we Christians must make collective decisions and we as humans are capable of being wrong – sometimes mistakenly and sometimes by sinful intention.

      So we are accountable for what we do as Christians and how it affects the faith of others.

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