Playing God

Pandemic Book Recommendation #15: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

I took a day off yesterday and did not post, but if I were to have provided a book recommendation on Easter, it would have been Playing God by Andy Crouch.

One of the reasons I love this book is that Andy has channelled Jayakumar Christian as a model. Jayakumar is a World Vision practitioner in India who works with the lowest castes in some of the most impoverished contexts in Asia. I was exposed to Jayakumar through his published Master’s thesis, God of the Empty-Handed, when I worked for World Vision US Programs. I’ve used his ideas in many courses, especially the International Development and Sustainability class I teach each summer for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. God of the Empty-Handed is worthy of its own book recommendation down the road. But Playing God is an excellent introduction to Jayakumar’s ideas of power and powerlessness in the Kingdom of God. Jayakumar digs into how the powerful utilize god-complexes to play god in the lives of the poor by perpetuating their powerlessness through relational structures and systems of captivity. The examples may seem more evident for India’s caste system, but there are potent applications for North America as well. Andy Crouch spent time with Jayakumar, and Playing God was birthed from that inspiration, but written for use in the US and Canada.

Playing God investigates how power, when viewed through a Christian lens, is a gift – this is the volume’s central idea. Crouch is somewhat opposed to the bulk of writing in the social sciences that would define power as always about corruption and coercion (though we can find plenty examples of this, many unfortunately provided by the Christian Church). Power is intended to be about creation and restoration, and forms of power that coerce are diminishments and corruptions of true power. The intended purpose of power is flourishing. Crouch delineates how power corruptions are linked to idolatry and ideology, and he even includes a chapter on privilege. He draws upon Jayakumar’s work to consider solutions to today’s crises caused by god-playing. This is what makes the volume such a good read for the Easter season.

According to the ancient hymn captured in Philippians 2, though himself God, Christ emptied himself of himself to become human, take the nature of a servant, and die on the cross in the act of restoration. This is the great kenosis or self-emptying. Crouch calls us to either find ways of being icons and image-bearers of this kind of self-emptying power purposed toward flourishing, or suffering as idol makers corrupting power toward our own or our tribe’s advantage. And yes, for you lovers of the lectionary, I am aware that Philippians 2 is a Lenten passage. Nonetheless, it has powerful application in the Easter season as we seek to make our attitudes the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Playing God is a timely read in this moment of global pandemic as we think about the kind of world we want to create / recreate when we emerge from social distancing. There is a cacophony to recreate the world as it was before COVID-19; to jump-start the economy along with all of its structures and systems that keep some people in power and others in captivity. We can do better. Power is a gift because it is for flourishing – the flourishing of all people and the creation. “When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be.” (13) Perhaps it is time to abandon our image of GOP Jesus for the version we find in Scriptures such as Philippians 2?

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