Leslie Chadd tries out a new image for the ‘foolishness of God’
Please forgive the personal note, but 1 must begin with my Damascus Road-type revelation. One evening, a few years ago, I was mopping up a few free radicals and other products of the changes and chances of this fleeting world with the aid of a Speyside Single Malt, when the answer suddenly hit me. The reason why there is such a lot about the power of God’s right hand in the Old Testament, and nothing at all about his left hand, is that left-handed power is different, It is invisible, paradoxical and so downright crazy that it is all too easy to miss.
The following day, by one of those mind-blowing coincidences that brighten our lives from time to time, I happened to be leading for the first time a book by my favourite theological writer, the American Episcopalian Father Robert Capon. The book was “Parables of the Kingdom” (Zondervan Books Michigan 1985), and there – surprise, surprise! – he has a whole chapter on “The Left-Handed Power of God”. On the whole, we are so immersed in a right-handed world that we fail to notice the left-handedness of it. We assume that right is superior to left, for after all it gives us the word for .. good”. “Dexterous” just sounds better “sinister”. In fact some politically correct publishers recently produced a version of the bible in which all references to the right hand of God were replaced by “God’s mighty hand”, out of deference, it was said to all the left -handed people in the world, who, would you believe, are alleged to feel put down by all that right-handed stuff. But that just gloriously misses the point.
It is true that there is much about the power of God’s right hand. “The wholesome strength of his right hand” (Psalm 20). `With his own right hand and with his holy arm he hath gotten himself the victory” (Ps.98) and many others. Occasionally there is a lament that God’s right hand seems to have got itself stuck in his bosom, or even (psalm 77) wondering if God’s right hand has lost its power altogether. Right-handed power is direct, no-nonsense, straight-line, no argument style. Just what you would expect from a God who is omnipotent, and certainly what the Israelites of old expected from Yahweh in their dealing with their (his ?) enemies. He is the Great Fixer, so he fixes their enemies with well-judged, right-handed punches. Or if he doesn’t then his people want to know why not. Robert Capon reminds us that it is the sort of power wielded by a mother crossing a busy street with a four-year-old. “you must hold my hand and come with me: this is a dangerous road and I’m not having you sitting down in the middle of it”. “No, you cannot have the box of matches to play with, I don’t care if your best friend’s mummy lets him play with matches, YOU ARE NOT, so that’s the end of it, and let’s have no argument”. But let her try that sort of power ten or twelve years, on and she’s got trouble. At that point there has to be a turn-around, a totally different power game, one in which, paradoxically the power-wielder has to be the one who is willing to be defeated, which is why Martin Luther somewhere referred to the Cross as the Left-Handed Power of God.
In passing, it is interesting that the present debates about moral values, law and order and so on, are showing signs that many people would vote for a God of right-handed power, a no-nonsense God of right and might and no tares in his field, and there are cries of woe that the Church has failed to deliver this sort of God. Yet even in the Old Testament this style of divine power takes a left-handed turn here and there. For instance, when it looked as though the human race had screwed up God’s good creation irreparably, and it seemed as though the only answer was to wash the whole lot down the gurgler, as they say down under, and start again, he will not. That would have been the simple, right-handed solution, the logical, straight-line way, but instead he saves us through the water. And then he sets his bow in the clouds as a sign that he will never, ever even contemplate such a right-handed move. and – here’s the left-handedness of it – THE BOW IS POINTED AT HIMSELF!
When we come to the New Testament it is hardly possible to make any sense of it in a right-handed, logical way. Omnipotent God incarnate in a helpless baby ? The right-handed power-wielder in that scene is King Herod. Later on it is the devil who urges such power,- “Turn these stones into bread, superman ! Jump off the roof of the temple, step down from the cross.” Peter has a brush with Jesus over it, on the subject of dying. “that’s not the sort of right-handed Messiah we’re looking for “, and gets a very sharp put-down for his pains. The centurion with the sick servant recognises right-handed power because he uses it himself, “I tell this man to go and he goes”, but Jesus will not use that method, even for a slave. In the Parable of the Forgiving Father and his Two Sons (which we insist on calling the Parable of the Prodigal Son as though he were the only character), the elder son is the symbol of rightness, even to the point of slavery (“All these years I slaved -douleo – for you”), but it is the rebellious younger son, who not only gets the party treatment dressed in the best robe, but ends up more of a son than he was before. It is not right; it is grossly unfair. Such a father, such a God is downright crooked. And yet is it not something that we half-expected all along from our experience with our own children and their growth to maturity ?
It is interesting that in the human brain the left brain controls the right hand and speech and some thought, but not all; just the logical, direct, rational, black-and-white sort of thinking. But left-handed, right-brained, thought is more indirect, intuitive, paradoxical, allusive and often just mysterious. It is the thought of art and poetry, music and symbol and word-pictures, all of which came more naturally to the bible writers of old that they do to us today, for we are products of a logic-dominated thought-process, and we need deliberately to cultivate, think our way into that left-handed power world.
At the centre of it is a baby in a makeshift cot in a mucky stable, before whom the kings, symbols of the world’s right-handed wisdom and power, bend the knee. He is the Messiah who turns all our cherished right-handed ideas upside down and says that children are the top of the pile, not at the bottom of it. He is the one who rebukes the strong right-handed Boanerges brothers who would knock out those difficult Samaritans with a divine thunderbolt. He is the King who could call an army of angels to his aid but who refuses the help of Peter’s sword-bearing right arm. He is the God who will not slay his enemies with his strong right arm but who says instead “if there is any killing to be done it will be done to me, not by me”. And he is the one who teaches about his Father, but in curved, parabolic, left-handed stories that are always more elusive to get hold of than right-handed thought can manage; but that would take a book to explore.
Left-handed people need not feel put down; on the contrary, the Left-handed Kingdom is theirs, the Kingdom of left-handed power where the King stands before Pilate and Herod, the right-handed powerful ones, able to command release or death, they thought, for the real King is dressed in the garb of the feeble-minded and wears a crown of thorns. And the door into his kingdom, he says, is so small that you have to grow down to child-size to get in, and so narrow that those who are fat with the world’s riches may get stuck, and where the fat-cats and the powerful are not at the top running things their way, and where you find life by losing it. Give thanks for the Mystery of Christ, the Mystery of Left-handed power.
The sculptress, the late Barbara Hepwarth once wrote….. “My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand, it holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this left hand and into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses of flaws in the stone, for the possibility or imminence of fractures.”
Leslie Chadd is a retired priest living in Hampshire. The original version of this article, since rewritten, was first published in 1989 in “Crucible”, the Quarterly Journal of the Board for Social Responsibility