Limits to our power

Until this week I had never read a book by Amos Oz. He is a much-praised author, whose books have been published in many languages. But for some reason I never decided to buy one of his books or to borrow it from our local library. A few weeks ago, however, a friend gave me the latest book by Oz, entitled Judas. He had two copies. After he had bought one, he got another one as a present.

At first I found it hard to get going in the book, but after some twenty or thirty pages I got hooked. It is beautifully written and expertly translated. The plot is  unpredictable and fascinating. A jewish student, Sjmoeël Asj,  stops his university studies for personal reasons. When his parents go bankrupt, he has to find a way to earn enough money to survive. He responds to an advertisement in which someone is sought who—for a modest salary, but with food and accommodation—will keep an old man, who has lost most of his mobility (Gershom Wald), company during the evening hours and is willing to discuss all sorts of things with him. An equally enigmatic as unapproachable widow in her mid-forties (Atalja Abarbanel), who lives in the same house, soon has Sjmoeël in her grip. Political themes play a major role in the book, but also the topic that Sjmoeël had wanted to write a thesis about. This concerns the person of Judas, the disciple of Jesus who, according to Sjmoeël, differs greatly from the picture the Christians have of him.

Reading this wonderful book I regretted that I did not discover Amos OZ earlier. I am sure to also read some of his other books. In this blog I do not want to give a summary of the plot of Judas, but I want to quote (translated from the Dutch translation, since I do not have the English edition) a few lines that stayed with me during the week. On page 137 we are somewhere in the middle of a discussion between Sjmoeël Asj and Gershom Wald. At a given moment the question is raised whether there is something like unlimited power—political power, but also other forms of power. This is what Sjmoeël answers: ‘The truth is that all powers in the world cannot change an enemy into a friend. They can change an enemy into a slave, but not into a comrade. Even all the powers in the world cannot alter a fanatic into a tolerant person. They cannot transform a revengeful person into a friend.’

In history and in the world around us, as well as in our personal experience, the truth of these words has been confirmed time and again. When people are enemies or competitors, friendship and cooperation are out of reach. Even in a faith community we see this all too often. When opinions are miles apart and a state of polarization has arisen, in which ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ have become totally estranged from each other, we have a deadlock that no one is able to break.  No church leader and no amount of church politics can change this. Here we are confronted with the limits of human power.

However, the good news is that there are no limits to the power of the Lord in whom we believe. He has the power to bring people together. His Spirit can bring reconciliation and unity. This is a core belief of the Christian faith. And that is why there is always reason for hope and optimism, even when different parties are embroiled in a bitter conflict and refuse to move or give any space to the opponent. Therefore my reply to Sjmoeël Asj is: You are wrong. There is a Power who can transform a fanatic into a tolerant person and an enemy into a friend. But this will only happen when we are willing to invite that Power into our personal and collective lives. There is no other way. And this applies to all of us.


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