Left Handed Power, Divine Lifeguards, and Our Fatal Love Affair with the Law

Robert Farrar Capon was a key figure for us at Mbird, and not just because […]

David Zahl / 6.16.08

Robert Farrar Capon was a key figure for us at Mbird, and not just because he was an Episcopalian with a profound appreciation of God’s Grace and a great sense of humor (though that certainly helps). The man possessed the sort of creative mind that one almost never sees in a theologian. Indeed, his gift for words was virtually unmatched by anyone writing about religion in the past 50 years, let alone those writing about unadulterated, 200 proof Gospel Christianity (law and grace, death and resurrection, etc). Full of vivid imagery, tons of levity, refreshingly un-whitewashed prose, his work is absurdly quotable, as the excerpts below attest. The first few come from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus which is absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in Jesus’ parables, and the ones south of Hoff’s waist are from Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, a “theological novel” of sorts. Highly recommended:

“Direct, straight-line, intervening power does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power (“use the force you need to get the result you want”) is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.

Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless. Oh, admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from the edge of a cliff and not have a broken relationship on your hands. But just try interfering with his plans for the season when he is twenty, and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good. But suppose further that he does it again anyway — and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can’t shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can’t beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till….But you see the point. At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you — who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power — simply refuse to use it; unless, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself.

“But such a paradoxical exercise of power, please note, is a hundred and eighty degrees away from the straight-line variety. It is, to introduce a phrase from Luther, left-handed power… Left-handed power is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention.” (pg. 18-19)

“The work of Jesus in his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension makes no worldly sense at all. The portrait the Gospels paint is that of a lifeguard who leaps into the surf, swims to the drowning girl, and then, instead of doing a cross-chest carry, drowns with her, revives three days later, and walks off the beach with assurances that everything, including the apparently still-dead girl, is hunky-dory. You do not like that? Neither do I.”


“Let me refine that a little. I said grace cannot prevail until law is dead, until moralizing is out of the game. The precise phrase should be, until our fatal love affair with the law is over — until, finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed. As long as we leave, in our dramatizations of grace, one single hope of a moral reckoning, one possible recourse to salvation by bookkeeping, our freedom-dreading hearts will clutch it to themselves. And even if we leave none at all, we will grub for ethics that are not there rather than face the liberty to which grace calls us.”

“Morality helps most when it has the least to object to. If it is a guide at all, it is a guide to perfecting one’s virtues, not the reform of one’s vices. It keeps non-gamblers from being foolish at the racetrack. It does not keep child abusers from beating children, compulsive liars from lying, or lechers from leching. For those in the front lines of their faults, it is just a lovely, cruel vision of a home they cannot get to. The law only makes sin exceedingly sinful; it never saved anyone who really needed help.”