Overlords & Underlords: An Excerpt from “Playing God”

This week, I have been reading Playing God by Andy Crouch. This is a provocative and thought-inducing book on the nature of power. The central premise of the book is that power is good and power is meant for human flourishing. When power is abused, it does not lead to human flourishing, but degradation.

In light of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five Dallas police officers, this section on from Playing God on Overlords and Underlords is something I wish every White Christian would read, understand and apply. There is much here that would help us. The remainder of this post is the excerpt, written by Andy Crouch.



When institutions are broken, three characteristic patterns of failed image bearing almost always occur together. The first is the broken image of the poor. The “poor” in a broken institution are those whose roles are so con­stricted by the institution’s rules that they are unable to exercise their crea­tive and cultivating power. This loss of power is always multidimensional and, in the worst situations, total-not just the loss of the ability to choose and leave a job, but parents’ loss of ability to provide security and nurture for their children, children’s loss of ability to play and learn rather than merely labor, and the excruciating physical disempowerment of malnu­trition and beatings.

The second failure of image bearing is the exaggerated image of those we might call the “overlords,” a name that captures both what they do-“lord it over” others, exploiting the poor in the quest for idolatrous god­likeness-and what they are. Overlords are overly lordly, distorted by their hoarding and misuse of power into an inflated caricature of the true lordship originally granted to image bearers and exemplified by history’s one true Image Bearer. And their power is overly dedicated to their own lordship, not to comprehensive flourishing but private benefit that comes at the expense of the image-bearing capacity of the poor.

But wherever overlords reign, you will almost always find another failure of image bearing, characteristic of neither overlords nor the poor: the ne­glected image of the powerful but passive. We might coin a name for these neglectful image bearers and call them the “underlords:’ They do not lack power-sometimes they may have a great deal-and they do not use it conspicuously in the service of their own self-aggrandizement. Rather, they simply, passively fail to play the role that they are meant to play; they are unfaithful not by abusing their power but by not using it at all. They are like a slothful referee in soccer, who can spoil a game by neglecting his duties to rein in the unfair power-grabbing of “overlords” on the field who seek to win by mere strength or stealth. It is not the referee’s calls that matter, and it is not that the referee seeks excessive glory or victories for himself. It is the calls he does not make that make all the difference.

Most failures of image bearing have vastly greater consequences than a game won or lost. The scandalous truths about the Roman Catholic Church that burst into the open in the 2000s were not just about “overlord” priests idolatrously abusing young people, robbing them of their image­bearing dignity while playing a hideously exploitative parody of the God they were sworn to serve. There was also the role of “underlords” in the church hierarchy who passively enabled the abuse by inaction or inade­quate action. Many of these institutional actors were nominally more powerful than those they malignly neglected to discipline-up to and in­cluding bishops, archbishops and cardinals-and they were certainly greater in number than the abusers. But they failed to use their power to curb idolatry and to protect the vulnerable. The outrage was not just what some did, but what many others did not do.

So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power. In fact, the abuse of power may be quite concentrated among relatively few actors. What is widely spread whenever institutions fail is the failure to exercise power. The neglect of power, not the willful abuse of power, is what makes the difference between flour­ishing and failure in almost every institution. The sign of flourishing is when countless people exercise their power within the rules and roles of an institution; the sign of failure is when most people within the insti­tution simply cease to act.

Gary Haugen of IJM observes informally that most public justice systems around the world follow a 15-70-15 principle. Consider a typical police force in a city somewhere in the developing world. More often than not you will find that 15 percent of the force’s officers are incorruptible­they simply cannot be bribed or bought, no matter how meager eir own pay or the cost to advancement in their career. And 15 percent, the “over­lords,” are pervasively and incorrigibly corrupt, bent on extracting rents and using their power for their own gain, no matter how wealthy and powerful they may already be. But the middle 70 percent, the great majority of those with some power in the system, are neither incorruptible nor corrupt. They are ordinary people trying to eke out a living in a messy world, beset by external and internal pressures, who can be swayed in either direction. Surround them with incorruptible peers and superiors, and they will probably carry out the duties of their office honestly. But surround them with pervasively corrupt overlords, and they will follow suit, perpetrating their own forms of petty corruption and never chal­lenging the corruption they see around them.

The society is shaped not so much by the choices of the incorruptible 15 percent, nor by the corrupt 15 percent, but the wavering 70 percent­the “underlords” who forfeit much of their image-bearing and image­restoring power to others. The good news is that if you can find a way to shift the balance ever so slightly between the fortunes of those who uphold the law and those who undermine it, loading the teeter-totter of corruption just a little bit more at the end of the incorruptible 15 percent, the 70 percent will shift as well. And in a relatively short time you can shift from an 85 percent corrupt force to one that is 85 percent clean. The bad news is that it is also possible to shift the teeter-totter just slightly toward corruption and end up with a system that is 85 percent corrupt. The sober truth is that the neglected power of the underlords is what often makes the difference. The underlords are not the poor, those who are at the mercy of the system and who may have learned the hard way that any move toward honesty and flourishing is likely to be undermined and punished by those with extra power. The underlords have real power in the system-if they will use it.

The dynamics that affect a citywide police force or indeed an entire nation also apply to institutions as small as an individual family. Like all institutions, the family distributes power unevenly. And very often our deepest failures as parents are not so much the abuse of power, the work of overlords, but the neglect of our power, the slothfulness of underlords. In my own extended family, and in my own home, the deepest violations of shalom have not taken the form of abuse. Instead they have taken the form of absence: the unwillingness to bear the pain of conflict or the vul­nerability of intimacy, the flight into solitary life in a distant corner of the house or into travel far from home. And the losers from our rent-preserving, privilege-guarding, self-protective withholding of true power are the “poor”-our children and indeed each of us at our moments of greatest physical and emotional vulnerability, facing the world without the loving community and trust that are the bedrock of true shalom. We have not had many overlords in the Crouch and Bennett clans in the past few gen­erations, but we have had underlords. If only I were not among them.

The role of the underlords, those who neglect their power, is a central concern of one of the great works of American and Christian history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King ad­dressed his letter to his “Dear Fellow Clergymen,” white pastors who had questioned the “untimely” and technically illegal protests that had landed King and many of his fellow leaders in jail. King’s scathingly re­strained response to these “white moderates” is an indictment of the passivity of underlords:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action:’ … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Here are all the elements of the passive 70 percent, “more cautious than courageous” in King’s phrase: those who will not act to bring justice and shalom, people of basically good will and substantial privilege who will not put their power behind their “lukewarm acceptance” of the relatively powerless who are claiming their image-bearing calling at great risk and cost. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King wrote. Silence is the underlords’ failure.


You can buy a copy of Playing God here.

The Brotherhood of Jesus

Jesus is not ashamed to call you brother. Let that sink in a little. Don’t rush past that sentence. You. With everything you thought about yesterday (yeah, he heard those thoughts) and the temptations to which you yielded (yeah, he saw that too). Yes, you, struggling Christian. Jesus is not ashamed to call you brother (or sister).

As I recently read Hebrews, I was struck in a fresh way with the power of this reality. Jesus is not ashamed to be associated with me. And not simply in a friend sort of way or even a servant sort of way. The Bible says that Jesus calls me “friend” and “servant” but it also says more. His pride of association with me is on the familial level. He is not ashamed that I am a part of his family. But not only is he not ashamed of me, he delights in me. The writer of Hebrews goes on later to say that it was “for the joy set before him” that he endured the cross. What was that joy set before him? It was me. And it was you. Brothers and sisters added to the family of God that they might reign with Him in the new heavens and the new earth. When Jesus looks at us, he is proud. 

But I fear that while we would all check the box and say we believe this truth, in practice we fail to live out its implications. 

Personal Implications  

Too many Christians walk through life as if the Gospel is not true. When we sin, we rightly feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. And rather than boldly coming before the throne of grace in our time of need, we cower and shrink back. We allow the guilt that invades our conscience to dominate our lives rather than drive us to Jesus. We worm back under the yoke of slavery from which Jesus freed us. We begin to think that our performance is what gains us acceptance. And rather than seeing the throne upon which Jesus sits as one founded on grace, we see it as one founded on judgment. And before we know it, we have practically denied the Gospel. 

This spiral is always downward. If we do not correct this (or better said, if we do not have others help us correct this), the yoke of slavery will drive us deeper into despair as we attempt to perform and only continue to fail. The end of failing to believe that Jesus is not ashamed to call you brother is rejecting Jesus all together. Eventually, you will tire of the performance treadmill and your despair will only deepen until the darkness consumes you. Knowing that Jesus is not ashamed to call you brother is key to holding fast your confession to the end. 

Social Implications

If Jesus is not ashamed to call a man “brother” then neither should I. If every man who puts his faith in Jesus is my brother (not like a brother, but a real brother), then that reality has social implications. I cannot claim to love Jesus while refusing to love those whom Jesus calls brothers. Now, I think that most Christians would say they are not ashamed to call anyone brother. Anyone is welcome in their church. Rich. Poor. Black. White. Smelly. Clean. All are welcome. And while this may be true, I believe it falls short of what it means to be unashamed of all our brothers and sisters.

Jesus is active on behalf of his brothers. He is never passive. Jesus pursued us. He did not wait for us to come him. No. He came to us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And not only did he come to us, he became like us. In order that he might be a sympathetic high priest, he took on human flesh and experienced the life we all experience. Jesus understands us fully because he is walking around in our skin. This is what the love of God towards us looks like. This is what our privileged older brother did for His under-privileged little brothers. When we weren’t even looking for him, he came. He acted. Not on his behalf, but on ours. If we would be like him, we must do likewise. 

Our failure at this point is precisely why we find ourselves unable to have productive conversations amidst the racial tension we face in America today. For too long, separate but equal has been the foundational paradigm for the church in America. For the most part, white brothers and sisters and black brothers and sisters do not worship together. We do not know one another on a familial level. So when the protests erupted over the grand jury decisions in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, many whites could not fathom why. And frankly, many refused to even attempt empathy. Why? Why did many white brothers and sisters seek to reflexively dismiss the concerns that were voiced by black brothers and sisters? Why did many white brothers and sisters write insensitive and tone-deaf social media posts? Because although Jesus is unashamed to call us all brothers and sisters, we whites, too often only view the world through the lens of white dominant culture. We have relationships with many ethnicities but we almost exclusively have familial relationships with our own ethnicity. We are culturally reaping exactly what we have sown in our segregated churches—an “us” vs. “them” divide. 

Present Application

Rapper Lecrae rhymes, “It’s not a guilt trip, it’s a field trip that’s gon last more than one day.” This is where we are. The field trip was ugly. So where do we go from here? Two suggestions. First, we reclaim the pride that Jesus has in us. He is not ashamed to call us brother. Live in the freedom of that reality. Second, we look for ways to engage our black brothers and sisters. I don’t know what that looks like for you. I’m still trying to figure that out for myself. But I know one thing for sure. Something needs to change. Bryan Loritts said at a recent event, “without proximity there is no empathy.” Let’s make 2015 a year where we get a little more proximity to our black brothers and sisters. Let’s see their lives by inviting them into our own. Perhaps, for the first time, we will begin to see what the brotherhood of Jesus truly looks like.





If I Have Greedy Children: A Modest Proposal

John Pavlovitz seems like a typical dad. He wonders about his kid’s futures. Specifically, he wonders if they will be gay. In response, he has made four promises to himself and his readers about how he and his wife will respond to his kids coming out of the closet.

The problem with his post is that he calls evil good. He makes it clear that he believes a homosexual lifestyle is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle for anyone to lead and its high time the rest of us with “misplace anger issues” get with the program (and the spirit of the age said, “Amen!”). And yet, the Bible (even Jesus himself for your Red-Letter types) speaks a different word. The homosexual lifestyle is outside of the bounds God has set in His word.

As a thought experiment, I have taken the text of his post and replaced “gay” with “greedy” (along with a few minor edits, such as changing “you’ll all” to “y’all”).

Let’s begin. Continue reading If I Have Greedy Children: A Modest Proposal

The Cosmic Pity Party Pooper


Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you. Party pooper. Party pooper. – Franck Eggelhoffer

It is common in our world to think of God as a Cosmic Party Pooper. Man just wants to have fun and here comes God ruining it. The unbelieving world has looked at God and come to the conclusion He exists to kill joy. Or rather, he is a construct of those who wish to kill their joy. It’s understandable. God has said “Do not” to many of the things they wish to do. Now, this view of God is wildly inaccurate (Ps. 16:11). However, there is one type of party we Christians like to throw that God is in the business of pooping.

I just sold my townhouse (Praise God!). Literally. I signed the contract yesterday. And it only took over a year of being on the market with multiple price drops and much anxiety. When my family and I set out on this adventure, I expected it to take maybe six months. Townhouses sell slower than your typical home. But as month six came and went, I started planning a little party. A Pity Party. As we waited, we saw many friends put their houses on the market and sell them (sometimes within days). Suddenly, the date for the party got pushed up and it became a multi-night event. Invitations, however, were limited. I generally only invited my wife and God (It’s funny how we reserve our best for the ones we really love. *end sarcasm*). God never RSVP’d. But He sure did show up. Continue reading The Cosmic Pity Party Pooper