I recently watched the movie, The Phantom Thread, which despite its superb acting and interesting plot, profoundly disturbed me. I could see why it was acclaimed and had won awards; nevertheless I had an adverse reaction to the dysfunctional romantic relationship which unfolded throughout the movie. It captured the devastating effects of the curse (women’s desire for men, men ruling over women) with a particularly twisted application. A narcissistic artist who used all his love and vulnerability for his art, women trying everything in their power to retain his attention before he discarded them, and one woman’s disturbing solution to make him “need” her.
This morning I listened to a contemplation from John 12 regarding Mary pouring out expensive perfume in an extravagant gesture of love for Jesus. I was struck by Mary’s courageous vulnerability to do this in front of so many men surrounding Jesus. All to often, when vulnerability intersects with power, power crushes or twists it, leading to one’s desire to self-protect. But can we truly love without vulnerability?
In some ways, it feels like the same old story of the curse—a woman offering something to a man who holds the power to reject, use, or retain it. But I continued to reflect and compare Jesus’ response with the protagonist from The Phantom Thread who used women’s vulnerability to meet his own needs without ever becoming vulnerable to them.
Jesus did meet her vulnerability with his own—in this context, receiving a woman’s touch front of all the guests was also a significant act of risky vulnerability. During my days of leading wilderness trips, I remember one time when we did a foot-washing ceremony at the end of a five day trip. This was a chance for the students to serve each other and conclude their course as we instructors looked on. I was shocked when one young man came up to me and asked to wash my feet. I was in a position of power over him—I had been his teacher and leader over the past five days. Did I really want him to see my dirty and stinky feet? I felt vulnerable, like this would somehow diminish the distance of authority and leadership between us. In the end, I nodded my affirmation to him, and he gently washed my feet. My vulnerability widened my capacity to experience his kindness, vulnerability as an expression of power.
The ways Jesus creatively exercises his power should be a constant critique to how we so easily fall into a non-vulnerable misuse of power. In this case, Jesus used his power to advocate for her, defending her against those in the room who thought she probably didn’t “get it.” In doing so, he affirmed her dignity and the quality of her discipleship which had manged to ascertain Jesus in ways his other disciples had not.
Most of the time, I think we in leadership really don’t “get it.” We do not understand the vulnerability and dignity of true power—the way it opens up and offers all involved true relationship and deeper ways of being human.