November 08, 2003
Powers and principalities

The discussion about church and gender has gone on at The Right Christians and has moved to another, related subject:

Much of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament is written from the vantage point of the world's "losers." There are historians from a tiny nation often at odds with itself and under constant threat of destruction by much more powerful neighbors, prophets who were outcasts, exiles living in a hostile culture, persecuted followers of a crucified man, etc. How do those who are privileged and part of the dominant class and gender identify with such writings?

As I've been thinking over my own remark about "the language of power," I've perceived a subtle difference between the way the left usually talks about power, and the way Christianity (in my view) talks about it. The message men -- especially straight, white, able-bodied men -- usually get from the left about power is that they have too much of it and others have to little, so they should share. The Christian message, on the other hand, is that you may think you have power, but that power is nothing compared to God. As far as God is concerned, the "privileged and dominant" are his children like everybody else. That's why they should see the beggars in the street as their brothers -- or as Jesus.

That's why I said in the last post that a little more emphasis on God's power could be helpful in communicating with that group. If you only talk about how much power they have and how awful that is, you're actually building them up in a way.

But given that perfect egalitarianism isn't possible, is there a Christian way to wield power? I've actually heard two different sermons on the subject this year, and they both made the same point. The pastor at my old church said that whatever power you have, you have "on loan" -- it's not intrinsic to you, you don't "deserve" it, and you're not going to take it with you to the next life. So you should regard it as a gift to be cared for wisely, because eventually you're going to return it.

The pastor at my new church spoke about the idea of "stewardship." A steward, he said, is someone who cares for property that belongs to someone else. So whatever you have stewardship over, you should remember it belongs to God.

Another point both of them made, which is worth putting in here, is that we all have power at some point. It's true enough that some classes of people have more power than others, but the experiences of dominance and subordination are nearly universal. Even the poor have children. Even the rich were children. So I think even people from dominant groups can identify with the poor in the Bible, if they think personally instead of politically. (And people from subordinate groups shouldn't think the demands on the powerful exclude them.)

This doesn't really answer the broad social question of how a Christian society as a whole can adapt to dominance, or at least not being persecuted. But it's food for thought.

Posted by Camassia at November 08, 2003 04:34 PM | TrackBack

Interesting thoughts again Camassia. IMHO, power is one of the most misused words amongst evangelical Christians as well. An interesting book on the topic: Powers, Weaknesses and the Tabernacling of God by Marva Dawn. Have you read it? If so, any thoughts?

Posted by: saint on November 9, 2003 02:02 PM

It's just a short step from deciding that you wield power "on loan from God", or as God's steward, to being pretty sure that you are, therefore, doing God's will on earth. Boy, is that ever dangerous.

Posted by: Rob on November 10, 2003 04:38 AM

Saint: No, I've never read the book.

Rob: So, what way of looking at it would be 'safe'? These particular sermons did not address the question of who should have power, and how much (which is, to my mind, a separate question). But like I said, it's inevitable that people are going to have some, at some point. Just saying 'Power is bad' isn't very helpful.

Posted by: Camassia on November 10, 2003 08:13 AM

The question is not whether the world will be rife with powerbrokers, or not--it will. The question is whether you want to be one of them--or not.
Jesus said, if you're not with me, you're against me. Was he a power man, in terms of the world--or not?

Posted by: Rob on November 10, 2003 08:23 AM

I have that Marva Dawn book but have not read it yet. I second Rob's caution and would add that any concept of "power" must start with the cross. How did God display the power of his divinity? By becoming human and following the way that led to the cross. That's why Barth's volume on the doctrine of reconciliation is titled "Jesus Christ the Lord as Servant." "Lord" means power, but how is that power displayed? Through servanthood. I'm not arguing that Christians can't use power for good, but just cautioning that "power" must be framed in this theological way.

Posted by: Jennifer on November 10, 2003 08:55 AM

When I said everybody has power at some point, I meant everybody. You have children, right? Are you saying you never had power over them? Did you never have any emotional power over their mother, or she over you? Has anyone ever worked for you? Have you ever made a decision that's had a serious impact on somebody? That's power.

Unless you live in a cave, I think it's a dangerous illusion to think you can stay 'clean' of power. Even Jesus had power over his disciples. They followed him around, they did what he told them (usually), and they turned to him for help. He had earthly power as well as heavenly.

Posted by: Camassia on November 10, 2003 08:55 AM

Yes, it's true, of course, that parents must have "power" over their children, in order to protect them, on the one hand, and to "socialize" them, on the other. But, the common word for that is "nuturing", which I personally don't think of as "power" per se.
Within adult domestic relationships, I think that when you are speaking of power, you are usually speaking of coercion, which I don't view as a good or neutral thing. A marriage, or domestic partnership, is maybe the one relationship in which radical egalitarianism is at least possible.
I can honestly say that I loath having people work for me. I don't even like being waited on in restaurants. Maybe I just don't understand power very well--at least not in terms of striving to excercise it over other people. This does not include the "power of persuasion", which I don't, however, view as coercive, but as the goal of a cooperative effort.

Posted by: Rob on November 10, 2003 09:37 AM

I think that defining power as coercion is the problem here. That's not what I'm talking about, and neither were my pastors. In fact, both of them used parenthood as a central example. But I think even if you have good motivations -- actually, maybe especially if you have good motivations -- you can be tempted to egotism, or to abuse your power 'for their own good.' I think that's where remembering that all power lies with God is helpful.

Jennifer is right that Jesus defined power in terms of servanthood. In fact, the Gospel passage that the second sermon was built around was the bit about the greatest among you being servants. But it's important to remember that serving others actually gives you power over them. If somebody's in need and you help them, then they need you. Somebody who serves a lot of people well can actually find himself in quite a powerful position (such as Jesus himself, beating back the crowds looking to be healed). So I don't think we can draw a neat line here between the powerful on the one hand, and the virtuous servants on the other.

Posted by: Camassia on November 10, 2003 09:58 AM

There is, of course, a certain post-modern school of thought in which all relationships are power relationships--but now you're into Foucault territory.
Sermons, or no sermons, I don't find it useful to think of the parent-child relationship as a dominance and submission one. To me, that comes into play where one person manipulates events so as to *coerce* some desired behavior from another person who is potentially the first person's equal.
There is also good power, of course: the power of love being the summation of all good power (and the operative power in healthy parent-child interaction).

Posted by: Rob on November 10, 2003 10:26 AM

Personally, I think that theologian (and all around great guy) Jacques Ellul had it right. I don't think anyone denies that yes, we all have some kind of "power" now and again, but the question is, through what means and to what ends are you utilizing this power, and are you doing so in the spirit of humility and compassion?

If one exercises one's "power" to further the ends of the God's Way, then one must do so with humility, not coercion. As a more material example, think of Gandhi-- he recognized himself as the ad hoc leader of the movement to liberate India. However, he never acted as though he wielded such great power. The power he did wield was the power of simplicity.

It all goes back to the adage that someone who constantly reminds people that he/she is enlightened probably isn't. Or, look at Jesus's teachings on prayer in Matthew:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

When one is on the Way that Jesus teaches, then power is an end, not a means.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 10, 2003 12:25 PM
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