November 10, 2003
Still more about power

Rob thinks I'm going all Foucaultian in seeing power relations even in family relationships. Power, in his mind, is about corecion and manipulation.

Well, I suppose we could argue semantics forever, but I would just say that the dictionary definition of power is a lot broader than that. And to my mind, those definitions belong under one heading, because the division between "good" power and "bad" power isn't that clean.

Power is, in its most basic definition, the ability to do something. And in terms of power over other people, that means the ability to do something that has an impact or influence on someone else. And certainly that applies to parents and kids, and sometimes it's coercive. I mean, maybe Rob has managed to raise his children without ever using any coercive or manipulative measures, but if so he's the only parent I've ever heard of who's managed to do that. I have lenient parents by most people's standards, but you can bet I did some things out of fear of punishment, even if the punishment was just their anger or disappointment. Kids usually don't see what's in their own best interest, and so if you want them to behave a certain way you can't always persuade them of that.

By the same token, I don't know of anyone in American society today who became powerful purely by force. Even the most corrupt businessmen and politicians got to where they are at least partly because they provide people with stuff -- products, services, pork, what have you. Granted, that's not generally done in the Christian spirit of servanthood, but it's not coercion either.

There are two reasons I feel strongly about this. For one, I think that when people don't recognize the power they have, they don't deal with it properly. Some of the people who've hurt me the most in my life were those closest to me. When you love and trust someone you give them the power to hurt you. And I think many people do harm not from being coercive, but from being irresponsible. Gee, I didn't realize you'd take it so hard. Why are you making such a big deal out of it? Et cetera.

This can happen even in relationships that are, generally speaking, equal. Rob claimed that marriage can be "radically egalitarian", and I suppose that's true, but the parties still have power over each other, in the sense of having the ability to help or hurt each other. Also, I don't think equal relationships are perfectly equal 100% of the time. One party will have more power at certain times, or in certain areas of life. So the potential for abuse of power still exists.

Moreover, though it's uncomfortable for us modern Americans to admit it, sometimes people will voluntarily put themselves in relationships where they have less power. In my post on teacher-student relationships I pointed out that there is an inherent imbalance in that relationship, and it's not a bad thing. If someone knows more than you, has better judgment than you and/or is emotionally stronger than you are at the moment, letting them guide you can be the wise thing. That's what Jesus did with his followers, and that's what the apostles continued after he was gone. It only becomes bad if they abuse it.

The other reason I feel strongly about this is that I've seen a certain tendency in some quarters of the left, both religious and secular, to say that power is a) always evil and b) only something that other people have. This can be extremely self-defeating, for one thing. Let's speak truth to power, but God forbid power should listen, because then we'd have to figure out how to be something other than a noble opposition. It also leads to the popular pharasaical delusion that I am pure, it's only the evil Them who have a problem. At its worst, this attitude can lead to the abuses by Marxists and other revolutionaries, who can justify all kinds of horrors because they're supposedly doing it on behalf of the oppressed. You can't really have power if you're acting on behalf of the powerless, can you? Wrong.

Jesus criticized the powerful and lobbied for the powerless, but I don't see him as a class-warfare kind of guy. He hung out with tax collectors, who in Jewish eyes were henchmen for the Man. He did healings for the rich as well as the poor. His follower Joseph of Arimathea was rich enough to donate a tomb -- something very few people had in those days, so I understand. So I'm not buying that he gave a simplistic message that power = evil. Craving and abusing power for your own self-interest, yes. But was he saying people should never have impact or influence on each other? Certainly not.

Posted by Camassia at November 10, 2003 01:18 PM | TrackBack

It's true that we are, at least partially, just using differing definitions of power. It's even more true, certainly, that I have on many occasions fallen far short of my own ideal of parenthood, and even moreso, spousehood (is that a word?), so I was speaking of what I shoot for--not what I can always achieve.
I was under the impression that the discussion was essentially about dominance and submission in human relationships, and perhaps secondarily about the proper response of Christians to authority, particularly of the "official" variety. It's true that the left doesn't much like this type of power. I'm not sure that I agree with you that Jesus was not a class warfare kind of guy. He rejected nobody who came to him, but he sought out the humble and the afflicted. (To his way of thinking, a tax collector was afflicted.)
I think that I want to just agree with Jeremy that for Jesus power was an end, not a means.

Posted by: Rob on November 10, 2003 03:30 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?