Let's talk about power

A few weeks ago in 1 Peter 2, I preached on the topic of how Christians are to relate counter-culturally to authority. Peter’s frank injunctions to “be subject” and to “honor” unjust human institutions generated a helpful discussion on an issue that makes many Christians uncomfortable: power. What do we do with power?

Over the past several years I’ve found that Christians (particularly younger ones) seem to want to avoid the power conversation for two reasons:

  1. Some people have been oppressed by powerful individuals and institutions. When individuals been abused or exploited by the very people and structures that are supposed to empower our flourishing, it is easy for them to become cynical regarding power and to lose hope that power can be redeemed in any meaningful public way.
  2. Some people have been blissfully unaware or blatantly in denial of the power they possess. When individuals have unknowingly benefitted personally, socially, politically, or educationally from the cumulative exercise of someone else’s power, it is easy for them to become naïve or negligent regarding power and to lose an awareness of the need to redeem power in every meaningful public way.

I deeply hope for Soma Church to be a place where we press into critical conversations regarding what author Andy Crouch, in his book Playing God, refers to as “the gift of power” that makes room for human flourishing and freedom rather than human oppression.

I believe that Christians, following the pattern of Jesus and empowered by the Spirit of God, have the ability to lead the way in reimagining a creative, disciplined use of power that works for justice in areas like racism, sexism, and classism that plague our city. While I don’t have all of the solutions, I would like to suggest some starting points for the conversation in our church community.

1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room

In my experience, people don’t like talking about power because it activates an internal sense of fear, shame, and guilt. Especially if we come from a disempowered group, we may fear being stereotyped by friends, family, or tribal leaders. If we come from a historically empowered group, we may feel exposed because of the indiscriminate ways we’ve used power in the past. Or we may feel guilty for even wondering if this is a conversation that needs to be had.

If we’re going to make progress, we have to be willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room:

  • Power exists: some individuals and groups have more ability to work in and influence the world than others
  • Power isn’t inherently bad: God ordains authority structures and calls them good
  • Many existing power structures are corrupt

We can’t just become hopeless critics who wish every form of power away; neither can we be naïve optimists who ignore everything and assume power will balance itself out naturally. All of us live in power structures; all of us are stewards of some form of personal, financial, or societal power. The question for the church is, “What are we building? What kind of legacy will we hand down to our children?”

2. Work toward a biblical narrative of power

Over the last century, we’ve allowed philosophers, French deconstructionists, and social media to co-opt the narrative of power. The secular story about power equates it with violence, coercion, manipulation, and self-preservation.

In the Bible, however, we are invited to see power through a different lens. Power originates with God as a good creation gift (cf. Genesis 1-2), and is ultimately transformed and redeemed in the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. As such, every individual and institution possesses some measure of power (and the potential for more) that can be stewarded and shared in constructive ways toward the common good, or squandered and hoarded in deconstructive ways toward the common ill.

The Bible has plenty of examples of people using power in violent and self-serving ways; but it also has plenty of examples of the good and compassionate use of power:

  1. Joshua honoring a covenant made with the Gibeonites, even though the Gibeonites came to him under false pretenses (Joshua 9)
  2. King David adopting a potential political rival into his household (2 Samuel 9)
  3. Nehemiah using his authority to see Israel’s religious system reformed (Nehemiah 13)

Not to mention Jesus’ own use of his divine authority to pay for the sins of the world, rather than demanding that payment from us.

Christians need to spend more time immersing ourselves in the biblical narrative and discussing ways that we can use our power constructively to serve like Jesus.

3. Seek to understand our own stories of power and powerlessness

Whether or not we’ve taken the time to process them, everyone has their own personal history with power and powerlessness. As Christians, we carry those experiences with us into our Sunday gatherings, missional communities, and day-to-day interactions. All of us have probably had a painful experience of powerlessness; but those who come from historically disempowered segments of the American population – women, ethnic minorities, lower socioeconomic classes – have probably experienced many more wounds from those with power and likely carry around more hurt.

For many of us, becoming aware of our own story and the story of others in our community may be the first step toward growth in this area. Some suggestions:

  • Learn to ask good questions instead of making assumptions or uncritically retweeting sound bites.
  • Dig into your family of origin to learn more about why you feel so angry or apathetic about issues of power.
  • Inventory the different forms of power you currently possess and look for ways to begin serving others with your power.
  • For those who’ve never experienced systemic powerlessness, learn to put yourself in situations where you lack power so that you can better enter into the mindset of your disempowered brothers and sisters.

Wherever you find yourself in this season of life, I want to issue an invitation: let’s talk about this together; let’s grow together. What do you say?

Image: "Saul and David," by Rembrandt