Theology

Pretending Power Dynamics Don’t Exist Can Be Just as Dangerous As Abusing Power

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Power is a tricky concept. It’s a moving target, hard to define, and easy to abuse. It is always real but sometimes intangible.

Some of us carry the trappings of power and privilege but are unable to see it. Some of us experience its ugly effects because we rub shoulders with people blind or indifferent to the damage it inflicts.

The dynamics of power impact day-to-day life in the church, particularly the church’s pursuit of justice.

If our churches are going to faithfully participate in the work of extending God’s justice into the world, we will have to wrestle with the issue of power.

If our churches are going to faithfully participate in the work of extending God’s justice into the world, we will have to wrestle with the issue of power. Click To Tweet

In a recent series of posts engaging James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, David Fitch explores the notion of power and its intersection with justice. Dave drew our attention to the incredible work of Cone and its potential for helpful discernment in the church today regarding power. I commend this as an important word for white evangelical leaders. I also resonate with David’s concerns, à la Niebuhr, to see power as something to use indiscriminately in the cause of justice.

So how should we think about power? I offer a few thoughts here.

And please forgive the VERY overplayed example here, but as I think about power as it relates to justice, I’m drawn back to the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings.

Two Impulses Regarding Power: Are You a Boromir or a Frodo?

Let’s begin with Boromir. The impulse to use power “for good” is the Boromir impulse.

Boromir is driven by a desire to fight against the injustice and power of Mordor. When presented with the possibility of wielding the ring of power, Boromir wants to wield the ring for good ends.

The trouble is this: he is not capable of wielding power for good. Despite the greatest intentions, and a surely righteous cause, trying to use the ring for good corrupts him, and consequently, his cause.

If I’m reading Dave correctly, he sees this at work in many evangelical “justice types.” As someone in the field of evangelical justice work, I sympathize with folks seeing the daily realities of injustice and systemic oppression who opt for the Boromir approach. These friends have sincere intentions and a righteous cause.

But I am increasingly nervous of the attempt to use worldly power against the agents of injustice in the world. This is not to say we never use power, but appropriating the tools and tactics of oppressive power for the ends of liberation only extends the problems we long to see redeemed. It’s hard to wield power for good.

This is specifically important for leaders in historic positions of power/privilege as this can easily devolve into an unhelpful messianic posture.

But I find myself equally, if not more, squeamish about the Frodo impulse.

Remember how Frodo responds when he learns from Gandalf about the true power his ring possesses? He freaks out! He wants to hide it, to throw it away, to bury it somewhere no one will find it. We realize quickly that this approach is doomed because the unjust powers of Mordor will still overcome Middle Earth. Burying the ring of power changes nothing because this ring represents a larger reality of power. If justice is to prevail, the larger oppressive power must be dismantled.

In my experience, the Frodo impulse to power is just as common, and is, at least, equally problematic. When leaders are confronted with the fact that they hold power (positional authority, platform/status, gender, race, education level, etc.) it can make them uncomfortable. I’ve had conversations with leaders who held all manner of power within a community/situation, but who chafed at that very notion, OR who, like Frodo, tried to bury it and mitigate its harmful effects by attempting to ignore it.

The problem is that burying the power I carry with me does nothing to dismantle the larger injustices of oppressive power.

Pretending I don’t have power ignores the fact that as a white man with positional authority, hiding my power is impossible. Everyone sees it when I walk in the room. If our level of discomfort or naiveté regarding the power we wield makes us want to “bury” it, nothing changes in the dynamics of our community. The people under the thumb of power continue to experience its marginalizing effects while I continue to move through the world unencumbered.

Honestly, I waver between being a Boromir and a Frodo myself.

I'm increasingly nervous of attempts to use worldly power against the agents of injustice in the world. Yet ignoring or hiding the power I have does nothing to dismantle injustice and oppression. Click To Tweet

I live in a densely populated immigrant community on the north side of Chicago. When I see the hate speech and violent rhetoric coming from politicians and pastors aimed at my neighbors or sisters and brothers I worship next to, my gut wants to respond with that same kind of vitriol and use my power to shut somebody up.  

When I find myself in ministry situations where issues of race and gender are rising to the surface, my gut wants to try and suppress the reality of my power—both as a self-protective measure (I’m not biased/prejudiced/racist!!) but also out of the sincere intention of mitigating the harmful effects of the unwitting abuse of my power/position/privilege.

Council of Elrond: Discerning Power Together in Community

There is an alternative.

What if rather than taking the example of Boromir or Frodo, our approach to power could mirror the Council of Elrond? Here, the ring of power is laid bare in front of the entire community, and they discern its best use together. The communal discernment of power is the way they resist unhelpful impulses doomed to failure.

Rather than one person using power as they alone saw fit, or one person pretending they don’t have the power they do, out of the wisdom of the community, a relational covenant is established where the potential good/harm of the ring of power is then shouldered by the whole community. In fact, you could argue the entire plan is set up to mitigate the fact that Frodo will be a liability in the quest for justice because he is going to carry the power with him…something I try to remember as a leader.

I learned many of these lessons the hard way as a young pastor in a community of multi-ethnic congregations in New York City. Pastoring a mostly white, English-speaking congregation in intentional collaborative community with Chinese and Arabic congregations, our work was to lay bare the realities of power in the pursuit of a relational covenant to walk out together.

That meant creating space over time for me and those who looked like me to identify, name, and resist unhealthy impulses. It meant doing hard work to understand the collateral damage of our naïve use of power, and to, in community across ethnic and cultural lines, discern a more faithful expression of the Kingdom.

It was a bumpy process, moving along in fits and starts, but my time in this community taught me that the work of justice had to emanate from the character of our community and the internal issues related to power and leadership.

One of the most consistently difficult conversations we had was in the area of ministry to youth. Because the majority of our young people were English-speaking Chinese immigrants, our youth ministry overwhelmed our congregations in complexity. We had to learn to identify and acknowledge the way the power dynamics between these groups impacted our process of discernment. In moments where we tried to pretend that power dynamics were irrelevant, people quickly retreated to antagonism and distrust. As we were able to own our dynamics, and confess our missteps, we were able to carve out a deeper level of mutuality in ministry than I initially thought possible.

More than a program of the church, I came to see justice as an issue of the character of God’s people. Remarkably, this process allowed us to engage serious community justice issues in incredibly collaborative ways.

Justice is a Work of the People

The work of justice (things like advocacy, organizing, economic development, etc.) stands to root itself more deeply in the character and ethics of the Kingdom of God when it finds its source in some tangible form of common life. There are creative and subversive ways of exposing the powers and giving demonstration to the Kingdom that pursue justice without resorting to the impulses described above.

The work of justice (things like advocacy, organizing, economic development, etc.) stands to root itself more deeply in the character and ethics of the Kingdom of God when it finds its source in some tangible form of common life. Click To Tweet

I second Dave Fitch’s point that the work of justice requires a much deeper and more embodied ecclesiology than we currently employ. My observation is that some justice types are, perhaps, a bit ecclesia deficient in their theological frame related to justice, particularly at the local level.

At the same time, those most committed to faithful, embodied expressions of church sometimes fail to see how naturally God’s vision of justice and shalom integrates into the life of a faithful corporate witness.

We need each other. Let us, in community, imagine afresh the work of justice, and the dismantling of oppressive forms of power, out of an embodied way of life in community.

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