‘“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”’ This was C. S. Lewis’s way of taking a jab— in a children’s book, no less— at the decline of education, or at least its classical forms in which he had been trained.
With apologies to Lewis, we are long past the loss of logic now. We have arrived at a world where only power matters. Only it is not the powerful who exert themselves, but the powerless. Ours is an age where claiming marginalization—real or perceived—is a ticket to the top.
Today, “power dynamics” have swallowed up previously esteemed disciplines like “ethics” and “epistemology”. We used to ask questions about morality—“Is it good or evil, right or wrong?”—and about knowledge—“Is true or false, and how do we know?” Now we simply ask if a particular view has come from the majority or the minority, from power or from the oppressed.
It may be helpful at this juncture to introduce myself. I am a first-generation immigrant from Malaysia. I have lived in America for a total of 26 years—in two different stints, the longest of which is also the current one, which has lasted 23 years. I became naturalized as an American citizen about 10 years ago. The other 14 of my 41 years of my life were spent in Malaysia—the first 10, and then my 4 high school years. ‘Malaysian’, however, is a nationality, not an ethnicity. By ethnicity, I am Tamil-Sinhalese; my father is Tamil (most of whom are in India), born in Malaysia; my mother is Sinhalese (most of whom are from Sri Lanka), born in Singapore. Tamils make up fewer than 7% of the population in Malaysia; Sinhalese, even less so. I have never not been an ethnic minority.
This is not, of course, all there is to me. There are also matters of class and culture that come into play. I’m a pastor at a megachurch in Colorado Springs. All these sorts of biographical details are necessary disclosures because they affect perception—how you, the reader, perceive me; and how I perceive the world. They have hermeneutical importance. But they do not have anything to say about whether I am right or wrong, or good or evil, or whether what I am saying here is true or false. You will have to employ other means of answering those questions, as you should.
If we’re going to have a conversation—and I hope a piece like this starts one not ends one—then we must, at the very least, cut through the cloud of confusion—a confusion of categories.
The Religion of Power Dynamics
It may be that such a confusion was inevitable. After decades of relativizing morality followed by years of deconstructing knowledge, what is left? How is one to make meaning of the world? Should we even try? The deconstruction of meta-narratives and transcendent meaning has left many in the Western world with only the autonomous self— the free individual able to determine his or her own identity and destiny.
But what about community? Even if we actually had the freedom and the power to be self-authoring, is the autonomous self enough? Something else is needed or societies would crack. There must be some shared grid of regulating our bonds to one another.
This used to be the role of religion. The very word likely comes from the Latin, ‘religare’, which means ‘to bind together’. Religion—as the Romans worked to perfection—was the ideal way of binding together a people who were geographically disparate. But how should we bind together a people who are religiously disparate, a people who range from no-belief to belief in competing religious systems but who all share the same social spaces? What connects the Buddhist in the ‘burbs with the agnostic in the airport lounge in our pluralistic, neo-secular age?
Enter, power dynamics. A power dynamics framework does not require a shared moral universe; it just requires overlapping community spaces. Who’s in power in our schools or at our places of work? Answer that, and you have your villain. Who’s marginalized or excluded? You have your protagonist. In a sense, it’s a fairly simple system that requires relatively little discernment. The real evil are the ones with power and privilege. Those are the ones to take down. The most important truth is from the marginalized and oppressed. Those are the only voices that count.
But there’s a problem. Power dynamics are not enough to answer ethical or epistemological questions. They cannot actually tell us what is right or wrong, good or evil, or true or false. A power dynamics framework does not require a shared moral universe; it just requires overlapping community spaces... But there’s a problem. Power dynamics are not enough to answer ethical questions Click To Tweet
A Load Too Great To Bear
We need to move from the confusion of categories to complexification. The practical theologian Pete Ward notes that in many books, blogs, and articles on the contemporary church and its practices, critiques are all too often thinly constructed even while the theological basis for the arguments and prescriptions are rich. Ward sees this as “methodological laziness.”1 “We base whole arguments on anecdote and the selective treatment of experience. We are prone to a sleight of hand that makes social theory appear to be a description of social reality—which it of course is not.”2 It will not do to have thick theological reflection on thin sociological observations.
Speaking of theology, let’s look at an example. All theology is contextual. But the primary matrix for evaluating theology is not its origin but by its object. Of course, origin is not an irrelevant category; it is just a different one, and a secondary one. Context matters, but it is not all that matters, or even what matters most. Whether something is ‘Asian theology’ or ‘European theology’ is secondary— and it is a distant second— to the primary question of whether it is faithful theology. We would do well to ask, “Would this be alien to the apostles?” “Would it be foreign to the global church?” We need a different way of evaluating a theology other than naming its origin and context. It is not enough to simply say that it emerged from a marginalized people’s reading of Scripture, and since Scripture is written by many marginalized people, thus this reading must automatically be closer to the ‘truth’. Whether something is ‘Asian theology’ or ‘European theology’ is secondary— and it is a distant second— to the primary question of whether it is faithful theology. We would do well to ask, 'Would this be alien to the apostles?' Click To Tweet
The late British missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote decades ago that “[w]e need the witness of Christians of other cultures to correct our culturally conditioned understanding of Scripture.”3 And yet, theology is not relativized completely by this dynamic, for Scripture contains the revelation of God, culminating in the stories about Jesus. “The Christ who is presented in Scripture for our believing is Lord over all cultures,” Newbigin wrote, “and his purpose is to unite all of every culture to himself in a unity which transcends without negating the diversities of culture.”4
The church historic and universal must be in dialogue— a kind of communal discernment by the Spirit— to read well the revelation of God in Scripture and in Jesus. The church stewards the heart of the Gospel, codified in Creeds and vivified in worship.
We have asked the framework of power dynamics to carry the load that ethics and epistemology used to carry, and it cannot bear the weight. The power dynamics framework is threatening to collapse and crush those under it. This new ‘world order’ of sorts is a new kind of tyranny and fundamentalism, and the revolt against it has already begun. That is one of the reasons why we experience such a divided world. There are those trying to prop up the framework of power dynamics, and there are others trying to pull it down.
Jesus, the Powerless Victim
It need not be this way. In fact, paying attention to who has the power and how it is being used is actually an important thing to consider. But it is important because of Jesus. In Jesus, ethics, epistemology, and power dynamics come together. For the Christian, epistemology is grounded by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ; ethics are shaped by the life of Christ; power is redefined and re-purposed by the cross of Christ. One does not trump the other; Jesus stands at the center. Paying attention to who has the power and how it is being used is actually an important thing to consider. But it is important because of Jesus. In Jesus, ethics, epistemology, and power dynamics come together. Click To Tweet
In fact, Jesus’s cross is the reason victims have a kind of power in the Western world today. Before Jesus, this would have been ludicrous to say. Death on a Roman cross was unspeakably shameful; it would not have been appropriate dinner conversation. It was the ultimate instrument of oppression, used to suppress uprisings and maintain an imposed order. The victim of such an execution would not have any social capital; there would be nothing to leverage about the situation; nothing with which to summon sympathy. If a person was crucified, that was the end. No one would speak of him again.
Except for Jesus of Nazareth. The exaltation of Jesus by his early followers is baffling. Tom Holland, the ancient historian— and not confessionally a Christian— wrote recently about how Jesus and his cross began a revolution in how the Western world views victims:
Christianity had revealed to the world a momentous truth: that to be a victim might be a source of strength. No one in modern times saw this more clearly than the religion’s most brilliant and unsparing critic. Because of Christianity, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘the measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul’…If God is indeed dead, then his shadow, immense and dreadful, continues to flicker even as his corpse lies cold. The risen Christ cannot be eluded simply by refusing to believe in him. That the persecuted and disadvantaged have claims upon the privileged — widely taken for granted though it may be today across the West — is not remotely a self-evident truth. Condemnations of Christianity as patriarchal or repressive or hegemonic derive from a framework of values that is itself nothing if not Christian.5
Holland wrote in a 2016 essay that a belief in a crucified and suffering God has shaped the assumption in the Western world that moral goodness and cultural power are associated with suffering and not conquering. Christianity “is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”6
Patristics scholar Ben Myers affirms this, writing,
The message of a humble Lord was a shocking thing to hear in the ancient world. Yet today if anyone is asked whether it’s better to devote one’s life to self-aggrandizement or to service, most would admit that a life of service is better. The message of the cross has inverted the ancient values of honor and shame.7
Do we pay attention to power dynamics? Yes. But not because power is evil and the oppressed are noble; not because the powerful cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and only the marginalized do. We notice power dynamics because Jesus the Son of God was crucified on a Roman cross and was raised up on the third day. The new community formed in His name lives now in a Spirit-empowered way that relativizes power differentials and reshapes the purpose of power.
Far from letting power dynamics swallow up ethics and epistemology, for the Christian, all of it is grounded in Jesus. How do we know what is Good? By looking at Jesus. How do we know Truth? By beholding the One full of grace and truth. And how do we know what to do with power? By following the world’s true Lord who came not to be served but to serve.
Only Jesus can carry the weight of holding all things together.
1. Ward, Perspectives in Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), p. 4.
3. Newbigin Reader, p. 99.
5. Tom Holland, “Thank God for Western Values”. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/thank-god-for-western-values/?fbclid=IwAR0qjyEhFZw38fPM5goocYK5m2-ZwxLM9h_jVdX2Ztofo9jIxRXkrCx5YbQ
6. Tom Holland, “Why I Was Wrong About Christianity”. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity