The Surprising Power of Those on the Margins (and how it can be abused)

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“People with power abuse power every day unless they’re forming themselves in Christ.” – Todd Hunter, SheLeads Summit, 2017

After years of defending my calling to powerful people, powerlessness is a familiar feeling. After years of being dismissed, victim mode is a well-rehearsed script.

But now, I’m learning that those old roles are postures that I have to unlearn. In contexts where there is longing for healing and shared ministry between women and men, I have more power than I know.

And I am learning: I can abuse it.

What do I mean by this? Let me share three moments recently when I’ve been confronted with this reality.

3 moments when I was in a position to abuse my power as a woman. @uccmandy Click To Tweet

Learning to Steward My Own Power

1. I can abuse men’s silence

Whereas once my voice was not welcome, now I’m often invited to join a group which has become aware that it’s missing the voices of women.

Recently I was in a planning committee like this, and I could see that the rest of the group (all men) wanted to be attentive to my input. They looked to me as the one representing all women. In a way, I did, as the only woman in the room. But I’m just one person. I may sometimes be speaking on behalf of all women. And sometimes I’m just sharing my personal opinion. At one moment in the conversation, I felt the decision of the group leaning away from my preference—so I spoke my opinion. In response, there was a familiar polite silence. It was the silence that happens when people in power disagree but know their own privilege and do not want to abuse it. It’s the silence of the majority learning that their voice is not the only voice. So it’s a silence I admire. And it’s a silence I could abuse. In that moment I felt a strange weight come over me. I realize now it was the unfamiliar weight of power. I knew that if I wanted, I could abuse their deference, push my agenda, and totally get my own way. I must admit there was something delicious about it. I was tempted by it.

But something better was also in my mind. So in that silence, I chose to say, “You’re welcome to push back, by the way. It’s not good for me to be in a place where I can’t be challenged. I can take your feedback, and our work is better when it’s honed by honesty.”

In these moments, I’m given the choice:
I claim to love Christ’s model of mutual submission—but will I still choose it when faced with the opportunity to get my own way?

I claim to love Christ’s model of mutual submission—but will I still choose it when faced with the opportunity to get my own way? @uccmandy Click To Tweet

2. I can abuse men’s guilt

I’m often invited to speak to fellow leaders about my story of coming to leadership as an outsider. I share it to open our imaginations to a broader array of leadership models. So I’ve been surprised how often it brings deep repentance from men in the room. I’ve had several experiences where, with a spirit of lament, a man in the room says: “I’m sorry it’s been so hard for you. I wish I could change the way things are. As a white man I feel so overwhelmed by my power and privilege. How can I overcome what I am?”

After many experiences with white men who have had a less than humble posture towards me, I must confess that in these moments of lament, I’m tempted to put this man in his place. In a way it would feel good to respond with bitterness to these contrite brothers. I’m a little tempted to say, “Your privilege is not my problem.”

But in that moment, there’s something better in my mind. So I’ve chosen to say, “Brother, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a white man. And the fact that you are acknowledging that your way is not the only way is a huge step! You are choosing to lay aside the power you’ve been given to learn to see through the eyes of others. As you learn to speak more than one language, you’re becoming like the rest of us who have to be ‘bilingual.’” I’ve been surprised how this response has brought tears to the eyes of powerful men as they receive grace.

In these moments I’m given the choice:
Do I truly long for grace? Or is my own kind of twisted justice more appealing?

3. I can abuse my platform

I was speaking at a big event and a pastor friend had come along to participate and to support me. I knew she also had gifts to speak in this kind of context and felt called to do so. But she’s younger than I am and hasn’t yet been invited. I brought her behind the scenes with me and introduced her to the other presenters and event planners. As I was bustling around in presenter mode, I saw her standing to the side and had a sense I should introduce her to the event organizer. But with that prompt, a strange hesitation came over me. A feeling of scarcity. And fear. And the first time I’d ever been tempted to see this dear sister as a threat. So I confess that I let that moment pass without introducing them, and the event went on.

But at a meal afterwards, I repented and went out of my way to invite my friend to join me at the table with the event organizer. I told the organizer all the gifts and virtues of my friend, then quickly slipped away to let them chat. (I’m happy to say that since then, he has invited to her to speak at an event, and her voice blessed the gathering in her unique way).

In hindsight, I wonder if this is what power feels like. In the past, I’ve had to rely on others to invite my voice. That’s a comfortable role—but maybe it’s a temporary one. Maybe now, I have more power than I know, and consequently I’m in the place to create opportunities for other voices.

In these moments, I’m given the choice:
I claim to love collaboration and the idea of inviting all voices. Do I value the voice of the minority only when it’s mine? Or do I truly want all to have a voice, even if it means stepping aside to make room for others?

Mutual Submission is Jesus’ Kind of Authority

I don’t always get it right. But when I’ve set aside that delicious temptation to abuse the situation, when I’ve chosen not to gain the wrong kind of power over my brothers and sisters, I’ve found myself strangely empowered. I’ve suddenly seen how much the submission of others had put power into my hands—for me to use or abuse.

Those who have been wronged have surprising power to continue the wrong. Or to forgive. And when we choose to submit in response to their submission, we find a different kind of authority—Jesus’ kind.

Those who have been wronged have surprising power to continue the wrong. Or to forgive. And when we choose to submit this power to Christ, we find a different kind of authority—Jesus’ kind. Click To Tweet
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12 responses to “The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 4): The Willardian Correction

  1. While much of this exploration/assessment of Dr. Black’s book – like Dr. Willard’s own material – is opaque to me, THIS PART I get, and wholeheartedly agree with. As one who has been in the American business world as well as a teacher in Christian schools, a bivocational pastor, and a full-time pastor, I believe his assessment/diagnosis is spot-on. 
    I think we usually take a kind of medical-practice approach to problems we see: diagnosis, then choice of protocols that might correct the problem. And we want results really quick. This doesn’t usually happen, though, at least in the faith life of a community – though it may in an individual. We have to take a longer view: “a long obedience in the same direction,” if you will. When intelligent, devout Christian leaders have a schizophrenic view of God, and are resistant to corrective protocols, what else can we do but keep at it, and praise God for the transformations toward His character that we get to witness? I am still frustrated regularly at the poor logic and myopic theology I see coming from our most visible representatives of the Gospel. But is not our role to continue in humble obedience and not give up? After all, each of us has our own filters. But I would certainly love to see (more) evidence that more of those with a public platform would exhibit that part of Christian community that “sharpens” one another in love and humility, knowing that we all want the same result. There’s way too much suspicion of others, and “not invented here” mentality among Christian leaders.

    I think that adopting this “full gospel” view that Willard promoted is the intent of the leaders of the popularized “radical” Christianity movement, as best I can see, as well as some of the emergent church leaders. They all seem to be teaching against “nominal Christianity.” Unfortunately, they too show much suspicion of others, a “not invented here” mentality, and the requirement to use their words to be considered legitimate. So…we must continue in our long obedience, trusting the Sovereign, Loving God.

  2. By the way, I see diagnosis all through this, but I don’t see corrective. Did Willard have any actionable plan(s) for correctives on these? (I have bought the book but have not yet read it; am finishing a history of American evangelicalism, and will then tackle it) And thanks for the kinds words.

  3. jlbetts23 GaryBlackJr may want to say more, but the 3 corrections as I read them are…

    Belief vs. faith: Instead, “Willard argues that a biblical description of belief necessitates a dedication to the proposition of a conviction to the point of actively placing one’s life in the realities those beliefs represent.” In other words, for Willard, the only sort of belief that truly matters  – in that it is precisely the sort that Jesus calls for – is one that manifests in real life transformation.

    Gospels of Sin Management: Against these gospels of sin management, Willard highlights Jesus’ announcement of the availability of God’s kingdom to all those who would respond to God’s gracious invitation by virtue of their turning from their own way (repentance) to trust and follow him in faithful and loving obedience (discipleship).

    Doctrine of God: It would seem, for Willard, that what undergirds the marred visions of both belief and the gospel within dominant expressions of evangelicalism is a failure to discern “the foundational knowledge and personal, interactive experience with God that Jesus both demonstrated and advocated” (155). For Willard, there is nothing more fundamental to God’s character than his agapic nature. 

    Some of that is my summary and inference, some of it is Gary’s, but those are the ways I see Dallas seeking to bring correction in these areas.

  4. Yes I think there is corrective in there. You’ll have to tell me if it is clear and compelling enough. Primarily I suggest the pronto evangelical story is the corrective.

  5. jrrozko jlbetts23 GaryBlackJr  Yes, I would only add the last few paragraphs of the book. 
    “In conclusion, simply articulating or spreading knowledge of Willard’s
    protoevangelical theology will likely not generate a new future for American
    evangelicalism. Huge numbers of evangelicals and postevangelicals alike have
    already read his works and give mental assent to his theology. Unfortunately
    however, familiarity and agreement with Willard is too often the beginning
    and end of their engagement with his work. The process of metanoia too often
    stops at agreement. Yet, agreement is not the most crucial aspect involved in
    change. To adapt Mark Noll’s concept of the “missing” evangelical mind, the
    new scandal in evangelicalism may be found in the well-worn path of giving
    intellectual assent to a revolutionary or attractive theological platform, while
    never intending to apply or practice any of its truths.
    Still, Willard reminds that true change cannot be forced. It has to be
    chosen. There is nothing inherent to Willard’s works that can upend a will
    set on maintaining the status quo. This is true even if the status quo is to
    value the ethic and pursuit of change while never intentionally engaging the
    activities necessary to actuate change. Key to change is the human heart. 
    Willard’s words and insights, as powerful, insightful, and instructive as they
    may be, cannot change evangelicalism or evangelicals, no matter how widespread
    agreement or advocation of his views may become. Ironically, that
    is the final focus of all his works. The lone qualifier of an orthodox faith is
    evidenced in the manifest reality of a heart and life full of agape love. In
    Willardian protoevangelical faith, that alone is the demonstrable proof of
    the presence and power of the eternal life Jesus provides.”

  6. GaryBlackJrjrrozkojlbetts23 Thank you, both, for the incisive yet extensive digests. This helps significantly. I have now cheated and read ahead to the book’s conclusion, so I expect to go back and enjoy it even more from the beginning. By the way – you do realize that the words you have written are tough words to say to all those “leaders in American evangelicalism?”
    You are courageous to put them out there in the open, even though you have reported them as Willard’s perspective, Your closing remarks are poignant, and sobering. I hope you have got thick skin! 

    Again, thank you both for spending so much time on this part. To me, it’s the most critical part – where the rubber meets the road. Blessings to you both!

  7. I don’t know about tough skin. It hasn’t been rough so far. But you are right to recognize that Dallas’ views, if understood, are powerful rebukes couched in often gentle forms. I believe they were loving rebukes. But calls for repentance nonetheless. That this is most often missed is was a great burden for Dallas. Blessings.

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