Why Faithfulness Requires Reckoning with Power

Glenn Packiam is right: power-dynamics are not enough. They are not enough to birth a way of life with the substance to resist the destructive and dehumanizing forces at work in our world and to give witness to the fullness of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

Yet, as a way of extending and hopefully deepening this important conversation, I want to push Packiam’s account further. Although power cannot be discerned unto itself, I believe that reckoning with power-dynamics is a central task for leaders who are seeking faithful, contextual embodiment of the Gospel. It is a central, and often initial, move in the larger process of discerning how we can gather a community around and in the fullness of Christ.

Faithfulness Requires Reckoning with Power

Tending to power dynamics is a necessary move. It’s necessary, not because I believe that sussing out who is in charge and who is excluded is a self-authenticating criteria that fixes all our problems, but rather because of the accumulation of voices and stories that have revealed our anemic understanding of God’s true power in Christ and exposed the disastrous consequences for trying to get along without reckoning with that reality.

Not only have we (i.e. Christian leaders/thinkers within a western, European tradition) at times gone about ignorant of how power dynamics shape our theological discourse and our leadership, we have taken up a mode of power inconsistent with the power revealed in the crucified Christ, which Packiam acknowledges in his account.

And that is exactly the point I want to press further: the worldly power we misappropriate distorts our ethical and epistemological reasoning and leads to the dehumanizing and disfiguring of bodies. Ignorance of this dynamic continues to privilege certain voices over others, and it leaves churches impotent to extend God’s healing into the real spaces where people (especially people of color) are marginalized and dehumanized.

The point is that we cannot get to questions of faithfulness without first reckoning with power. Jesus calls this move “repentance.” To reckon with power in our lives and the context we inhabit is to repent. Repenting is the condition in which we become the kinds of people who can receive and enter the good news of the Kingdom of God. Not to repent, not to begin by reckoning with power, is to miss what God is doing, how God is doing it, and the unexpected people through whom God is doing it.

In my view, that point is critical for faithfully embodying the Gospel, but it is a different framing of the issue than Packiam gives.

Can’t We All Just Agree to Keep Jesus Central?

Instead, Packiam intimates that tending to power and social location as a primary move is a logically deficient and sociologically shallow move for those who want to be faithful to Jesus (it would help to hear who he thinks is guilty of his charge of “methodological laziness”).

For Packiam, we need to find a way to do theology faithfully that keeps matters of power and social location as secondary (a “distant second,” he says). He suggests that this faithfulness is possible simply by keeping Jesus central. It’s all grounded and shaped by Jesus, we must remember.

Packiam and I agree on a lot, but I worry that Packiam’s rhetorical move, criticizing discourse grounded in a reductionstic account of power dynamics in order to recenter Jesus, can have the unintended consequence of obscuring the kind of questions Christian leaders in our age most need to answer.

Simply to reassert the centrality of Jesus in shaping the church’s ethics and epistemology misses the critical questions of how Jesus got decentered in the first place, of how we would know if/when Jesus truly were the center, and of how to go about recentering him.

I know that in the history of my own tradition (Anglicanism) there were leaders and theologians who gave theological justification for the marginalization and dehumanization of black Africans in the most pious, Jesus-centric of ways. We could quibble and say they weren’t really grounding their ethic in Jesus, but that’s exactly the point, who gets to define when theology is really grounded in Christ and how do we discern when it’s not, without first reckoning with power?

Have Power Dynamics Already Jumped the Shark?

It’s possible to ask power dynamics to bear more weight than it actually can, as Packiam rightly points out. But for Christian leaders in North America, I’m not convinced that we have yet put enough weight into how power determines the way we do theology and lead communities, especially in relation to the bodies we have historically marginalized. We haven’t spent enough time reckoning with what Jesus means when he proclaims to his disciples that we “do not lord it over others like the Gentiles do” before we speak and lead. We haven’t spent enough time reckoning with what Jesus means when he proclaims to his disciples that we “do not lord it over others like the Gentiles do” before we speak and lead. Click To Tweet

We do need a way of faithfulness. We need a way that orients us toward the new humanity in Jesus Christ into which God is shaping all people, rather than deeper into reductionistic and antagonistic accounts of human relations.

Reckoning with power isn’t the only thing to do, but I’ve found that it is central and necessary for understanding how Jesus got decentered in our age, for disentangling discourse from the sinful forces that keep Jesus decentered, and for moving forward without perpetuating the original problems.

Packiam says, “it is not enough to simply say that [theology] emerged from a marginalized people’s reading of Scripture.”

I genuinely wonder, are there serious scholars or practitioners seeking to do contextual theology who actually think this way? Who has so reckoned with the power dynamics in their context that the reckoning itself negated a journey toward faithfulness? What marginalized voice has been given so much prominence that it negated a journey toward faithfulness?

It’s easy to find lowest-common denominator examples. We could do that by spending five minutes on Twitter. The critical question is if those examples are indicative of what is actually happening in the places that matter most. I’m genuinely curious if we’re just feeling a vague sense of anxiety that accompanies the loss of our dominant frame, or something more.

Even if those examples have substantive effects, we do well to acknowledge there could be better ways of appropriating power dynamics without dismissing them or making them incidental to the main task of faithfulness.

The good news is that we are not left with the false choice between allowing our theological discourse to descend into an ideological knife on the one hand, or seeking to reclaim a position of authority “from on high” on the other.

Perhaps we’ve put too much weight in the wrong places, i.e. the wrong *kind* of attention to power but not necessarily an inappropriate *degree* of attention. That nuance gets us closer to more interesting questions, but this is the kind of nuance that I worry gets obscured in Packiam’s account.

We may need better ways of reckoning with how power shapes us, but I’m convinced that we are just beginning to allow the question of power to detoxify and rebaptize our imaginations. We may need better ways of reckoning with how power shapes us, but I’m convinced that we are just beginning to allow the question of power to detoxify and rebaptize our imaginations. Click To Tweet

A Concrete Example: Segregated Churches

Consider, for instance, the well-documented reality that churches continue to be more segregated than even the segregated neighborhoods they inhabit (Footnote: Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith, and Valerie Cooper’s forthcoming Segregated Sundays). As a leader, I stare that problem in the face every week. What’s the faithful thing to do?

Is it inappropriate for me to reckon with how I understand and preach Scripture from within the matrix of my social location as a white man? At what point do I bring into focus how my ignorance about privilege, how my conditioned strategies for solving problems, or how my daily habit of visiting hipster coffee shops in gentrified neighborhoods can all perpetuate the problem? A problem grounded in a history of broken power dynamics that has disfigured the very logic of how we inhabit our neighborhoods?

Packiam implies that once power dynamics are invoked, the slope gets slippery into reductionist accounts that “swallow ethics and epistemology.” It’s not as important whether our theological reasoning reflects the voice of white European colonists, enslaved black communities in the antebellum south, or Latin American base communities from El Salvador. What’s important is accessing a universal account of “faithful theology” prior to questions of social location.

If I set aside my social location and the complex history of power dynamics in pursuit of a universal account of faithfulness, do I not risk reproducing the conditions that created segregation in the first place?

If I sit with others around a table to discern what faithful theology and ministry looks like in a segregated reality, without giving special attention to the particularities of our voice and whether that voice historically has had a place to speak, then who gets to set the agenda for what counts as a faithful response to segregation? How do we even determine who sits around the table?

Together Toward the New Humanity

Again, I think Packiam and I are aimed in the same direction (a christologically grounded vision for power, ethics, and epistemology), but the way we get there matters. Tending to power dynamics as a central issue does not inherently collapse theology into context, but rather is an important way we can seek to do theology and leadership in a meaningfully contextual way.

For both those with and without social and institutional power, reckoning with our social location, the history of where we are, how we got there, and what keeps us there, is the place from which we can pursue the New Humanity in Jesus Christ, which God is calling us into together.

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