How we engage with power, as followers of Jesus, will have a huge impact on our pursuit of justice.

On a really basic level, power is the ability to make a difference in the world. And that’s important. It reminds us that power is ambiguous. We can use our power to make a difference in the world that is creative and life-bringing. But we can also use our power to make a difference in the world that is destructive, coercive and violent. This can lead us, on the one hand, to affirm that power can be used for good, and on the other hand, to renounce any destructive, manipulative or coercive abuse of power. These two paradoxical sides to engaging with power – the affirmation and renunciation – are both voiced throughout the bible. If we want to think biblically about power, we need to listen to both of those voices.

Philippians 2 is a good text to ground this paradox of power. Paul writes,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Here we have a radical call to renounce coercive power in our relationships with others – to model ourselves on Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion, emptying ourselves in service of others. We might add to this tradition such passages as Jesus rebuking James and John’s ambition to sit at his side in glory (Mark 10.42-45), Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and commissioning the disciples to ‘do as I have done to you’ (John 13.1-20), as well as Jesus’ tendency, in the long-established tradition of the Old Testament prophets, to turn on it’s head a world where the powerful are on top and the weak are at the bottom.[1]

And yet, in this same passage, Paul also proclaims Jesus as the exalted Lord over all creation. The biblical authors tend to present God’s power – to create, to redeem, to triumph over evil and put to right all that is wrong – as an unambiguously good thing.

We have, therefore, this paradox of power, that comes into sharpest focus in Jesus. On the cross, Jesus subverted and negated any violent and destructive use of power by meeting it with suffering love, and yet in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power to triumph over evil and put the world to rights.[2]  Jesus models and makes possible a creative, life-giving way of engaging with power.

Andy Crouch explores this paradox particularly well. He teaches that human flourishing requires the paradoxical exercise of both power and weakness (or as he puts it, authority and vulnerability). To be truly human – to bear the image of the crucified and resurrected messiah – is to be part of a community that has the authority – the creative power – to make a difference in the world, as well as the vulnerability to be wound-able and weak.[3]

If power is the ability to make a difference in the world, then we all have power, however limited or visible it may be. This is important to acknowledge. It alerts us to the fact that even apparently benign concepts like service and sacrifice can be used manipulatively. They can be a form of destructive power in disguise. Without this dose of realism, we risk inflating paternalism, messiah complexes and egos under the camouflage of ‘service’ language. The question is not whether we have power – all of us exercise varying degrees power and privilege in our everyday lives – but rather how to best engage with that power that we have.[4] If we are to flourish as image-bearers, then rather than attempting to disguise or avoid our power, we must consider how we can live into that Christlike paradox of power and weakness, and how we can use our power in self-giving, non-violent and joyful ways that enable others to flourish, and offer a beautiful alternative to the coercion and violence of destructive power.

If human flourishing is to exercise both creative power and vulnerability, then that has huge implications for how we seek justice. It impacts how we approach development, who we choose to do life with, where we choose to live, the career paths we take, what we do with our power and privilege, and how we fight destructive power without playing by the rules of destructive power.

How we do all of that – how we live into this paradox – will be what we explore together at Re:Power on November 16th.

 

[1] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: the Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 74. Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) is the place to go if you want to explore this prophetic tradition of reversal further.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, second edition (London: SCM Press, 2003), 87. Hauerwas and the Anabaptist tradition he represents offer a very important, radical voice in the conversation about power. For Hauerwas, the task of discipleship is ‘living peaceably in a violent world’. He argues strongly that justice cannot be achieved through power and violence, and that the role of the church is not to transform the world but rather to be a sign of hope that there is an alternative to the world’s ways of war and violence and oppression. He believes that Christians cannot help but be political, but that Christian politics ‘finds the true source of power in servanthood rather than domination’; Paul freely refers to the power of the cross – whether in reference to the gospel (Rom 1.16), or the word of the cross (1 Cor 1), or the power of resurrection (Phil 3.10).

[3] Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016). Crouch uses a 2 x 2 grid to illustrate the relationship between authority and vulnerability. Far from being a liner either/or, there are four options or quadrants available: authority without vulnerability leads to exploitation, vulnerability without authority leads to suffering, and opting out of both vulnerability and authority leads to withdrawal. Flourishing, says Crouch is the top right quadrant – where we hold both authority and vulnerability.

[4] Steven Sykes, Power and Christian Theology (London: Continuum, 2006), xii