This article was first delivered as a sermon at La Sierra University Church’s liturgical service on July 31, 2010.
Power. If you were to ask me what I have been thinking about for the past week, the past month, the past half a year, this would be my one-word answer. Power. What is it, who has it, and how do I get more of it? Whoever it was that said money makes the world go round needed to take it one step further. It is power that makes the world go round. And the work that I do, the organization that I work for is very clear and unapologetic in its quest. We want power.
If you are like I was six to eight months ago, you may be feeling slightly uncomfortable. You may be itching to remind me of Lord Acton’s statement that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” or if not those words exactly, the many examples of abuse of power we see around us all the time. Idealistic young leaders who become brutal dictators when given too much power. Corrupt police officers, vicious husbands, totalitarian regimes, mass murders, priests and pedophilia. All the results, you may argue, of having too much power.
And what am I thinking, in any case, to stand in a church and make such an uncomfortable statement. I say it because it is true. I want power. And I daresay that if you are honest, so do you. It could be as simple as if you have a boss at work who is making all the wrong decisions, and you wish you had a little more power and didn’t have to listen to her.
Or it could be even more of a central theme in our lives. Haven’t many of us gone to school, finished college, and/or gotten our advanced degrees so that we would have the opportunity for a career that we found fulfilling, so that we would have options? So that we would have the ability to act the way we wanted to act? So that we would have the power to choose?
And here is another truth: Those of us who have power don’t want to give it up. Think of the power dynamics in your closest relationships. Think of sitting in on a church board meeting where one brother has been part of the church for 20 years and whose family is part of the core of this church, thank you very much as the board decides on whether or not to allow drums into the sanctuary, or even what color the carpet should be. Think of our history as a society, and the countless examples of wars and massacres and machinations as the group in power attempts to hold on to whatever power they have.
I mention all this in part because this issue of power has been what’s been on my mind, but also because I hope this morning to do theology with you, and, as James H. Cone puts it in his book God of the Oppressed:
- The theologian is before all else an exegete, simultaneously of Scripture and of existence. To be an exegete of Scripture means that the theologian recognizes the Bible, the witness to God’s Word, as a primary source of theological discourse. To be an exegete of existence means that Scripture is not an abstract word, not merely a rational idea. It is God’s Word to those who are oppressed and humiliated in this world. The task of the theologian is to probe the depths of Scripture exegetically for the purpose of relating that message to human existence (pg 8).
We turn to Scripture to speak to and from our daily experience, and I am becoming more and more aware that power is the currency of those daily experiences.
I started this morning by stating bluntly, “I want power.” I said it because I think it is something that many of us here work towards acquiring in our daily lives, whether we recognize it or not. But I am not blind. The world is full of examples of the abuse of power; and also its somewhat less recognized opposite, powerlessness.
Let me take a moment to paint a slightly different picture for you. I work as a faith-based community organizer in San Bernardino, and have been for the past eight months or so. The majority of people I work with don’t spend a lot of time worrying about getting too much power, or fearing that they may abuse their power. They, for the most part, are on the other end of the spectrum, and are having to deal with the myriad effects of powerlessness. As Dennis Jacobsen says in his book Doing Justice:
- Powerlessness also corrupts. Powerlessness is also the tool of evil. The fruit of powerlessness are the loss of dignity and pride; the loss of hope, turning to drugs or alcohol or escapist religion, families in disarray, violent crimes as desperate reactions to life without the power to pursue dreams and aspirations (p 39).
I work in a community where 14% of the labor force is unemployed, and those who are employed can barely make ends meet. Where close to half a million people in the county of San Bernardino struggle with food insecurity. Where only 15% of African Americans or Latinos that do graduate from high school have completed the courses needed for college. Where a student that I work with, who has done everything right, who is excelling at school, has no clear future because they were brought into this country before they could walk or talk.
I wonder, when the faith community I work with in San Bernardino gathers to read these words from the Psalm in their mass tomorrow, how it will speak to them?
- 4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
5 They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
8 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men,
9 for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Power. The search for power, the abuse of power, the lack of power. These are our daily realities, even if often hidden and unspoken, that shape our lives and experiences.
If we are to do as Cone encourages and exegete both Scripture and existence simultaneously, let us hold our experiences in the one hand, and turn to Scripture in a little more detail with the other. If power is the currency of our daily experience, I would argue it is also a central motif in the story of God with us. The author Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
It is the power of God. The power of God. An all-powerful God, hung to death on a cross by humans. The Creator, taking on the weakness of creature. A murdered God, rising to life after three days. A God who turns our notions of who has power and who doesn’t on its head, who turns our ideas about power upside down. What, exactly, is the power of God?
Answering that question is way too big a task to tackle this morning, but I do just want to mention a couple of things. First of all, the God of Scripture is powerful. God creates, leads, saves, reconciles, incarnates Godself in human flesh, and works towards the redemption of all of creation. God is working, and we as Christians believe God will be powerful enough to transform the world in which we live to the world we hope for.
Secondly, however, is that God has something to say about these dynamics of abuse of power and powerlessness that pervades so much of our lives, consciously or unconsciously. We read this morning from the letter Paul wrote to the church in Colossae. Throughout the letter, Paul is emphatic about the powerful and salvific work God has done in Christ. The person of Christ transforms all we thought we knew, and judges much of the world as it has been. The power of God at work in Christ is different to the zero-sum game of power we play in this world, where someone always wins, and someone else always loses. A few verses before the passage we read today Paul notes in Colossians 2:9, 15
“You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority…And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
God exposes the powers and authorities of this world, makes a public spectacle of the dynamics between the have’s and the have-nots, the rule-keepers and the rule-breakers, judges them through the cross. God takes the cross, the Roman symbol of coercive power, and turns it into the Christian symbol of transformative hope.
Later in Colossians Paul continues to unpack what this means for us as the church, as a proleptic community reflecting the coming Kingdom of God. He spends some time on the tendencies of our “sinful selves,” and then says the following in Colossians 3 verse 9-11:
“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
Although Paul goes on, in the very same chapter, to re-articulate these categories, I think this verse points to something important about the coming Kingdom. Greek or Jew, slave or free, aren’t just categories, they are power dynamics. They are systems of power that exalt one group to the detriment of another. In the world, the power and comfort of those who are free depends on the powerlessness and control of those who are not. In the world, the power to declare who was part of God’s special people came with the necessary exclusion of those who were not. This systemic oppression has no place in the coming Kingdom, no place in the proleptic church, no place in our new selves.
This equality and justice is the direction we are working towards, the world we are hoping for. If we are to create the kingdom of God, to work towards this, we have to take note of the all too insidious oppressive dynamics of power abuse and powerlessness that exist in the world as it is. And we have to do something about it. I have some very specific ideas, and very specific experiences in trying to do just that, but it will have to be left for later, as I don’t have the time to do it justice now.
One final thought then. There is a type of power that is good and holy and right. Creative power, power as the ability to act, the ability to follow your hopes and dreams. The creative, redemptive, self-sharing power as expressed in Christ. It is a power we all should have access to. But I want to challenge each of us to take an honest look at ourselves, at our Adventist community, at our place in the larger society as a whole. Do we fall somewhere on this continuum between the abuse of power and powerlessness?
Are we succumbing to the sense of cynicism and despair that comes with perceived powerlessness as some within our community seek to state who we are as Adventists with evermore exclusive definitions?
On the other end, is there any way in which we are benefiting from the powerlessness of one of our brothers and sisters, or a whole community, because of what they look like or what they believe or where they were born?
My challenge is this: Think about it. Be aware of how Christ has passed judgment on both abuse of power and powerlessness; repent, and work for shared power and justice in this world.
Rochelle Webster works as a faith-based community organizer in the city of San Bernardino
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2564