I’m still reflecting on the emerging church conversations that I’ve been having, and it’s making me think more about the issue of power. It’s a complex concept, for sure. That’s why blogs are so handy. They are wonderful workshops to pound out thought–match the plywood, bang in the nails, and get input on these half-constructed ideas. The edges are rough. Nothing’s sanded down or stained. It’s all very raw.
So here are this morning’s half-constructed reflections on power. I’ve read more Michel Foucault than could possibly be good for a person, but I’m going to move the idea from the philosophical to the personal, and make broad, sweeping generalizations that could be easily dismantled.
As followers of Jesus, power can be defined as the ability to produce an intended result. In the case of Jesus, we know that
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
I’m a fan of Abelard (we named our cat after him. God save us from our geekiness.), so I would say that in the act of emptying, in taking human form, Jesus teaches us how to be fully human. Salvation occurs as Jesus is our moral exemplar. The intended result of salvation occurs through incarnation, the emptying, through Jesus humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death. So even in this act of greatest humility, Jesus is powerful. He overcomes the potency of sin and death.
John the Baptist makes the way for Jesus, saying that someone more powerful will be coming. Jesus’ influence grows as he walks the dusty roads, and his followers cling to his every word. For three years, the news of Jesus spreads because he’s a man who performs deeds of power: turning water into wine, healing the man with the withered hand, cursing the fig tree, overturning tables in the temple. He even feels power leaving his body, as the bleeding woman touches the hem of his garment.
In our churches, power dynamics exist. I can walk into a meeting, and after a few moments, draw a totem pole of influence within that body. There’s no getting away from it. It’s just there. Personal agendas are as clear is the official one. And power can be abusive–there’s also no doubt about that fact–we’ve seen that clearly. In the clergy, it can be used to seduce the vulnerable or hide sexual misconduct against children. It can be used to gain corruptible access to money. It can be used to spiritually manipulate people into a lifetime of guilt.
As much as we hate all of these abuses, power is still there. If we try to flatten out the system, pockets of influence still exist. If we dismantle all of our denominational structures, there will still be some who have more authority than others. Even in the midst of the chaos of an organic community, power persists.
And if churches have called us to be leaders, we have power. Ordained or not. Even in the church of the 21st Century. As much as we would like to ignore it or deny it, we have to acknowledge its existence, or we’ll never understand just how easily we can become enslaved to its corrupting influence over us.
If we’re in leadership positions, there is a depth of humility that we need to develop, even as we strive to become wiser with the power that God has entrusted us. In our churches, that influence can also be a means to speak for those who have no voice, to constantly uphold the broken-hearted, to cry out against the violent forces in our world, to overturn injustice and cruelty in our society. May our power be used, just as Jesus, our Liberator, used it.