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The Politics of Scripture

The Power You Have

Our problem is neither that we have power nor that we lack power. Many factors outside our control determine how much power we actually have. Our problem is that we fail to recognize the power we do have so that we can steward it well.

You are powerful.

I still remember the cover story of Christianity Today from October 2013. It was about power. Andy Crouch’s basic thesis was that if we fail to recognize the power we have, we become dangerous because we evade accountability.  It made me squirm. In the first place, I didn’t feel powerful. True, I was raised in a white, middle-class home and had attended private school. But growing up I also wore hand-me-down clothes, qualified for need-based scholarships and food bank assistance, and watched as the IRS seized my dad’s truck. When I read Crouch’s article on power, I was a doctoral student. I spent my days reading and writing what other people told me to read and write. I had small children at home who themselves wore hand-me-downs and qualified for free lunch. I was not well networked. We did not even own our own home.

Since then, I’ve come to see the truth of that article. I had more privilege than I realized. We all have power in some form or another. Our voices impact those around us. No matter how small our sphere of influence, when we speak, someone is listening. If we fail to realize this, we miss the work to which God has called us.

This week, the Revised Common Lectionary strings together several passages about power.

  • Psalm 26 demonstrates that our trust in God is meant to express itself in actual practices that set us apart from politics-as-usual.
  • Psalm 8 reflects on humans’ exalted status over creation and our responsibility to rule.
  • Hebrews 1–2 points to Jesus as the ideal embodiment of that human vocation.
  • Genesis 2 illustrates the essential nature of the partnership between men and women to accomplish our God-given task.
  • Mark 10 warns us not to take that partnership lightly.

The list of qualifications in Psalm 26 is fascinating. The psalmist prays for vindication. Apparently, he is being wrongly accused and needs God to set the record straight. He asks God to test him and examine heart and mind. But he’s not asking for God to audit his doctrinal commitments. He doesn’t claim to know everything. His defense relies on what he has done and not done—it is immensely practical, and (dare we say?) political.

I do not sit with the worthless,
Nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
And will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence . . .

Psalm 26:4–6a

It may seem obvious not to hang out with the wicked. Who would even want to do that? But in the world of politics, wickedness dresses up as “expedience” and hypocrites are everywhere. I’ve lost count of the number of leaders during this pandemic who gave press conferences urging (requiring!) people to cancel gatherings and stay home, but within days were caught vacationing overseas or gathering with colleagues for meals. Many leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that they don’t believe the rules apply to them.

Sometimes hypocrisy is subtler. Organizations that parade people of color in their glossy brochures and websites are sometimes very difficult places for minorities to inhabit because their voices are not valued. Token representation can mask the underlying issues that prevent more robust forms of kingdom diversity.

Do we actually hate the company of evildoers—those who employ power to their own ends? Or when they occupy positions of authority, do we find it convenient to overlook their offenses so that we can try to get on their good side?

The psalmist goes on to describe these people as the “bloodthirsty . . . in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes” (verse 10). These leaders personally profit from bending the rules. Under their leadership, doing the right thing gives way to paying the right price. Anyone who gets in their way can be eliminated.

It seems so obvious that we should not become like this, but we can so easily inch our way in that direction little by little.

I’ve long been baffled by the complicity of German Christians with the Nazi regime. How could so many believers in Jesus fail to oppose the devaluation of others and even genocide? Many chose not to see. They refused to believe the devastating truth about the policies of their country’s leaders. Others saw the truth but became calloused. They allowed themselves to believe that Jews were inferior and that they weakened the nation. Others were horrified by what was happening but were committed to their own preservation. Speaking up was dangerous. Silence was a matter of survival.

And as they say, bad things happen when good people do nothing. Most of a generation of German Christians did nothing (there were exceptions, of course—people who paid the price for their resistance). How do we ensure that we do not ignore the plight of the oppressed? What power do we have that we have not yet recognized? How do we wield it for good?

The following questions may help shine a light on the influence you have but perhaps have not recognized. Consider the ways that you are in a position to make a difference.

Are you part of a team that’s brainstorming who to invite to speak at an event?
Do you plan the sermon series or chose the music for your church?
Do you carry out essential tasks such as set up or clean up?
Do others ask you to contribute more than you’re able?
Are you in a position to recommend someone else?
Do you make decisions about how to allocate funds?
Do you manufacture products that other people use?
Do people ask you for book recommendations?
Do you order supplies that other people use?
Do people follow you on social media?
Do you prepare food for others?
Are you holding a microphone?
Are you a parent, aunt, or uncle?
Do you set policies?
Do you vote?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you are in a position to make a difference. You have some measure of power. Are you mindful of it? Do you exercise it in ways that lead to the flourishing of others and of creation?

What practical steps are you taking to ensure that those in your home or place of work have access to sustainable resources? How are you exercising your influence on behalf of the marginalized? Whose voices are you centering?

It may seem like my message is only for those like me who have grown up with privilege, but I’m envisioning a much wider field. Dennis Edwards’ recent book Might from the Margins highlights “the power that apparently powerless people possess.” He calls for marginalized Christians to unite and use their voices for change, not waiting for permission from white leaders to do so. His book cultivates hope rooted in the gospel and points to the empowering presence of the Spirit to turn the tables on injustice.

Whether you were born with a golden spoon in your mouth or eeked out a childhood on the edge of survival, you and I both have at least some power.  When we see ourselves as merely “doing what we’re told” or “going with the flow,” we abdicate our God-given responsibility to thoughtful stewardship.

I’ve recently moved to Southern California and made the requisite pilgrimage to Disneyland. The story of the Little Mermaid illustrates what’s at stake when we fail to recognize our power. Ariel is born the daughter of the sea king. She is a princess destined for greatness, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities. However, her fascination with humans compels her to give up all she has—her community, her body, her freedom, even her voice—in order to become one of us. She surrenders her voice to the sea witch, Ursula, who grows ever fatter on the backs of the “poor unfortunate souls” who seek her help. In the end, Ariel discovers that her own father had all the power she needed at his disposal to make her human, but she sought that power outside her own community and in the process lost what defined her.

In our efforts to fit in, sometimes we give up our voice.

In his cover story on power back in 2013, Andy Crouch called for a new conversation on power. And while these past eight years have drawn more attention to power dynamics in the church and the potential for abusive leadership, Crouch’s exhortation still strikes me as fresh:

. . . power is a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve. Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself. Power’s right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick, and the dispossessed. Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.

Andy Crouch

Christ was invested with great power—made the “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2), “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3), “crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:9)—but Christ wielded that power on behalf of everyone else. He tasted death for our sake (Hebrews 2:9). He perfected us through his sufferings (Hebrews 2:10). Christ is our model for the benevolent use of power.

Our problem is neither that we have power nor that we lack power. Many factors outside our control determine how much power we actually have. Our problem is that we fail to recognize the power we do have so that we can steward it well. We fail to take responsibility when we see ourselves as pawns in someone else’s game.

I have been slow to recognize my privilege and the power it has afforded me. It’s more obvious to me now than it was in grad school. May you and I take seriously the influence we have, and may we steward it well on behalf of others.

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