Public Square

Grappling with the True Meaning of Power

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It takes power to make a difference in the world. There are at least two levels at which power can be exercised, the individual and the institutional. At the individual level, even you and I have power to make a difference in our local spheres of influence, though it may not seem like much.

In his latest work, Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch explores the dynamics of power, authority, vulnerability, and how they shape human relationships. However, it is in his previous book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, that he talks about power at the institutional level in particular.

The subject of how Christians relate to institutional power continues to be pertinent because, as American culture moves further away from what we would consider good and desirable, commentators and scholars also continue to discuss how Christians can best exert a salutary influence on the culture at large. People can attain positions of great power and influence within institutions, enabling them to affect culture on a larger scale, but should Christians aspire to such power?

James Davison Hunter, author of To Change the World, argues they should not because many Christians have a mistaken understanding of power and would thus be in no position to change the world beneficially even if they attained the requisite influence:

Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so. The reason…is that world-changing implies power and the implicit theories of power that have long guided their exercise of power are also deeply problematic…Though guided differently by powerful mythic narratives, most Christians cannot imagine power in any other way than toward what finally leads to political domination.

Basically, Christians cannot be trusted to exercise cultural power on a large scale because they have the same dangerous and faulty understanding of power as the rest of the world.

However, in Playing God, Crouch has a simple response to this argument: if Christians do not rightly understand power, then we must learn anew what power truly means so we can righteously exercise it once more, even within centers of cultural influence.

Nietzsche’s Will to Power

As Hunter and Crouch understand it, the modern conception of power is heavily derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. Specifically, Crouch locates the essence of Nietzsche’s conception of power in this excerpt from The Will to Power:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.

In other words, everyone is struggling to completely dominate everyone else, and any cooperation between people is conditional and temporary.

Hunter and Crouch suggest that Christians are prone to this kind of thinking in the context of politics. Hunter has this to say about Christians who seek to resist “the corruption of the world around them”:

Many Christians…unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.

Hunter speaks here of Christians who believe that the best (or only) way to change culture for the better is to defeat their political opponents by electing the right people and gain the power necessary to implement the changes they desire. Crouch, too, says that many Christians,

Embrace a basically Nietzschean vision in which our society is like the small Texas town in an old-fashioned Western, where the only hope for God-fearing good people is the arrival of someone who will wield decisive power to drive out the forces of disorder… In a Nietzschean world we are all reduced to waiting for Superman—or, just perhaps, acquiring enough power that we ourselves can thrust back all that resists us, achieving the domination we believe is necessary for the triumph of the good.

Their point is not (I think) that the American political process is inherently debased because it is “Nietzschean” (i.e., there must be winners and losers), but that many Christians, because they believe the most important kind of power is political, conceive of power solely in this “all or nothing” fashion – my gain is your loss, and vice-versa.

The True Meaning of Power

Over and against this “zero-sum” conception of power, Crouch proposes an alternative understanding of power rooted in Christianity:

All true being strives to create room for more being and to expend its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust back the chaos that limits true being. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending of the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on [emphasis in original].

This formulation of the nature of power is inspired by the account of creation in Genesis. God, eternal and all-powerful, created a universe made to flourish. Significantly, he also created beings in his image who are able (indeed, have a mandate) to exercise creative power just as he does.

According to Crouch, then, “Power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be.” To name just one example, antipoverty efforts fueled by the resources of poor people themselves (rather than foreign aid) are empowering. Where the Nietzschean conception of power says, “One of us must fall,” the Christian conception of power says, “Together we can rise.”

Power Redeemed

Sadly, it is also true that the Fall has resulted in countless abuses of power and, as Hunter and Crouch note, the corruption of the meaning of power. Where they differ is on what our response should be.

Hunter acknowledges that “power…is inescapable,” but he nonetheless warns against Christians’ exercise of power in centers of cultural influence, lest they succumb to the temptation to “act in a way that is elitist” or “misuse their position to exclude others for the sake of exclusion or to protect their own power and vested interests.” Rather, he suggests Christians focus on exercising their “relational power” with the people around them, part of his strategy of faithful presence.

Crouch would doubtless agree that Christians should be faithfully present to those around them, but he also believes they can exercise power for good within institutions, even if there are potential dangers. His primary case in point is the International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian nonprofit that “protects the poor from violence in the developing world” (e.g., slavery, sex trafficking).

IJM has helped thousands of individuals, but its work goes beyond that – in their own words, “We always work in collaboration with local governments and communities – that’s how lasting change happens.” As Crouch says, “What is striking about IJM’s response to…institutionalized patterns of injustice is how institutional it is in turn.” This approach has proven successful, and it shows how Christians can be in the world, yet not of the world, while loving the world.

We should never forget Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt. And yet, power redeemed can foster life and flourishing if we remember its true end as God intended it – to create room for more being, motivated by love overflowing.

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  • Pete Smith

    Interesting discussion. A couple of comments. At the end the author states “We should never forget Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt.” My late Political Science professor at Geneva College would strongly disagree. Corruption is already in the heart of persons because of the fall. Power does not corrupt, rather it gives opportunity for that corruption to run amok. Useful case studies from the Scriptures regarding the use of power would be Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel. Each found himself or herself caught up in pagan institutions and yet they wielded great influence for the benefit of the Jewish people. I imagine God has his people strategically positioned in halls of power all around the world where these servants quietly exert influence for the kingdom of God.

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