re-thinking power

power-heartthe old saying “money is the root of all evil” isn’t really that accurate.  we all know there’s something underneath money that is far more insidious–power.  i think about power a lot for all kinds of reasons. my free-fall out of the power-laden mega church i was part of probably was the icing on the cake, but i had been wrestling with issues of power long before then. my husband is hispanic and i have seen first-hand what white privilege looks like & how it affects his family & their friends. i have unfortunately also seen up-close-and-personal the dominance of men not only in the church but in abusive relationships where women “have their place” and lack value & voice & dignity. i have seen who gets promoted & who doesn’t.  my mom was a struggling single mom for many years & i experienced what it was like to claw and fight to pay the bills and keep the lights turned on while other people never thought twice about it.  i have seen what perpetrators can do to victims by abusing their power in all kinds of wicked ways.  and i have nursed many a wound of those hurt by the church & am continually disgusted by the things people do and say and get away with in the name of God.  basically, i am angry at how much misused power hurts.

power & control is in our DNA from genesis 3, and it continues to wreak havoc in our churches, homes, and world.  i honestly think we’re addicted to it, more than we think. like a moth to the flame, we are drawn to power. we tend to want more of it ourselves and are all-too-willing to bestow it on other people in all kinds of weird and bizarre ways that rob us of our God-given value, voice & influence.

i think power in the real world is a given. even though i am an idealist and wish they weren’t, i expect corporations to be power-hungry. they don’t exist to save the world, they exist to make money. i get that. the problem i have is how as christians we have unfortunately & probably inadvertently adopted the world’s ways of power into our church culture, our homes, the fabric of our lives. the upside down message of Jesus in the sermon on the mount is radically lost & basically we are sucked into the same old b.s. that the world thrives on.  last night i went to the jesus for president tour that came through denver. it was a good night, always fun to see people from around denver with belief-that-the-beatitudes-really-are-the-way-blood in their veins. i love the message that shane claiborne always carries because it reeks of Jesus’ love & hope & peace & a crazy diffusion of power.   every bit of power we get we are supposed to offer to others & use for good.  it’s that simple (and of course, easier said than done). when jim henderson came to denver last year with matt casper to promote jim & casper go to church he said something like this: “i can’t imagine God would want me to do anything else with the power that i have except give it away.”

i think what really impacted me last night is the reminder that throughout history, everyone was always looking for a king, someone to rule over them & sort of make everything right in the world. even when the israelites left egypt, it is always so interesting to me (and unfortunately terribly familiar in my own story) that they couldn’t accept their freedom & longed to go back to egypt. even though they were slaves there, they knew what to expect and it was somehow safer. for generations the israelites waited for their messiah. and did they ever get what they never expected–the long awaited king of all kings was an average guy with a crazy message that the first would be last and the last would be first and that power and religion and knowledge meant nothing in contrast to the simple & radical ways of love and generosity.  instead of powering up, he powered down to the lowest of places.  last night chris hawes, co-author of the book, said “it took 3 days for the israelites to get out of egypt, but it took a lifetime to get egypt out of them.”  the structure, the subservience, the predictability of power got into their skin. i think it got into ours, too.  we bestow so much power onto christian leaders, celebrity figures, the talented & strong, you name it, and basically keep them on a pedestal, perpetuating weird power structures because we think that is how things are supposed to work.  and we clamor for power in ways that we might not even recognize because success & importance in the world’s eyes (and for many, the “church’s” eyes) is so engrained in us as important to get.

for real change to happen in the church, our communities, the world, i believe wholeheartedly we need to rethink power.  at off the map live in seattle last year, i think it was richard twiss (don’t quote me on that) who said, “those with power never think about it & those without it think about it all the time.”  so how do we re-think power?  oh i can’t begin to touch on all the possibilities but here are a few on the tip of my tongue:

we must notice our power when we’ve got it. in the world i used to run in, i don’t think i even realized how much natural privilege i had because of my education, income, put-togetherness.  i came from a pretty poor broken family so i was determined to do whatever i could to shift that cycle (and boy did i try to do a good job of it!). now, after radical shifts in the way i live out my faith, i am struck with how many don’t have power & how much i automatically have.  socioeconomics, race, mental illness, education, gender, weird life circumstances that have kept people paralyzed all contribute to a lack of power.  please know that i don’t mean to pick on the boys intentionally (i have the utmost respect for the many humble men i am connected to & those who participate in this blog because i know the ways you are using your power to serve & honor others, it is beautiful) but i will have to say that i think a huge shift will take place in the world, in christianity, when men who have automatically held power for generations upon generations start to radically give it away in noticeable, tangible, crazily weird ways to those who have basically never ever had it before because of their race or gender or socioeconomic position.  i really believe there’s room for everyone.

we need to be careful of how much power we give to other people.  this is why i am anti-christian-hero’ish.  i am so not into the lead pastor thing where there’s a king and he uses his God-given authority and “spiritual gift of leadership” to put themselves above the masses.  i actually don’t think it’s all their fault (although i think some are pretty good at perpetuating it).   i think it’s people’s fault.  we do this to people–we give them far too much power. we make assumptions about them & fan into flame things that aren’t good for people’s souls.  i think we do a disservice to them, ourselves, by giving them (or taking for ourselves) too much authority & power.  sometimes people try to do this to me here and there, and i beg them “whatever you do, do not do not do not put me on a pedestal.  that would be a dangerous mistake, bad for your soul and mine, too.”

recognize how we perpetuate systems of power.  i also think we need to ask ourselves:  “how am i helping perpetuate systems of power where the underdog, the undervalued, the least and the last aren’t ever treated as equals in terms of leadership, value or voice?”  it is so natural to us to be part of systems where women & minorities & those with no resources are kept underneath, where the “recovery people” are in their own ministry set apart from the neat & tidies, where leaders never hang out with anyone except themselves & people like them, where lack of diversity is never questioned, where racial, sexual & gender inuendos and jokes are commonplace.  i think we’re so desensitized to it,  we don’t even notice how screwed up it really is. this isn’t just in churches, this is in the places we work, the places we give our money to.

let’s do everything we can to give it away.  as i said before, this is easier said than done. we are all hoarders at heart.  it’s so hard to let go of power and all the things that go along with it, but i think that is where the greatest spiritual transformation might take place–when instead of taking power, we give it away.  we serve instead of be served.  we offer space & voice to the typically unheard.  we bend our knee instead of expecting others to bend theirs.  we give instead of take.

if we don’t have it in the world, we have it in the kingdom.  Jesus makes this so clear.  those with nothing have the most.  our dignity and value has nothing to do with what the world says, what weird measuring stick people are measured with.  yes, it sucks to see the system work so deeply against some people but remember that in Jesus’ economy power means nothing.

reflect on how we might have hurt others with our power.  i am sure i have hurt people unintentionally, and for that i am so sorry.  i hope we can be people who are continually soft and reflective about ways we may use or have used power to damage others.  there’s so much healing that can happen when someone in power actually apologizes (if you have been hurt by power you know what a gift it would be it would be if those who did the damage actually acknowledged it. unfortunately many of us will have to live with that never happening this side of heaven).

oh i know this is way too long but actually only scratches the surface.  there’s so much that could be fleshed out in so many other ways, but i had this on my mind and thought i’d dump it out.  i know what satan intends for evil, God can use for good.  and i fully believe that as christ-followers, as human beings, we can use the power we have to influence, help, love, and serve those without it.   the world is watching.  it’s time to re-think power.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

18 Comments

  • As someone who has been damaged (but slowly recovering 😉 ) from an imbalance of power in a church, I can honestly say that I have physically felt actual pain due to spiritual abuse. There was not a way, in my opinion, when I was in the thick of an unhealthy system, to objectively see the madness until it was far too late.
    However, now coming from the other side, I feel it is a duty & more of a calling to see clearly into a system that I may have turned a blind eye to, and to call out injustice.
    YAY for fleshing out a sensitive subject, and yes to the fact that I would consider a devout apology a priceless gift. 🙂

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  • Kathy, just yesterday I was reading Len Hjalmarson’s latest post (here: http://tinyurl.com/6omh2r) and your name immediately came to mind when he was giving Alan Roxburgh’s description (from The Sky is Falling) of five different types of leaders. He said one of them was the poet and here is the description given:

    ~~~~~
    The poet helps people make sense of their experiences. The word in the prologue of John tells how Jesus “became flesh and lived among us.” In a similar way, the poet shapes words so that what was hidden and invisible becomes known. Poets remove the veil and give language to what people are experiencing. This is only possible when the poet him/herself lives within the traditions and narratives of the people – “living reflexively in the traditions…The poet listens to the rhythms and meanings occurring beneath the surface.” (164).
    ~~~~~

    Kathy, this describes you so perfectly, and this post is just another example of it. You really do “give a language to what people are experiencing.” Thanks again for putting words to what so many are walking through. You give it context and meaning, and that is so needed. Poet on, woman!

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  • Great post. Abuse of power is killing our churches. I love all 6 of your suggestions. Here is another (possibly related to your 5th suggestion): power that comes from God is the only power that really matters; power given to me by men–and not God–is just dangerous.

    Thanks for your words.

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  • AMEN! It’s so cool to hear someone else say outloud so many of the things I’ve personally struggled w/being on the other side. However, I also came from a single family home and worked so hard to escape the mentality that sprang forth in my family (your poor, why change it, stay dependant on the government, do you think you’re better? attitudes). Anyway, thank you for this post! I’m praising God for working in your heart and that you’re being obedient and not being afraid to share about your life and walk! AMEN! Talk to you soon. In HIM ~ Heather

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  • stacy – yeah, i think it’s easy to say when we are “out” and get a balanced perspective but when we are in it, it is all so distorted.

    tracy – well that is a lovely compliment. thanks my friend. it is sometimes quite vulnerable, as you know, and i wonder “why in the $&!^!()@ am i taking up time & space saying some of these things” but it seems that this is season to just let it rip and let it flow..

    blake – welcome and thanks for stopping by. i like your suggestion.

    heather – i am always glad when people feel a little less alone in the stuff they are thinking about. thanks for your encouragement

    steve – welcome! i read your post, thanks. i really liked your questions there. there’s a lot of interesting & challenging stuff out here in blogland so welcome to the conversations!

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  • Thanks once again Kathy! I sure am enjoying getting to know the bits and pieces of your journey through your blog. Someday maybe I can wander toward CO. Have a beautiful week!

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  • Hey Kathy,

    Could only read part of the post (lots to do here), but one thing I really appreciate about you is that you aren’t looking to gain power from those around you. I am prone to imbalanced relationships, and have hero-worshipped many men in the church in my past. I really appreciated what you had to say about “how much people we give to other people” and “recognizing power when we’ve got it”. I have a tendency to give power away too easily to others, and this is definitely a growth point for me. I think the refuge has been a great place so far for me to practice NOT putting others on a pedastal and really trying to have balanced relationships where I can be authentic and allow others to be authentic.

    Reply
  • Could it be that it is only now with the power of broadband that the power of male domination within the Christian world is being removed?
    Maybe it’s worth remembering that historically in Britain the inheritance went to the eldest sons. If younger sons wanted power and authority they often found it in the church.
    I find it interesting that it was in 1905 in Britain that church attendance reached it’s peak. It was in the same year that reported crime reached it’s lowest level. By this time more and more people were receiving a reasonable education and were beginning to think for themselves. But within the traditional churches in Britain even in the 1960’s we looked upon the preachers (from the pulpits) as being 6 ft above contradiction.
    Throughout the centuries empires have risen and fallen. Could it be that traditional church has served it’s purpose and is in the process of falling, just as the British Empire is dying but not quite dead?
    Tens of thousands of us are being drawn away from the churches that we may have attended for many years – and we see this as a work of the Spirit. Some like those who are involved with the ’emerging church’ scene are trying to work from within the system. Others are moving away completely and being rejected by both traditional and ’emerging’.
    Maybe we have no power – but are really beginning to understand the differences between the Christian RELIGION and the Christian FAITH – and that real life in the here and now is all about RELATIONSHIPS.

    Reply
  • He who holds the secrets and the keys – hold the power, they who administer the sacraments hold the power, they that wear the costume holds the power but that’s okay because He has chosen the weak and the foolish, lucky me!!! I fit into those parameters.

    Sarah over at Accidental Blog has been sharing similar thoughts from an historical perspective.

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  • minnowspeaks – always great to hear from you here! yeah, you are always welcome in CO so let me know if you ever decide to come out this way. it would be so great to meet & i am sure we could have some great conversation!

    lisa – i am so glad that you are noticing that pattern & experimenting with new ways of not giving other people too much power and losing yourself. i am so glad you are part of this crazy community and that it can be a place to practice!

    old pete – thanks for the great thoughts here! i do think this next generation will not tolerate what has been tolerated before (at least i hope so!) and that real life in the here and now is all about relationships, the rest is just a waste of energy & a distraction from the much more difficult thing to do–give & receive love…

    mark – here’s to weak & foolish! i will check out sarah’s stuff. thanks!

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  • “those with power never think about it & those without it think about it all the time.”

    Tom Friedman, Author of The World is Flat actually said this on a TV show I was listening to. It is a quote I often use to illustrate the difference between the haves and have nots of the power game

    Reply
  • My favorite part of S. Claiborne’s time was “we give a person a fish- and we teach them how to fish”. With your post here Kathy you add to that- “why is the fishing so poor for us in this place?”

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  • *power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely* except God He is Supreme Power and what did He choose to do with it??? Give it away in service as the lowest of the low. You hit on the truth of Gods innate goodness so strongly kathy!!! If only we could get the clue that real power is not even being aware you have it and not caring its there , because the whole point of having it is to give it away in service and love. Love your carnival kathy keep it going!!!

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  • jim – okay now i can go to the right source, thanks. it is a great one that really says it all…

    sage – i really like the points that shane & chris brought up that eve. good ones to linger…

    robert – thanks for your thoughts and your continued encouragement to let it rip!

    Reply
  • Another powerful post, Kathy.

    This is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately. Why do we seek power? What does it mean to be powerful? And can power be a good thing?

    You’ve given me much to chew on . . .

    Reply
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