all roads lead to power.

misused power has a mean daughter

I don’t usually wake up thinking of the word “power”, but I do often wake up thinking about:

My friends living on the fringe.

Those who are trying to leave or heal from abusive relationships.

People I know from all over the place who are healing from “church”.

The realities of mental illness.

The women I intersect with who are meant to lead in church but probably never will have a chance.

How to keep The Refuge alive financially.

Rising violence in the world and how powerless I and so many others around me feel to do anything about it.

The deep divide between “us and them” in too many contexts to count.

Coffee, what I’m going to wear, and the long, crazy list of things I have to do that day.

There’s one common thread that runs through each of these things (except the last one)–power.

My loose working definition of power is “resources, value, voice, and leadership.” I’ve already written a lot about power over time–three words about it, that it’s not like pie, that it’s worth re-thinking, that we know how to live under or over each other but not alongside. I’ve talked about good power & how part of our role as Christ-followers is to pass it on and diffuse it, but that usually works better in theory than practice.

The reason I wanted to write about it yet again is that I think it’s an often-missing-yet-crucial ingredient in so many of these blog-church-faith-life-theology conversations. And it’s maybe the most important to have because all destructive roads lead to it.

Misused power and control go hand in hand.

Misused power and unbalanced resources are tied together.

Misused power and violence can’t be separated.

I was reminded of Augustine’s famous quote this week at a meeting: Hope has two beautiful daughters–Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and Courage to see that they don’t remain as they are.

I love this thought, but we could re-write a much darker version centered on power: Misused power has a mean daughter and a cruel son–Control and Division. Control to keep people underneath and division to keep them weak.

In the gospels, Jesus wasn’t just railing on religion. He was calling out misused power, not only with “You’ve got it all wrong.” He also offered a better way. The Beatitudes and the way of the cross are good, solid starts.

It makes me think of what Henri Nouwen says in The Name of Jesus, his book on Leadership: ” What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

Because theoretical rambling about power isn’t that helpful, I thought I’d share some off-the-top-of-my-head ways we can address issues of power more openly and seek God’s help for healing its dark side so its light and good can be illuminated.

Remember, power isn’t bad. It’s just so often misused.

So here they are, 5 possible ways to address issues of power:

  1. Create safe spaces to talk about it openly. It’s underneath everything, the root of racism and sexism and classism and dysfunctional relationships and the human condition, yet we so often want to avoid it. Wednesday night at our House of Refuge we used our time to talk about race, and it was awkward and hard but I was glad we at least tried in our feeble way to talk about it instead of ignore it.
  1. Recognize our own power and privilege if we have it. When we minimize it or pretend we don’t want it or don’t have it, it isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s damaging. We need to own our white privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, economic privilege more honestly.
  1. Listen, listen, and listen some more to those who are on the underside of power. The only way to do that is to be friends with people who don’t have it. We need to hear from those whose resources, value, voice, and leadership have been diminished, silenced, squelched through culture and systems. They need to be heard and asked questions that help us better understand: “What does it feel like for you? What’s your story? Your family’s story? What makes you angry? What has hurt you? What helps?
  1. Be honest about our fears of losing it (if we have it). It is vulnerable to lose power or not have it in the way we did. Power can protect and separate us, so the reality is that when we give it up, we are far more human, far more vulnerable, far more weak-in-the-world’s-eyes. That’s worth reckoning with not only individually but as systems. Unhealthy systems are so afraid of losing power.
  1. Take out the shame of talking about it because it’s just…real. I sometimes feel guilty always bringing it up, worried that people will misperceive me as power-hungry or a whole host of other things that are confusing about talking about it as a Christian. But I think that’s part of the problem–we haven’t talked about, we haven’t addressed it, we haven’t been honest about it. And that is why our systems are so jacked up. The one place on earth that is supposed to be one of the healthiest, least-power-imbalanced, has become one of the worst.

What would you add?

I’d love to create new paths that lead to healthy power.

New ways of talking about it.

New ways of reframing it (come to the Denver Faith and Justice Conference!).

New ways of diffusing it so it multiplies.

New ways of leading and shifting it so that dignity can be restored, relationships can be free, and systems can be living, thriving reflections of the Kingdom of God in all kinds of beautiful ways.

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.

16 Comments

  • Great post, Kathy. (BTW, glad you went to using caps… easier for me to read, tho I was a “could go either way” voter.)

    I think you are an “intellectual” or a “deep thinker”, tho a very balanced one, so you don’t tend to sound “intellectual”. I’m not just “buttering you up” with this, I’m going somewhere. In the post, you push to the core on various points. Perhaps MOST to the core is citing Jesus on abuse of power and the alternatives in the Beatitudes and the cross… powerful symbols and teaching particularly for Christians and Christian communities but also more broadly. Love IS power. But applying love well takes both control of one’s ego and insight, wisdom (being somewhat “intellectual”). So…

    Next step in my progression, a question: Does The Refuge include any or many intellectuals (broadly defined as eager, widely exploring college or grad students or others, perhaps much older, who “work” at their learning and thinking)? I’ve just been reading how Josephus (late 1st century), in “defending” Judaism, emphasized it as a leading “philosophy”. Luke, in Acts, does similarly for Christianity, if not in that exact language. (As an aside, Luke seems to have patterned his work in several ways after Josephus and very likely used him as a source… not widely acknowledged.) By working both the “supernatural” (Resurrection, miracles, gift[s] of the Spirit) and the “natural” (best philosophy) angles, with an emphasis on unity (tho often misleading), Luke became probably the most influential “historian” of the last two millennia (as an “intellectual” of sorts, btw).

    Back from that bit of digression: I don’t know a lot about The Refuge. But it, and rare churches like it, seem like a great place to intentionally attract and “grow” intellectually-oriented people. Generally, doing this has been the realm of certain mainline churches such as Episcopal, PCUSA and some Congregational. They do it as much via tradition and growing up “within” a church as by drawing people in (and numbers are dropping)…. The Evangelical tradition is well-documented as being non-intellectual and generally a movement of lower educated people (with exceptions, of course). I see the “Emerging” movement as more intellectual (maybe The Refuge stands generally within this movement, if not officially or purposely so).

    Anyway, whether the answer is “yes” or “no” re. The Refuge, I’m hoping you have and might further consider seeking to draw in intellectually-oriented people, and to stimulate current members that direction a bit. Not to become merely a kind of “think tank” but to do one thing I believe churches should be doing all the time (and not just classically “liberal” ones): challenging both democracy “members” (voters, etc.) and political leaders (plus government workers) to properly use power. Also, to learn and educate about HOW the “systems of this world” work so as to constantly keep “secular” leaders as well as religious ones somewhat in check and moving to at least slightly more “loving” and positively using of their power.

    I’m working on one small aspect of this myself, btw… and will be keeping in touch as it develops, and with what I observe and learn.

    Reply
    • always good to hear from you, howard and the intellectual part made me smile, because i am soooo not there in the typical sense 🙂 i’m the practical one. and i’m so glad you connected with sage. my hope is that we keep finding ways to talk about power and shift our systems so they are more reflective of the kingdom of God. i look forward to the day when you come visit us.

      Reply
  • We have to stop dangling ‘power’ as a reward. I’ve been told often by leaders in churches throughout my life that if I support ______ (whatever program needs support that week), the leaders see me in a pivotal role. If I don’t support _____, then I’ve learned to not expect leaders to return my calls….

    Reply
    • I was just thinking that Maggie as I read througth this blog a second time.

      What would it look like, do you think, if we substituted perfect love for what appears now as power as we chat and our conversations centred on that?

      Would that be reasonable to suggest?

      Reply
      • I do think that’s a good starting place. For me, I don’t want to be defined by my gifts/skills solely. It seems that often my only value is how a leader sees me enhancing/furthering his/her ministry. I’d love to have a leader show an interest in my passions/dreams, regardless of how I fit into his/her plans. To have a conversation like that would go far in showing me ‘perfect love’, and make me more willing to com alongside the leader’s ministry goals.

        Reply
        • Yes, this is what I am getting at.

          It seems to me that with a connection with perfect love it’s not about your gifting and furthering the leaders ministry or ministry goals primarily, but this love determining what happens with the gifting and ministry in order to serve.

          And when it comes to a leader, the best leaders being the ones perhaps where people don’t feel they are being led but served?

          Then if you are both connected then your passions / dreams are aligned with their ministry and goals all under this umbrella of this love?

          Reply
          • Yes, I definitely agree that more churches/organizations need mutual submission and working together so that one ministry doesn’t trump another’s calling/passion–especially if the ‘reward’ is position or power in the organization/ministry/church. Thanks, Adam!!

    • oh so true! thank you for sharing. this is so real. i have talked to countless people who i would say are “regular” or “considered-unpowerful-and-somehow-not-worthy” people never, ever, ever get a call back from their pastors but someone who golfs with them, gives extra $ to the church, or has influence, trust me, they are not only not ignored, they are pursued. power begets power.

      Reply
  • I like that Nouwen quote. And I agree with you that unhealthy systems are so afraid of losing power. I sometimes tell people “When X takes over, I’ll be among friends. You’ll be fertilizer.” Those who are part of unhealthy systems don’t like it when I say that. Other people laugh.

    In years past, the X in my saying was often LGBTQs. Now that the tide has turned on gay marriage and acceptance of LGBTQs by many in our culture, those who have been much less than kind and loving as part of certain unhealthy systems understand that they are losing power, and as a result fear that public opinion is turning against them. Rather than be in control, they fear they will become the ones being persecuted. Of course they are afraid of losing power.

    Reply
  • I would add “Find ways to give up your power”.

    Give up your resources. Time. Money. Talents.

    Give up your voice. Invite the “other” to speak. Listen. Learn.

    Give up your leadership. Serve. Follow.

    Give up your privilege. Commend the “other” to their peers and superiors. Voice praise, Appreciate. Include.

    I find it easy to think of ways to relinquish the powers I have. I find it much more difficult to actually act on them.

    Reply
  • Hello Kathy,

    I know I mentioned that I wouldn’t be commenting more on here but I thought I would come back after a sabbatical. Is that OK?

    that is an interesting quote about power and the more “difficult” thing being to love. However love, like forgiveness can be difficult but it is more difficult to live with the consequences of preferring power misused over love. I accept that the temptation to power is reality and my appear to be more appealing at times. It’s a battle.

    I’ve just finished reading a book which I would commend “Look me in the Eye” by Caryl Wyatt which covers her experience with domestic violence. Change for the better happened for her when she came to the awareness that there was two parts to victimhood – having been a victim and the other side of feeling superior to others in her victim status. while at the same time falsely believing she was powerless to do anything about it. A turning point for her came in therapy where she became aware that in her passive-agressive conduct, she had become as abusive as those she accused of abuse.Then she learned of forgiveness as “the ultimate healing act… and everything to do with my own empowerment”.

    Focusing on power will always result in power struggles. There is so much fear and retribution around in American society and often choices and perceptions are formed by such. No real security will ever be found in this. What Caryl Wyatt shred is that in here suffering what she realised was that it was necessary for her to connect with God in learning to surrender. Only then was she able to connect with perfect love that casts out fear and with real power and sound mind.

    There are extremists on both sides of any kind of “misused power” they
    hate each other and don’t care about who gets wounded in the cross fire.
    The will either play the “victim” and use that to manipulate orto use the power they have to intimidate rather than to serve and edify.

    Deep inside is a prisim of light within everyone. It is the responsibility of every individual to discover that and shine.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *