On Power Part One: I’m Not Going To Use It

Edward Vaughan - 28 July 2021

A woman walks into her local medical practice and sits in the waiting room while she waits for her appointment with the doctor. She picks up her phone and idly scrolls through a social media app when she looks up to scan the other patients in the room. Her eyes glance over her fellow patients, who look, truth be told, unremarkable.

Then her gaze locks onto a man sitting directly across from her. He is large and imposing. She notices that on his lap he has a gun. Somehow, she feels sure it’s loaded. He smiles at her and says, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to use it.’

This strange parable is about power. A normal, even banal, moment is transformed into something much more sinister when someone else in the room wields substantial power in the form of a gun.

The random nature of the encounter only serves to make it more threatening. Who is this man? Why does he have a gun on his lap in a doctor’s surgery? And even being assured that he doesn’t intend to use it only makes the situation more intimidating. If he doesn’t mean to use it, why does he have it? (Yes, why indeed? Do we ever find out?)

Welcome to the issue of power. As I write this, power has become the number one issue in Australian society. Specifically, regarding gender, power and violence have become headline news, especially the way they play out within the halls of our Parliament. We are horrified and scandalised by the way some men are treating women; it’s no wonder many are erupting into angry social media posts, protests, and marches.

As a result, we (Men?) are being challenged to think about the issue of power in new ways. In the Christian world, this process of reflection was turbo charged as a result of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The fraught issue of power in Christian communities, and especially the power of clergy and church workers has come to the fore.

The issue of clerical power comes up constantly for me in my work with church workers in Pastoral Supervision. I am frequently disturbed when I listen to how poorly thought-out ministers are about their own power, and how unreflective they are about how they might wield it.

Clergy often feel weak, especially when many in their congregation challenge them, and they feel unable to bring about change within the church system. Yet clergy have massive power in their communities, especially within some denominations. The irony is that even people we see as very powerful don’t always see themselves that way. In fact, they want more power, because they often feel blocked from achieving their goals.

The point is not that we can (or should) attempt to eradicate power from our church systems. It simply is not possible to do so, in churches or in any other context. We can’t remove power or make it magically disappear. Some people are physically stronger than others. Some people have authority to make decisions that affect other people’s lives. Some people know more than others or have access to more resources. Nothing we can do can make power go away. Power differentials are always with us.

Power is not a bad thing, in and of itself. Power at one level is the ability to do something. When used to bless and serve others, it is a virtue. It becomes dangerous and terrifying when it is used to exploit or to do violence to another.

Martin Luther King said power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

Jesus’ model of power is deeply paradoxical. He does not consider equality with God something to be grasped. He does not snatch the kingdom or beat his fists and demand the recognition and love of the Father. He empties his hands and becomes a servant.

Yet even as a servant, he does not deny his power. Jesus does not walk into a room with a dead child on a bed and say, ‘Oh dear, how terrible! But what could I possibly do about this?’. No, he says, ‘Get up little child and walk’. He uses his power . . . for good.

The journey Jesus goes on is not from power to uselessness. It is from power to service. Jesus doesn’t stop being powerful, though his humanity does place limits on him. He goes on the journey to use his power to bring blessings to others. That journey ultimately takes him to the cross and beyond to sitting in glory at the right hand of his Father.

As someone who seeks to live as a follower of Jesus, I feel the confronting nature of this. I feel the call to use my power to bless others, to redress wrongs and to help bring in the kingdom of God. At the same time, I am suspicious of myself. I know my own heart, my own history and my own dark motives. To be frank, I don’t think I have always used my own power well.

The powerful will always be among us, as will the powerless. Some of us clearly fall into the first category (and know it), while others feel they have nothing to contribute. The challenge for the Church is to be thoughtful and Christ centred in what we do with power. In Part Two we will explore more about the power dynamics of the community of believers.

Edward Vaughan