Power – is it good or bad?
Yet again in the last couple of weeks we have witnessed politicians behaving badly towards one another, using verbal insults as a way of gaining advantage or a “power over” position over the other. On the one hand we should not be surprised: our political system inherently requires an adversarial position as each party continually jostles to be the one who wins at the next election – to be the ones to hold power. It is all too easy when seeing these outcomes to shy away from using power, to see power as something that is always detrimental, its use inevitably ending up with one person or party being forced into being the victim.
However, examining the nature of power and the ways in which it is understood from a Christian perspective reveals it as a force which does not have to be abusive: rather it is both beneficial and an essential for life.
Definitions of power
The English word power comes from the latin posse – “to be able” - and has a number of meanings but chiefly refers to having the capacity to do something; to have the power to… or alternatively, having the capacity to effect change in the surrounding environment despite opposition; that is having power over someone or something. This second definition has the added necessity of a relationship between the object of power and the agent: that is, “power over” can only occur in the presence and acquiescence of a subjugated person or thing.
At its most basic level, these definitions raise an important point that power is not something that some people have and others do not: simply that those who have power can use it for good or ill, can achieve great things with it or use it to dominate and coerce. Too often the rhetoric around power slips into this mode of thinking which misses the point that it is hard to conceive of a human being who does not have the power to “do” something.
The importance and ubiquity of power is described thus;
Experiences of power and weakness and along with them the question of God, are woven into to fabric of life. Every human being, indeed every living creature, possesses and exercises power to some degree. We exercise power in everything we do, even in the smallest step we take. To be human is to have some power, to be able to do something, to reach a goal, to make a difference in the world. There is no life where there is no power. Possession and exercise of power is a necessity of life. (Migliore 2008, 3).
Despite the dictionary definitions, there are ways to conceive power being utilised in a non-coercive fashion, particular with reference to biblical witness. Examining that grand narrative in Genesis where God is seen to create the world from nothing, Rowan Williams maintains that this event or process cannot be said to demonstrate “power” since there was nothing over which God exerted power. Exploring the Jewish/Christian view of God creating the world out of nothing, Williams outlines the way in which God’s creative act is a “call” or “summons”, not an imposition of order on chaos. Hence, in his view, creation is “not an exercise of divine power” (Williams 2000, 68).
So our relationship with God and his will for us is not one of God ordering us to be so: rather we are taking on the roles which we are created for. Accepting that the creative act itself is indicative of some “potentiality or resourcefulness” of God, it is not an indication of God’s involvement in some kind of “power over” scheme.
Furthermore, this indicates God’s power in our lives operating more in line with a “power with” concept whereby our potentiality placed there by God is drawn out through our cooperation with His plans for us. A theological understanding of the power of God can lead to an even more expansive view of the ways in which power can be exercised not as an oppressing power but as a liberating one. Exploring God’s power through the lens of the Trinity, Migliore examines how the example of self-giving and other affirming love that is seen in the relationships of the triune God negates the possibility of an authoritarian, abusive, absolute power: “The power of God is a shared power, transforming power, power that makes for just and inclusive community”.
Thus for us, in our relationships with others, we are challenged to exercise power not as we see modelled by politicians and superheros, but by asking ourselves the question “is liberation happening here?”; that only when the other’s freedom is enhanced can it be judged that power is being rightly used.
I like this story from Pooh Bear where Pooh uses his bulk [power] to free up Christopher Robin from his predicament:
"Hallo, Pooh Bear. I can't get this boot on."
"That's bad," said Pooh.
"Do you think you could very kindly lean against me, 'cos I keep pulling so hard that I fall over backwards."
Pooh sat down, dug his feet into the ground, and pushed hard against Christopher Robin's back, and Christopher Robin pushed hard against his, and pulled and pulled at his boot until he had got it on.
Migliore, Daniel L. The Power of God and the Gods of Power. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Williams, Rowan. “On Being Creatures” in On Christian Theology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 63-78.