by Mike Long.
Issues of power are central to the pursuit of justice and a theological appraisal must be cognisant of the ambiguity it provokes in theological reflection, as well as – critically – its impact.
Power takes many forms. It is more than simply the capacity to change things in accordance with one’s will. It is also the capacity to resist change, and the ability to influence people and shape events; it is formal and informal, located in particular positions, roles, and structures; it is the property of individual people due to their own innate skill, personality or position. There is physical and financial, intellectual and informational, cultural and charismatic power. Power enables every form of enterprise and organisation but it can be highly destructive.
There are distinct strands in the biblical approach to power. There is the supremacy of divine power: to create life or destroy enemies, to redeem Israel from Egypt and defend them from adversaries. Here power is used to further God’s purposes, though sometimes this is seen in scalar terms – God is more powerful than other gods (cf Elijah and the prophets of Baal). The ‘right hand of God’ remains an image showing that power should be used in ways that are creative and liberating but its dynamic of domination and force reveal its inherent dangers.
Hence the caution over the potential for abuse of individual power. Israel is destined to exemplify a different type of power from alien nations, and we see divine reluctance to anoint a king over Israel until Saul’s installation. The proper use of power is exemplified in the figure of the shepherd-king, most notably in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. David is a fine example, yet his actions involving Bathsheba reveal power’s corrupting aspects.
In Jesus notions of power are radically redefined. He eschews formal power, though he does have a certain popular authority; he resists the temptations of power over others, trusting instead in the power of divine love; he inverts conventional expressions of power by healing people on the Sabbath; and a man excluded from the community due to demon possession. Jesus enables marginalised voices and experiences to be heard and validated. He melts into the crowd, rejects ways of domination in favour of mutual service and he forbade his followers to have titles. Jesus’ trial contrasts his lack of physical power with that of the Roman and religious authorities, and his passion and death exemplify a model whereby his power in powerlessness becomes liberating rather than oppressive.
Further, there is the Pauline notion of the world held ransom to the ‘principalities and powers’. These can be positive or negative, but all require redemption. Today we might think of structures of injustice, or the damaging asymmetry between those with power and those with less or none. The prevailing spirituality of these powers, their ethos and culture have a character that is quite different from the simple amalgamation of its constituent elements. As such the Christian response needs to be more than individual engagement but a collective one, and which may be at variance with those that individual ethics might advocate. The Christian approach to power is deeply counter-cultural and may appear quite foolish in the eyes of the world.
The Church has, for much of its history, exercised very considerable power in the world. In doing so it has not been immune to abusive practices, even in the present day, and perhaps especially when that power is not recognised or named. Methodists have been particularly wary of power vested in any single individual. One product of this hesitancy has been its dispersion into more collective forms, but it can mean that the locations are power are less easy to identify. The willingness and ability to recognise the dynamic of power is vital.
Power, like wealth, is a commodity with huge potential for good hence the powerful have a greater responsibility for ensuring just outcomes. But precisely because power has such capacity it is prone to becoming idolatrised, fetishized, and distorting the vision of those who possess it. Those with power are particularly vulnerable to its corruptions and weak accountability exacerbates this tendency. Yet power must not be abdicated through a reluctance to accept responsibility. Its avoidance – timidity or sloth – is just as much sin as its improper use. Humility and conscientization are required for the proper dispensation of power. The antidote to the misuse of legitimate power is accountability, its remedy for unjust systems is structural, political and economic change.
The Christian use of power is the same as for the stewardship of all gifts, but the warning signs are written in capital letters. Christian approaches to power need to be cautious in application, mindful that power corrupts, and therefore vigilant to the danger of abuse. Power – as rightful authority coupled with capability – is to be used to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Christian power is not coercive; it enables and is motivated by love.
The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project. Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/
 Hannah Arendt (Power and Violence, p.45) states that power corresponds to the ability not only to perform individual tasks but to work collectively.
 1 Kings 18: 20-40
 eg Jeremiah 23: 1-4
 Ezekiel 34
 Luke 4: 1-13
 Luke 6: 6-11; 13: 10-17; John 5: 1-16
 Mark 5: 1-20
 John 4: 5-42
 Luke 4: 30, John 6: 15, 7: 40-46; 10: 39
 Mark 9: 33-35; 10: 35-45, Luke 14: 7-14, 22: 24-27
 Luke 23: 8-10
 1 Corinthians 1: 25
One thought on “Christian Power”
I am still left with the question of what Paul meant by the “power of powerlessness” and “the weakness of God that is stronger than human strength”. Is he suggesting that in the long run Christ will be victorious because lurking beneath the powerlessness is a greater power? This would mean that the weakness and powerlessness is a strategy, a long term economy, that will later reveal the real power? My suspicion is that the weakness and powerlessness of God in Christ is not a strategy or a pretence, but descriptive of the nature of love. Love, real love, does not mean power over others. And this applies to God because God actually is that radical amazing unconditional, inclusive and non-judgemental love. Love that has nothing to do with power.