Reflections on Power and Powerlessness

Spectrum of Power

I have struggled in my own heart and mind regarding the issue of Power and Powerlessness in the Christian Life and in Ministry. I have heard so many preachers who love to talk about receiving the POWER of God (and Yes, they will emphasize the term completely out of proportion to its value, in my opinion). It does not appear to be in line with the example of Christ who served and ministered in a fairly powerless fashion (at least powerless in terms of classic human power such as economic power, military power, and political power). On the other hand, in some ways, Jesus could be describe as possessing and exhibiting great power. That leaves me challenged on both sides.

Biblical: 

  • Positively. The Bible describes us as possessing and exercising great power. Luke’s version of the Great Commission, for example, notes this, as Jesus says: I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49.
  • Negatively. The Bible also describes the weakness of the faithful, and God appears to connect more with the weak, the powerless, than with those in power. Paul in I Corinthians 1:27 states, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The epistle, and the other epistles of Paul seem to make the point that this weakness of those who follow Christ is more than a historical fact, but a state of being. As Ellicott’s commentary notes on this passage, “It has been well remarked, “the ancient Christians were, for the greater part, slaves and persons of humble rank; the whole history of the progress of the Church is in fact a gradual triumph of the unlearned over the learned, of the lowly over the great, until the emperor himself cast his crown at the foot of Christ’s cross” (Olshausen); or, as an English writer puts it, “Christianity with the irresistible might of its weakness shook the world.”

Missiological:

  • Positively.  The gospel of Christ has spread throughout the world borne on the back of political and economic power. A lot of wonderful things, such as hospitals and schools and such, have be built by missionaries coming in and exercising power.
  • Negatively. There has been a backlash to this sort of exercising of power. The connection of missions, on occasion, with colonial imperialism is still remembered by many, even where missionaries sided with the locally oppressed over the colonial oppressors. There have been calls, including by “missionary-receiving nations” to stop sending money. In many places, missionaries have assumed a position of coercive power over locals (even as acts of charity), and can create dependency. Because of this, Vulnerable Missions is becoming popularized. Truthfully, Vulnerable means functioning from a position of powerlessness— but some people are, wrongly I think, disturbed by the term “powerless.” Additionally, power encounter and emphasis on the attainment of power has borne, among other things, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” a horrible misreading to God and God’s Word.

Cultural:

  • Positively.  Many people classify cultures as fitting into a triangle of social motivators with the vertices of:   Guilt/Forgiveness, Shame/Honor, and Fear/Power. While no culture is at an absolute extreme, most tend to be closer to one vertex over the other two. I live in the Cordillera mountain range in the Philippines. While Shame/Honor is important, the driving motivator for most is Fear/Power. As such, “Power Encounter” is very important and effective as an outreach method. (I am not from a Fear/Power culture. I can intellectually acknowledge this motivation, but emotionally I cannot relate to this motivation). If God works in all cultures and has a message that meets the primary needs of those in all cultures (Forgiveness and Honor for those driven by Guilt and Shame, for examples) then it is reasonable to accept that God’s power revealed is an appropriate answer to the Fear of people.
  • Negatively.  Historically, the answers of the Gospel exist in a state of contradiction. Forgiveness from God exists for Christians who still live in a state of deserving to feel guilty (both before man and God). Honor is given by God to those who still live in a state of shame with respect to the surrounding culture. And the power of God exists while Christians still live culturally in a state of powerlessness. In other words, God’s gift takes away the need, not the condition. God takes away the need to feel guilt although we are not guilt-free. God takes away the reason to feel shame although we may may be still viewed as shameful. God takes away our need for fear, but not necessarily fearful things from our lives. Additionally, while God works within a culture, God also challenges the culture, counter-culturally. Guilt-focused societies may praise the morally perfect, but God points us toward a different goal– sinful but grateful. Shame-focused societies may praise those who are highly esteemed in society, but God challenges this by pointing people to the poor (or poor in spirit), the mournful, the little ones, that which is thought foolish, and the humble as the truly honored before God. Fear-focused societies may praise those who are seen as powerful, having control over situations and people. But again, I think that God challenges this and points people towards Jesus who was a suffering servant, lowly, and humble… A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

I think that part of the way of bringing this all together is to see power in terms of a spectrum. The spectrum at the top shows this. At one extreme, power is seen in terms of control and coercion. At the other end, it is seen in terms of ability to serve. That full range seems to be Biblical. The Greek word “dunamis” also can mean “Ability.” (Some note the connection between the word “dunamis” and “dynamite,” but the connection was in marketing. Dynamite provides no useful role in understanding the Koine Greek term “dunamis.”) In engineering, power refers to the rate of energy flow. “Energy” flow describes an essentially made up concept (that somehow manages to be useful) referring to the ability to do work. Power, then, is more tied to the ability to accomplish, than to mastery or control.

In the Luke passage, Jesus says to wait until they are clothed in power on high. One may take the “tongues of fire” on their heads as a somewhat literalistic answer to that. On the other hand, it can be seen more in terms of their sudden ability to serve God fearlessly, speaking God’s message in languages they did not know. Either interpretation seems sound, but classic human pictures of power would not be consistent with this event.

Likewise, Hebrews 11 describes doing great and mighty works through faith, yet it, equally, describes people succumbing to abuse and torture fearlessly (and in human terms, powerlessly) with those who accomplished the (“powerfully”) miraculous.

Conclusion

I am still a bit unresolved on this. The Bible says that the Jews seek a sign, while the Greeks seek wisdom. A sign often involves a visual manifestation of power. I don’t think that can be overlooked… it was a cultural need. I relate more with the Greek culture. I seek wisdom (and peace).

However, since power in and of itself is morally neutral, the exercise of power is morally ambiguous, a temptation for great evil as well as the ability to do great good.

Biblically, I believe that power is tied more to ability and servanthood than to mastery, control, and the miraculous. That is not to say that it is fully to the extreme (to the left side). But, when in doubt, Divine power is more tied to what the world sees as powerless. It seems like the church has been strongest when it has embraced its own powerlessness— fearlessly. Christian leadership is to be Servant Leadership… servant leadership not simply as a buzzword, but a lifestyle.

Because of this, the power of God as a concept should be tied to, and perhaps even be subordinate to, our call to be faithful, able, and humble servants of God.

 

Holistic Ministry and the Wrong Question

I was reading an article reviewing Christopher Wright’s book “The Mission of God.” The review was from 2012 by Trevin Wax  HERE

I thought it was a good review, but the section (particularly in the concluding remarks) I found confusing.  It seemed to agree and disagree with Wright at the same time. Wright places high value on holistic ministry. Frankly, I can’t see how one could read the Bible without seeing that acting on God’s mission is  by demonstrating love to the whole person in his or her social and physical context. This is pretty clear since:

  1. The grand narrative (eschatological history) of the Bible has “horizontal,” “vertical,” spiritual, social, and physical components. Paradise in Genesis 1, as well as restored paradise in Isaiah and Revelation have these components. As such, God’s redemptive work has these holistic components.
  2. The various “Great Commissions” are secondary applications of the Great Commandment of Christ. In fact, the John version of the Great Commission points back to serving with Christ as model. As such, any view that the obedience to the Great Commission can be done without proclamation, or without active concern for people’s social and physical context is clearly sub-Biblical.
  3. Jesus modeled holistic ministry, and the Old Testament (especially the prophets) emphasized the inadequacy of religious piety without concern for the well-being of people in the here and now.  (It may be true that Wright’s emphasis on the OT Jubilee was a bit strange, considering its lack of emphasis elsewhere in the Bible… but if I was an OT scholar, maybe I would see its emphasis appropriate.)

The point I am making here is that Missiologists have often operated on a flawed dualism. The appropriate contrast should be:

Holistic

Since Jesus ministry was holistic, not simply spiritual or social, the question for us is whether we are to do holistic ministry or less than holistic ministry. Any arguments that seek to pull the issue back to spiritual (proclamation) ministry versus social ministry is trying resurrect the Liberal/Fundamental arguments of 100 years ago, not deal realistically with God’s Word and God’s Mission.

Categorizing Missions Theology?

This is more personal reflection than heavy theology. But where should one place Missions Theology in the Taxonomy of Theologies

If one considers different types of theology, one could come up with:

  • Biblical Theology  (Theology drawn from the Bible and its context)
  • Historical Theology (Theology as it relates to the history of the church)
  • Philosophical Theology (Theology drawn more from reason or general revelation)
  • Systematic Theology (Theology that draws from the above sources and then compiles them topically and systematically)
  • Practical Theology (Theology that is draws application from systematic theology)

These all can be linked together as shown below:

Theologies

Some theologies don’t fit into this schema very well. Contextual theologies (Black, Dalit, Liberation, Feminist, Minjung, Post-colonial, etc.) don’t fit into these very well. Of course, it could be argued that all theologies are ultimately contextual, but that can be dealt with on a different occasion. Additionally, there is Pastoral Theology, which is focused more anthropologically and more tied to action reflection.

Consider the two trees below. One is a tree based on Tree of Systematic Theology… with major branches based on a way of sub-classifying.  Then look at the Tree of Pastoral Theology… with major branches that COULD correspond to the major branches of systematic theology.  <Thanks to Dr. Doug Dickens of Gardner-Webb University, for most aspects of this diagram>

Tree 2

Of course, since pastoral care is based more on action/reflection and is normally unstructured, the structure based on the tree and systematic theology is of practical value not formal analysis.

So where does Missions Theology fit in. Originally, I was told that Missions Theology is a Practical Theology. It draws from Systematic Theology and guides action. That makes sense. However, in practice, missions theology rarely does draw from the insights of systematic theology. Perhaps it should… but since it normally doesn’t, perhaps we should look elsewhere.

It could be a part of Systematic Theology.  It could be a sub-category of Systematic Theology like soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology and so forth. The problems with this are two-fold. First, missions theology rarely draws very heavily from Biblical, Historical, and Philosophical Theologies… Missions Theology certainly might gain from these theologies, but it just tend to happen that much. Second, missions theology tends to be too practical, while systematic theology categories tend to be more academic.

If one looks at missions as it is practiced, one might argue that it is commonly guided by “pragmatic theology.” This is not a category of theology, but more a category of “non-theology.” There is a tendency to base missions on the guiding principle of “If it seems to work, do it.” That may be what is done, but I am not comfortable resting here.

One might argue that Missions Theology is a Contextual theology… after all, missions theology is greatly concerned with theology as it pertains to specific contexts. Additionally, missions theology could be thought of theology as it pertains to the context of missions. However, contextual theology is generally defined differently, more to people groups and to group perspectives, not to activities that may ultimately be supracultural.

I would argue that Missions Theology should best be seen as related to Pastoral Theology. Pastoral Theology is non-systematic, and missions theology tends to have a fluid quality to it.  It tends to defy a strict systematization. Pastoral theology is religiously humanistic, understanding the person within the context of God’s overall work. Missions theology is similar— focusing on persons and people within the context of God’s overall mission.  Pastoral theology is tied to practical ministry as is missions theology. Finally, pastoral theology is based on action/reflection— and this seems to be the best way for missions theology to develop.

Does this matter? I believe so… the categorization of missions theology guides how it develops and how it is used. I believe that action/reflection makes it practical while still being truly theological and ethical.

Macquarrie and The Ambiguities of Freedom

Excerpt from “In Search of Humanity: A Theological and Philosophical Approach” by John Macquarrie. Includes portions of pages 21-23 (Crossroads, 1983).

There are many examples in history of the flight from freedom. Every dictator of whom we have heard was able to wield his dictatorial power only because his fellow citizens were on their part willing to yield their freedoms. We often talk as if all over  the world people were longing for freedom, but this is not so. The anxieties and responsibilities of freedom, at all levels from personal freedom to political freedom are no sooner understood than they are shunned. People prefer the security and mediocre contentment that come from routine patterns of existence and from following the line of least resistance. ‘People love slavery and authority,’ wrote Berdyaev. ‘The mass of mankind has no love of freedom, and is afraid of it.’

Freedom, then, whether we are thinking of its many outward manifestations or of that mysterious creativity which is at its root, is a strange contradiction. It begins as a nothing which becomes very real and precious. It is earnestly desired, and yet at the same time people shrink from it and avoid it. It is creative and life-enhancing, but it can equally well be disruptive and even destructive. It brings to those who exercise it a feeling of enlargement and exhilaration, and yet, if they pause to think for a moment and gaze into the depth of freedom, they experience anxiety. These are tensions that cannot be removed. They belong to the very essence of our human condition, as finite beings thrown into a factical existence where much has already been determined. Only God can be free from the tension, because only God would have the capacity to exercise a freedom not trammelled by external givens. …

In spite of the tensions and in spite of the threats of disruption, freedom, we believe, is worth maintaining and increasing. It is so because it is essential to the human adventure. Where freedom has disappeared, humanity too has disappeared, and the human being without freedom has been reduced a member of a herd or a machine or a plant or a stone or some other object whose nature is wholly given. Such a person ceases to be that unique being who has been told to sculpt himself from the as yet uncarved material, and to make his nature out of an as yet plastic possibility. But the invitation to embark on this adventure is fraught with danger and anxiety, and this explains why in every society so many people prefer security to freedom and unconsciously yearn for a return to the untroubled irresponsibility of the womb. …

The traditional natural theology saw the traces of God in his created works. I am suggesting that we can also see him in the work he has left unfinished, in the freedom and openness that remain. And a God who is seen in this second way is far more interesting and exciting from a human point of view. The God of natural theology and of philosophy has always been suspect among the religious, because as the First Cause or Supreme Intelligence or Great Mathematician, he seemed remote from human interest and also from the God of the Bible. His creation, however wonderful its beauty and order, could hardly be more than a glorified toy– like, say, these intricate clockwork models of the planetary system which we sometimes see in museums. …

But if we suppose that there is a breach in this structure, so that some of the creatures are not just part of nature but are themselves centres of freedom and creativity, then God’s creation could no longer be considered as, from his point of view, a toy or even a work of art. It would become a potential partner with God able to respond to him and to join with him in a continuing work of creation. Of course, since freedom is in itself neutral, the free creatures of the universe might turn against God. Man is God’s risk. But even when one allows for the risk, how much richer is a universe that can freely respond through some of its members than one which can be no more than an object of contemplation, however infinite its interest!

End Quote

In missions, in evangelism, we often focus on the idea of Freedom in Christ. But this terminology, has aspects of metaphor built into it. A metaphor implies its own negation. When we say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” it is only true (as a metaphor) if we acknowledge that in many really important ways, God is NOT literally my shepherd, and in many important, ways, I am not a literal sheep. Freedom in Christ is only true once we understand that in some ways it is balanced by “Dependence on Christ.” Our freedom is not found in rebellion, but in our partnership with and dependence on God as our Creator/Designer.

When we share Freedom in Christ with those who are both fascinated and terrorized by the abstract ambiguous thing (or nothing) that we call freedom, we must be sure that we are clear regarding what Christian Freedom Is and Is not, and what fears of freedom, and what perversions of freedom can easily syncretize with the concept of Christian freedom.

Reflective Theology in Missions: Part #2

So how might one do Theological Reflection within the context of Missions?

In Pastoral (or Practical) Theology, there are several options:

  • Edward Farley’s “Theologia”
  • David Tracy’s Critical Correlation
  • Whitehead and Whitehead’s Imaginative Interplay
  • Thomas Groome’s Shared Christian Praxis
  • Don Browning’s Practical Moral Reasoning
  • Lonergan’s Transcendental Method
  • Delve, Mitz, and Stewart’s Service Learning
  • Holland & Henroit’s Pastoral Circle
  • Shea’s Narrative Storytelling
  • Killen and deBeer’s Movement Toward Insight

>>>Trokan, J. (1997). Models of Theological Reflection: Theory and Praxis. Journal of Catholic Education, 1 (2). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ce/vol1/iss2/4.

>>>Pritchard, John (1992)  The Role of Story in Pastoral Theology: a theological examination and critique, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online:http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/5795/&gt;

I don’t want to grab any specific model, but simply suggest that Christian Missions would improve by theological reflection. I think, ultimately, a form a Shared Action/Reflection would be beneficial. This takes in Groome’s idea in line with the Whiteheads, with a bit of narrative storytelling and correlation tied in. In Cultural Anthropology we often use case studies, but commonly with inadequate theological reflection. It seems to me that the methodology of case studies as pertaining to action/reflection has value. So I am thinking to test this out soon.
1.  Action. It starts with action. Missions is commonly focused more on action rather than reflection. However, there should be no presumption that action in mission comes without presumptions. Action in mission is tied to one’s culture, faith, and personal belief.
2.  Storying. A missions situation, especially a relevant personal one, is turned into a story… either as a verbatim or as a critical incident. It is to be written down with conscious effort to focus on key relevant details and concerns (including feelings). Exact quotes are not necessary, and one should not get lost in the details.
3.  Reflection.  Reflect on the situation from one’s own:
                      -Faith Tradition
                      -Cultural Setting (including cross-cultural setting)
                      -Personal Perspective
4.  Presentation.  Share one’s story with others, in a small group, who are willing to affirm and challenge the reflections of the individual. This stage should not be cut short. It should involve a variety of perspectives and a willingness for honest, and transparent reflections.

5.  Integration and Resolution. The interplay of one’s faith tradition, cultural setting, and personal perspective, along with the challenge of others, should coalesce in some sort of integration. That integration may certainly maintain tensions. That is not wrong, but it should still result in some resolution in thought, and ultimately to action.

6.  Sharing.  Integration is commonly aided by the challenge of sharing, perhaps in a larger group, one’s ultimate theological resolution. (This larger group is not a time for further challenging.)
7.  Action.  And the pattern repeats.
One risk in Action-Reflection, Praxis, that one drifts too far into subjectivity. The anchor of faith tradition (doctrines, Scripture, history) is a key part to the interplay and reflection.

Book Updates and Introspection

No… this is not my desk…

I have been trying to write books, when I am not teaching or supervising, and when I am not doing administrative work for Bukal Life Care (our counseling center) or CPSP-Philippines, our chaplaincy certification board. My book writing gets slow sat times.  But I may as well give a bit of an update.

1.  Theo-storying.  I finished this some time ago. However, some of the reviews suggest incorporation of “story” even more into the work. Also, I felt the need to add a bit more from my research. So I added three more chapters. I also reformatted it. I am now repaginating it. I also need to have a different cover. My present cover is BORING!!! But I like boring (I am, admittedly, a boring kind of guy). But I grudgingly agree that the cover should be a wee bit more interesting. Still not aiming for anything exciting… sorry. Will be tracking the final product in my other blog.  https://theostorying.wordpress.com/

2.  Cultural Anthropology Book.  This book has been BASICALLY done for several months. It was written for the Philippine context. I test drove it with my students during final term. It went okay… except that I found the need to drift away from the structure more at the end. The students also gave some sage advice. I will play with it some more and try to publish it closer to the end of the year.

3.  Pastoral Care Book.  This book is about 2/3 done. However, talking to a friend who writes here in the Philippines, I have decided to follow the wisdom I was given. I will break it up into two volumes. The first volume, then, is mostly done. It will focus on “Intro to Pastoral Care” as well as “Clinical Pastoral Orientation (CPO)”. The second volume will be “Intro to Clinical Pastoral Education and Supervision.”  It really does make more sense to separate the two… but it also makes sense for them to be linked since the second builds off of the first. Hope to have Volume 1 ready for publisher here in the Philippines by August.

Introspection

You may think that it is a bit weird the diversity of these three books. Add to that my first book… on Medical Missions in the Philippines, and I could be charged with being a “jack of all trades, a master of none.” It is certainly true that I am a master of none. However, the books are part of my ministerial journey. Two books tie more directly to my job, and two to my passion.

JOB

1.  My Medical Mission book was based on my several years doing medical missions when I got here to the Philippines, as well as my dissertation on this topic for my ThD.

2.  The Pastoral Care books are tied to the fact that I now administrate a counseling center, and my wife is a certified pastoral counselor (CPSP).

PASSION

3 and 4.  The other two books are tied to my own academic passion— contextual theology. I believe ALL theology is contextual— whether good or bad. Cultural Anthropology helps us understand the context. Theo-Storying helps us understand the theology of metaphor, symbol, narrative, and genre, over proposition.

I guess there is some disconnection here… but I have found value in looking at different specialties and finding connections. I have heard “genius” is tied to the ability to find connections that others have not seen.

I may not have “genius” nor may I have “a genius,” but I do enjoy at least TRYING to find connections.