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.

 

Praying for WEAK Christian Missions

Missions tends to reflect the mindset of the missionaries, and the mindset of the missionaries tends to reflect the mindset of the churches they come from, and the mindset of these churches tend to reflect the surrounding culture.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants o...
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, circa 1516–1517 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since missionaries during the “Great Century” of Missions and into the 1900s, Christianity has had a triumphalistic edge to it. Going back a bit to Constantine, and far more so to Charlemagne (PERHAPS picking up some ideas from his grandfather and Islamic interaction),
  • Christianity has often been tied to powergovernmentally and militarally.
  • With the “Enlightenment” it became tied to power educationally.
  • With the Industrial era and the colonial expansion of Western powers, it became tied to power economically, and technologically.
It is hardly surprising that the dominant church culture and associated missions culture became fascinated with such power and often used these powers to carry out its work. Christendom seemed more than an abstract concept but a workable goal.
Is this always wrong. Is it always wrong to utilize resources one has to carry out work for the Kingdom of God? I believe the answer is “NO.” However, as useful as power is… it is also dangerous. Christian Community Development has shown that internal assets in communities are more important for meaningful transformation than pumping in support from outside (Christian) communities.
An interesting quote from Stan Nussbaum is from his article: “Vulnerable Mission Strategies.” It is to be found in Global Missiology (January 2013). For the PDF, Click Here.
When we try to use money as our strength in so-called partnerships, are we not overlooking 1 Cor. 1 as the default setting for mission—God using the weak to confound the strong? Are we not relegating that “weak” and vulnerable method of mission to those who are too poor to be able to afford to do mission the way we do it? Are we not assuming that people do mission from a position of strength if they can and from a position of weakness if they must?
There is a very difficult choice for the next generation of Western Christians. I see no easy answer. Should we complement the “weak” vulnerable mission of the Majority World church with our strength, or should we forego our strength and copy the vulnerable mission that the Majority World uses by necessity? If missionaries and mission agencies are so interested in bringing more glory to God, why would we not cut back on the mission methods that are failing to bring much glory to him? Why not replace them with a more vulnerable strategy, one that for its inspiration harks back to the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost instead of the conquest of the Promised Land?
Why not pay the prices of vulnerable mission and bring to God the glory that vulnerable mission in his name brings?

1.  Jim Harries’ Mission. This page was recommended to me (Thanks, Jonathan). Jim is a missionary in Africa and has done a lot of work and writing on Vulnerable Missions. He has some interesting thoughts including the (very interesting idea in my opinion) that the proliferation of “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa came, mostly inadvertantly, from missionaries not utilizing vulnerable missions. That kind of makes sense. Using sender-based communication rather than receptor-based communication can lead to miscommunication… including miscommunication of doctrine. Missionaries coming to an impoverished people from a position of (relative) wealth and power can easily add to the confusion of message.  http://www.jim-mission.org.uk/