At the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), we offer a course called “Organizing for Public Ministry.” We require all CDSP M.Div. students to take this week-long intensive during the January intersession of their very first year. The course consists of a standard five-day training in community organizing offered by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s oldest network of broad-based community organizations, along with daily theological reflection on and integration of that work with the particular emphases of the overall CDSP M.Div. curriculum.
As the faculty member who currently facilitates the theological and integrative aspect of the course, one of the things that I have observed over time—an observation shared by colleagues who have done this in the past—is that when the IAF trainers raise the crucial concept of building power as a step toward creating meaningful social change for some communally discerned good, it commonly makes our students profoundly uneasy. To a marked extent, our students tend to be highly suspicious of power. They are suspicious of those who want it. They are suspicious of those who have it or who claim to have it. They are particularly suspicious of the exercise of it. Yet, they often seem strangely unaware that they themselves might actually possess it. Often unconsciously conflating power with domination, students frequently begin the course viewing Christianity and power as mutually exclusive. A follower of Jesus Christ, they protest, must have nothing to do with power.
The trainers have sometimes found themselves struggling to communicate that power is neither good nor bad in itself, but simply is. Power, they teach, is the ability to act, to do something. Just as electricity is neither inherently good nor bad but merely an energy that can be harnessed to run particular processes, it is the purpose to which it is put that makes power good or bad, by virtue of the way that it is used, not in and of itself.
Scripture is chock-full of support for the attitude toward power that the IAF teaches. Limiting our field of view to the ministry of Jesus alone is sufficient to make that case. It is the power of Jesus’ teaching that convinces so many of his hearers to regard him as being somehow special, and even as bearing more power and authority than their established teachers. At the same time, Jesus is tempted three times in the wilderness to exercise power poorly—by turning from God in order to have dominion over the nations, by seeking to provide for himself the grace that comes solely from God, and by presuming to control God by means of a self-destructive gesture. Jesus has the power to cast out unclean spirits, yet the spirits themselves have power to take over the lives of those whom they come to dominate. Meanwhile, the disciples sometimes exhibit power sufficient to dispel these forces, while at the same time they are also sometimes rebuked by Jesus for trusting in God insufficiently, which allows the evil powers to triumph over them. Jesus has power to cure the sick, restore vision to the unsighted, command the natural elements, and even to raise the dead, yet in his hometown, he lacks the power to do much at all because the people there do not allow themselves to receive the saving grace he offers.
Power is exercised in all sorts of ways in the gospel accounts. I would argue, though, that they reduce to two basic modes. We could, I suppose, call them “good” and “bad.” I would prefer to follow the 20th-century theologian and Episcopalian, William Stringfellow, however, in naming them by where their allegiances lie. One is a power unto life. The other is a power unto death.
In other words, we do not get to choose whether or not we exercise power. We exercise power every time we assert our agency in doing anything at all. The choice we do have is between allowing ourselves to be a conduit for the power that leads to life or for the power that leads to death.
As deputies, elected by your dioceses to make decisions in the councils of the Episcopal Church, you are empowered to affect the life of our denomination, here and within the Communion, in signally important ways, not only through legislating but also, for example, by forging and nurturing relationships with your colleagues, and participating in legislative committee meetings and hearings. A theological charge that is then incumbent upon you is to discern how you will deploy the power that you build through all of this work, or, rather, to decide to which end you will do so. Will this be power focused on power for its own sake, or power for the sake of “winning” in some way, or power meant to preserve an inviolable status quo? Or, will it be power focused on equipping the saints for ministry in the church and world, or power that seeks to resource the practice of Christian discipleship through service to a hurting society and planet, or power that energizes ways of loving God with all our collective heart and mind and our neighbors as our collective self? Will the power you build and exercise be the power that leads to life and flourishing or the power that, aimed at some target that falls short of creating the relational communion that God desires for our own and the world’s good, leads only and ultimately to death?
One of the major gifts that the Anglican Way has bequeathed to the ecumenical Christian family is the gift of dispersed authority. While not perfect by any means, Anglicanism understands that true power does not look like hierarchical domination but takes the form of relationality, even in an episcopally governed structure. Anglican polity is synodal, a reality all too often taken for granted within our Communion, though it ought not to be, given how the Roman Catholic Church, for example, is at this very moment attempting to find its way toward the kind of synodality that we enjoy already and have done since our earliest days.
I am looking forward to General Convention, the meeting of the highest synod of our church, because I am hoping to find there that those empowered to act on the church’s behalf are doing so as conduits of the power that leads unto life, the power poured out as the animating grace of the Holy Spirit among us, the power of flourishing, the power of love.
If, though, we do not claim the power that we are given to do exactly that, do not discern which of our dispositions and actions will cohere with that power, and do not exercise our power accordingly, we become instead a conduit for the other power. We allow ourselves and our church to become channels of the power that leads unto death, where the demons of unfaith—the opposite of the trust in God that uproots mountains and raises the dead—has the power of domination that my students rightly think has no place in Christianity.
All power, then, is not the same. Not exercising power is not an option. Which power we unleash, however, is up to us. May we, together and in love, choose rightly and act well, with God’s help.