Posted by: dacalu | 27 June 2012

Power

I find three things are taboo when speaking from the pulpit – money, sex, and power.  Oh, you can talk about them in a very abstract way.  You can talk about other people’s money.  You can talk about third parties having sex.  You just can’t talk about specifics and above all, you can’t name names.  (grin.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to name names.)   It can leave mainline protestants a little at odds when it comes to working out concrete decisions.  How do you get from general ethics to practical morals?  Today, I’d like to talk about strategies for doing just that.

Careful readers will have noticed that I mentioned three taboos, but only elaborated on two – however briefly.  There’s a reason for that.  I find that we are most careful around questions of power.  Even in the abstract, I find that preachers avoid this topic.  When’s the last time you talked in church about how you treat your employees ?  When’s the last time you broached how you treat day-laborers or waiters, janitors, and maids.  All of us exercise power over someone.  It’s only a question of who, when, where, and – of course – how.  So let us talk about power.

We tend to be a bit squeamish about power in the United States.  Let me be blunt – the myth of universal equality does as much harm as good.  In an abstract way, as a legal principle, even as a theological truth, I’m in favor.  I do believe we were all made in the image and likeness of God, with inherent dignity and gifts for which all should be thankful.  That said, we are also made – for good and ill – dependent upon others.  From the first nine months of our Earthly life, in which we depend upon our mothers for all support and nourishment, to the last years of our lives when we depend on children, friends, and neighbors to hold us up, perhaps even wash and dress us.  In between, if we’re lucky, we may harbor an illusion of independence.  It is never more than an illusion, of course.  We eat food raised by others.  We live in houses designed and built by others.  We wear clothing sewn and assembled by others.

Even if you find yourself alone in the woods, sitting in a cabin you built yourself, wearing clothes you made from sheep’s wool, eating a deer you shot, cleaned, and cooked yourself… looking at the screen of a computer you assembled yourself from parts you smelted… well at that point it starts to become ridiculous.  This is a blog, after all.  We are deeply dependent upon one another for all the necessities of life.  Perhaps once this was not the case.  Perhaps, there was a state of nature or a state of grace in which a person might be independent, but this has not been the case for a hundred years.

And, let’s be honest, it was never the case.  Since the time of Adam, humans have always come from parents.  Humans have always depended on plants and animals for food and shelter, almost universally only with the help of other humans.

For a couple centuries, free market(ish) capitalism has supported the idea that, though we need others, at least we live off our own labor, which we represent as money and freely trade for what we need.  Capitalism, however, does not eliminate need (either met or unmet), it only quantifies it.  It allows us to say I need X (through which you have power over me) and you need Y (through which I have power over you).  Let’s figure out the relative values of those needs and make a trade.  I still need you and you still need me.  With luck, perhaps we can eliminate monopolies so that I don’t have to trade with you, in particular, but I still have to trade with someone.

Life involves need.  Need results in power.  There will always be power dynamics among people.

Worse yet, some people need more than others.  Even a brief time observing people should prove this too you.  Some are healthier than others, some smarter, stronger, more attractive.  Some have talents others do not, not to mention accumulated wealth.  In practice we are not equal, we do not start with a “level playing field,” and we exercise power over one another.

As a starting place for a society, equality does a remarkable job.  It speaks to the types of power we want to allow.  As a statement about reality, it is simply false.  To be blunt, it seems to be mainly an excuse to abuse people whose needs are greater than mine.  After all, if we started equal and she needs more than I, she must have misplaced some of her “equality.”

That’s a harsh beginning, but I did say power was taboo.  Our society goes to incredible lengths to deny the power some of us have over others. I want to make every attempt to defuse that argument from the outset, chiefly so I can say this:

Power means ability to do work.  In this context, it means control over some aspect of another’s life – the ability to feed (or starve), clothe (or expose), include (or exclude them).

Responsibility means being obligated to act in a particular way.  In this context it means being accountable for the well-being of others.

Authority happens when one holds both power and responsibility.  The dominant sin associated with power (pride/apathy) becomes a serious temptation when one holds power but no responsibility.  It happens frighteningly often.

I say this so that we might seriously talk about what responsibilities attend power.

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Responses

  1. […] a previous post I suggested that “authority” constitutes a combination of “power over” and […]


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