In Christianity power is not a zero-sum game. Not fundamentally at least.
I was recently in a conversation with some friends about this reality recently. We were mulling over the issue of whether or not Christians ought to pursue positions of power or cultural influence in order to change things from above, or work for the common good in positions of authority.
Of course, while the concept will seem intuitive to some, even mentioning the idea immediately (legitimately) raises the suspicion of others. Nowadays in certain Christian circles there is a lot of talk about “embracing powerlessness” and giving power away as a more fundamentally Christ approach to power and authority. And there’s something to the notion when we look at Jesus. Jesus seemed to intentionally operate on the margins, using poor fishermen, (with a Zealot and a tax collector thrown in), staying in cultural backwaters, and eschewing the crowds seeking to crown him. Finally, there is a form of powerlessness in embracing the Cross, handing yourself over to be crucified, to have the will of others exercised upon you.
Moving to Christian history, it’s always important to remember that the Christian movement began at the margins of society and, even without embracing a full-throated “Constantinian” fall narrative, it’s easy to see some of the negative consequences of the Church gaining political and social authority.
With considerations like these (and a great many more) it is easy to become suspicious of the call to pursue positions of influence. The City of Man’s siren song of the lust to dominate calls powerfully and finds hearts in the Church all-too-willing to listen and be seduced by it. It seems safer (in some ways), wiser, and more Christlike to walk away from positions of power, to distrust political and social authority, and work in a more ground-up, power-relinquishing fashion. When possible, hand over as much as you can, to the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.
Again, there’s something to that. But I also want to say there’s something else too. I suppose what I’m saying is that we can’t begin our reflections on the use of power only after Genesis 3. Genesis 1 and 2 have a role to play. The doctrines of God and doctrine of creation are fundamental to our conception of the way the redemption of Jesus Christ changes our ideas and attitudes towards power.
Beginning with the Triune God, we must remember that from all eternity Father, Son, and Spirit has infinite power and glory. What’s more, in his creation, he gifts a measure of power and authority to his image-bearers at no detriment to his own. His gift of authority to humans is no threat to his own. In fact, their power and authority ontologically funds and morally authorizes theirs. In other words, he loses no power, no strength, no sovereignty, even as he exercises authority through his Image-bearers–with, or even (in light of sin) contrary to their own will.
Ideally, human power would function like this in an analogical fashion (our power being finite and dependent). In Genesis 1 and 2, God gives humanity power so that they would then exercise the kind of dominion and ordering of creation that would cultivate and empower it to produce and even greater yield than it could apart from humanity’s guidance. Of course, sin twists that as is obvious and apparent. Power and authority are distorted and perverted–dominion becomes domination.
But when God redeems, he does not move us to a space or a stage that is totally contrary to, or radically different from his original created intention. The redemption of humanity and the cosmos means the redemption of the use of power. By the power of the Spirit of God, whether in common or special grace, humans can use power in order to bless and benefit others. This is one of the majors themes in the OT literature about the righteousness and holiness of the kings and princes of Israel–their godly use of authority and power for the sake of the powerless and the oppressed. Their exercise of power enables the poor to achieve a stable social position in which they are empowered to live without fear and pursue a whole life. Though there is an asymmetry, it is not a vicious, or idolatrous one, but one ordained for human flourishing.
Indeed, if I had time, I think I could even show this theme at work in the New Testament, both in the life of Jesus, the acts of the Apostles, and even the epistles. Not to mention Church history. It’s quite common to remember Christendom’s woes, even while we continue live in the historical wake of its social benefits.
What does this look like in practice, though? Well, this is a brief blog post, but the best example that comes to mind, the paradigmatic example, of a Christian approach towards acquiring and using power in order to empower others in a non-zero-sum fashion is that of education.
Think about the educational process. It is entirely dependent on an asymmetry in knowledge/power between educator and student. It’s precisely because the educator knows more than and has a certain measure of authority over the student that she can teach the student. What’s more, in the process of educating and exercising power, the educator is actually empowering the student, elevating them through the communication of knowledge. This is an example of giving away power that leads to no loss on the part of the educator. The student’s gain in knowledge does not diminish the educator’s in the slightest, but only raises the student.
Of course, in order for this kind of empowerment to happen, what does the educator have to do? They have to pursue knowledge and become an authority on a given subject matter. In order to give power away in a non-zero-sum fashion, they have to pursue that power through years of study, training, and so forth. Of course, there is a selfish way of pursuing education, knowledge, and authority–one that keeps the educator in possession of knowledge to the exclusion of others. Absolutely, they can use it to control, to elevate themselves at the cost of others. But we have to see that this is not inherently the case. And for any of the good of education to happen, we must run the risk of pursuing intellectual power.
Obviously, not all exercises of authority and power are exactly like this. Certain resources are more limited and there are certain “zero-sum” limitations to its exercise. But the fundamental principle of using power in order to empower others is still a creational and, I would say, redemptive reality that cannot be ignored or downplayed without detriment to our witness and our basic love of neighbor.
Soli Deo Gloria
There’s no changing things. Not really. We are sinners in bondage to sin and we need a Savior.
Calvin’s Geneva is a perfect example of Christians trying to change things from a position of power. Or the Puritans.
Have you read James Hunter’s book To Change the World? If I remember correctly, his chapter on power makes the point that all groups deal in power (in various ways), and that it is an inescapable reality. Earlier in the book, he also points out that most Christian groups conceive of power (and the means of changing culture) in primarily political terms. Your comments about a creational/redemptive use of our matches up with his point that there are other ways to influence culture apart from getting the “right” people elected to office, or attempting to exercise no power whatsoever.
Christ is Lord of all and over all. As a disciple, Christ is Lord over me and He should be exalted as Lord in all I say or do (Colossians 3:17). I long to see His dominion in everything (Daniel 7:13-14; 1 Corinthians 15:24-26).