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On power and politics and stepping off

IMG_20150917_110608I’m tempted to begin with the cliché “Webster’s dictionary defines…” because both the word “power” and the word “politics” have incredible baggage. Some of it’s cultural and some of it’s personal and so if we’re going to talk about either we need to be clear what it is we’re actually talking about. Defining what I mean by politics is actually easier and far less fraught with philosophical peril. Simply put, I understand politics to be the process by which groups of people make decisions for their common life together. Human beings function as individuals and communities. We need ways to sort out the balance of our various wants and needs.

Defining power, however, is a bit of a different story. I’m going to define it in a particular way and if you think it’s wildly insufficient tell me in the comments. My working definition of power is the capacity to make things happen the way you want them to. Power usually comes with the capacity to offer punishment or reward.

CommunityHeadshotEvery single human being is involved in both power and politics. That means that all of us who live out our lives in the church are too and we can’t pretend to be exempt. The question for us is how followers of Jesus should practice power and politics.

The first thing to say is is a no brainer: we do it with love. We speak, vote, meet, converse, and disagree with compassion, patience, gentleness, and love. A no brainer maybe but no easy task.

What is even more of a challenge, however, is how to exercise power or whether we even should. What I see from Jesus is a refusal to participate in the age old power struggles that create a cycle of winners and losers who alternate between being victim and oppressor.

A wise person once paraphrased Philippians 2:6-8 for me by saying that Jesus was on the ladder of power and willingly stepped off. The idea that somehow we might be called to give away our power or refuse to exercise it is not just challenging, it’s threatening. All the old questions of survival and well-being come rushing to the surface. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to be powerless. And yet, I want to follow Jesus.

So I’m trying to figure out how to step off the ladder and follow Jesus. I hope that we can wrestle with how to do that as a community and as a church too.

About Trevor Freeman

Trevor Freeman serves the parish of St. Mary’s East Kelowna and is the Executive Archdeacon for the Diocese of Kootenay. He still has days where he looks around and can’t quite believe how far God has brought him. During downtime he can be found with a good book, a properly strong cup of tea, at the gym, or playing golf badly. And if he’s honest, binge watching Netflix.
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2 Responses to On power and politics and stepping off

  1. A technical definition would involve both hard and soft power. The ability to force or compel someone to do what you want them to do and the ability to cause someone to want to do what you want them to do. Evangelism is effectively an exercise in soft-power: we are going out to unbelievers and engaging with them in a way that gets them to want the salvation offered in Jesus Christ as we want it.

    One of the issues of politics I struggle with as a Christian is two-fold. There are no overtly Christian parties–parties for which their policies strive to be Biblically informed in the model of Christ–and second, and related to that, Christ did not leave us a blueprint for social interaction at the state-level. Put another way, Christ didn’t give us a guidebook to government or foreign policy, he gave us a guide to personal salvation, and what is demanded of us individually is not always easily translated to the level of the state. Christ says render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he doesn’t say what Caesar ought to take nor what Caesar ought to spend it on.

    I don’t think this means we must disengage, but we should be wary of ever suggesting that belief in Christ compels us to engage in politics in one way or another. Whatever way we engage in politics, it should always be with an aim towards creating a society in which we, as Christians, can seek to live out the Jesus lifestyle.

  2. You’re absolutely right about the technical definition of power though my experience of hard and soft power comes from political science. In that field the endgame is the same regardless of whether you have hard or soft power. It is always maximizing your benefit. Any definition of power, even soft power, that was ultimately about maximizing my benefit over another’s is problematic. I know that’s not what you’re suggesting but I do believe that’s a pitfall in trying to make distinctions about kinds of power. It’s something that needs to be carefully parsed. Myself, I’d rather use language of responsibility, influence, and authority but each of those needs to be carefully defined as well.

    You raise some other good questions and certainly no single perspective or party can be said to be the ultimate Christian response to policy questions. My own understanding of the gospel is that our path of personal salvation is part of God’s plan for the transformation of the world. He came to serve and not to be served. The greatest will be the servant of all. Those ideas do suggest a particular approach to politics and government policy. Definitely not a partisan approach because there has yet to be a government of any stripe in human history that has sought to put the last first but an approach nonetheless.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting!

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