Friday, February 6, 2009

Seeking Power

I chose Dr. Horrible this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately. It was the subject of my sermon last week, inspired in part by driving through that powerful storm. I’m leaving off the intro and “getting to the point.”

(I am indebted to Tony Campolo and his fantastic visit to Trinity Cathedral on 10/29/2008. Many of the distinctions on the difference between power and authority come directly from him, and I encourage people to listen to the podcast of his lecture.)

The power of that storm made a lasting impression on me. I underestimated its power to keep us from our task of getting home. As I reflect on the power of the storm, and the conversations we’ve been having about creating and fostering growth and change, it occurs to me how useful some power would be. After all, our American culture seems to greatly value power. Conservatives and liberals both try to grasp it. Wealth certainly seems to lead people to having powerful influence over others. And there’s no doubt that religious groups and institutions have used power to enforce morality and structure.

So why not us?

Now, I know that with power comes the danger of abusing power. Power corrupts, after all. We’ve seen examples of the abuse of power the past week. The abuse of political power of the Governor of Illinois in his money making method of appointing senators, and abuse of economic power by the Wall Street leaders handing out bonuses with bailout money have been all over the news.

For the sake of argument, lets suppose that we could resist the temptations to abuse power.

Would power be helpful in creating change as a church?

Well, lets consider an example of a good use of power in our society: The police officer. Assuming abuses of power are kept in check, police officers are good examples in the use of power:

If I’m driving, and the officer’s lights go on behind me, I pull over. Why?
---in part because I realize I might have broken some law
---in part because I know the officer has the power to enforce those laws
---in part because I know that I can’t outrun the officer
---in part because even if I escaped I’d certainly get caught eventually
---in part because I can lose my privilege of driving and be thrown in jail

The fact that the officer has a gun and license to use it probably doesn’t occur to me, but perhaps it should...

For all of these reasons, I choose to submit to the police officer’s power. But I wonder, does real change occur from this power?

Well, here’s what I honestly think. If I was driving too fast, and the police officer pulls me over, regardless of whether or not she gives me a ticket, I guarantee I’m driving under the speed limit all the way home. For a while, I’ll be driving slower: thinking about the consequences if I get caught driving to fast. Push comes to shove, however, the first time I’m late for something and in a rush, odds say that the speedometer gage will be hovering around or above the posted speed limit...and only seeing a cop again is likely to change it.

It’s important to note that I’m not thinking about how driving slower saves gas, I’m not thinking how speed limits protect the safety of myself and others, and that driving slowly especially makes a lot of sense with the winter weather and the unfamiliar roads of New Hampshire.

(to be clear...this is all very hypothetical...not only have I not been pulled over since moving to New Hampshire...or for that matter anytime in years...but I have, the vast majority of the time, been driving under the speed limit.)

The point is this...power forces people to do things “in the moment.” The police officer doesn’t have to remind me of any of the reasons to get me to pull over. The lights go on, and I bow to the power.

Power is the ability to get people to obey you because of your ability to coercer them. Even if you don’t actually coercer them, the fact that you can forces the desired behavior. Most organizations, including the church, need some people with power in order to have some accountability.

But it also leads to the critical point in this morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:21-28). The text clearly makes a big deal that Jesus uses AUTHORITY in his teaching, something very different from power.

The Gospel makes it very clear that authority is what sets Jesus apart.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (Mark 1:27)

The Gospels are full of the many ways that Jesus turns down power. The temptations in the wilderness were all about power: stones to bread: economic power, jump of the temple and be saved by the angels: religious power, all the kingdoms of the world can be yours: political power.

Jesus rejects any methods that will coercer people to obey him.

Instead, he pursues love, which is essentially the yielding of power by virtue of the fact that love is not based on compliance or right action.

Jesus claims the way of the servant: one with no power to dominate but instead is a position concerned primarily with the care of others.

And finally, Jesus claims the way of self-sacrifice: not for his own gain so he will be rewarded, and not to attract attention so he will be well thought of. Jesus’ self-sacrifice is being true to the ministry he is called to: to love God with his all, to love his neighbor as himself, and to proclaim God’s desire for peace and justice for all.

And thus, Jesus is one with authority.

People obey those with authority because they sense the legitimacy of the claims being made. We follow those with authority because they earn our trust by their words and actions, and they speak the truth with passion.

Think of some of the people that invoked change of hearts and minds the last 100 years: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa. They did so without the backing of any army, without the condemning of any opposing group, and without the superior economic force. They fostered change by their love for all people, by their servant leadership, and by their own self-sacrifice.

And none could doubt that when they spoke, they did so with authority.

The task of the church today is in this way, counter-cultural. It is precisely not to acquire power. It is not to claim “moral authority,” which is church speak for religious power.

Instead, we the church are to claim the loving, serving, and self-sacrificing way of Jesus. We are to proclaim and live out God’s vision of peace and justice for all.

In our doing so, we just might come to amaze people...and even ourselves...with the discovery that we are a community that teaches with authority.

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