Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Christian Theology And The Question Of Power

When attempting to address the realm of politics in all its variegated forms, immediately we are confronted with power. Politics is the arena where power is sought, battled over, won, lost. The classic definition of power, as I learned it as a wee undergrad oh so many years ago, is thus: A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something B would not otherwise do. Even more than the question of "authority", the question of power confronts us when we are seeking understanding of politics.

The state has power over me to the extent that it sets limits to the conduct of my personal affairs. Yet, for this limitation, I have the power of a voice in how far those limits are set, to insist they either be made stronger or weaker, and to elect people to public office who will support my positions on those questions. Furthermore, in exchange for the power to circumscribe my own personal sphere of freedom, the state creates an environment conducive to the exercise of those freedoms not surrendered, or those explicitly allowed. Thus, the traditional "contract" theory can be understood, quite apart from any metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about "the state of nature" and all the other encumbrances it carries, as describing a really existing state of affairs.

The issue of power, however, confronts us with the possibility of its abuse, even in the circumstances described above. Whether it is the usurpation of powers not allotted to government under expressly enumerated limitations or the so-called "tyranny of the majority", we are continually faced with the necessity of resetting the balance among the various actors in the political realm. Part of the reason for the initiation and continuance of this particular way of ordering political life rests on the intuitive understanding, borne out by five thousand years of recorded history, that there is nothing more dangerous, more seductive, than power. It must be faced directly, continually, in order to force limits upon it.

I take as my starting point for understanding a Christian view of power, specifically Divine power, the cross of Jesus as the revelation of God's understanding of Divine power. Right there, God showed a sinful, broken world that power exists in surrender rather than victory. The empty tomb of Easter morning is proof that the surrender of coercive power is infinitely, eternally more constructive than its exertion.

So, we come up against the most obvious conflict - how do we Christians confront the demand for a discussion in terms of power, when we insist on its surrender as the basis for real authority? Since tied up with the passion narrative, theologically speaking, is a redefinition of Divine judgment as Divine gracious condescension, we also must face squarely that, even when beset by earthly powers, the Church must live not only in to and out of that grace, but must be continually in prayer for those powers. Sometimes for their transformation, sometimes for their replacement, but always in prayer that, even in their broken misunderstanding of power they may yet have the winds of the Spirit blow upon them. So, before, during, and after any understanding comes a constant prayerful love.

Living as a witness to the possibilities of surrender, the Church most firmly witnesses to our political arena by being the Church. By living out our faithful understanding of grace, of clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry, we witness to the on-going reality that transcends contingent historical political arrangements. In so doing, it not only pronounces a judgment upon them, it also offers a gracious alternative; "this is the way a community of persons living in the crucified and risen Christ understand issues of power; we give up."

Virtual Tin Cup

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