The desire for power is deeply embedded in the human condition. Power is more than a phenomenon resident in political ideologies, more than a condition that can be defined sociologically, and more than a leadership practice to be learned. Power and its desire for dominance over ‘the other’ has a more primal source; originating deep within human existence itself–the self-oriented human heart.
That is why human power has no boundaries. For, it is at home equally with any cause, group, or individual, and it can cross every divide. Age, gender, race, political persuasion, and religious affiliation, are all hosts for power. Indeed, power has no friends, no allies, and no favourites, it seeks only to serve ‘self’.
By definition, power is the independent human capacity to influence–the self-will applied. A capacity metaphorically represented in J.R.R Tolkien’s popular Lord of The Rings trilogy. Like Tolkien’s ‘master ring’; power, through having an imagined potential for good, cannot be taken up without having a malevolent effect on its bearer. Not unlike Tolkien’s magical ring of power, when embraced by the fallible human nature, power has the inescapable propensity to seduce, corrupt, and dominate. No matter how noble the intentions of the bearer may seem to them, no one is morally pure enough to wield it.
Furthermore, power is never static. It restlessly seeks to move and advance itself. When it is blocked or challenged, it fights back. And, if power cannot win the fight, it nervously seeks another incarnation in which it can succeed and prosper. Like water, under the relentless pressure of gravity, always looking for an escape route in a failing vessel, power inexorably finds its way through to another reservoir of influence– a mode of control. Power finds a way.
The epiphany of the non-partisan fluid nature of power came to me as I reflected on some anomalies in popular political and religious life…
Why did US President Barak Obama ( a socialist democrat ) allow the rich Wall St. capitalist bankers to walk away and profit from the destruction of the 2008 GFC? Why did so many Evangelical Christians openly support Donald Trump, despite his questionable morality? Why are radical Marxist movements like Black Lives Matters, funded by capitalist corporations? Why are many academics, celebrities, and politicians abandoning their learned convictions in the face of popular movements? Why is it that many religious leaders, who gained influence and power under another aegis, now openly support causes that oppose their former allegiance? In summary, why are deep convictions so conveniently abandoned when the holder of those conviction’s personal influence is threatened?
The answer: The desire for power!
Allow me to elaborate…
Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher, who has gained critical acclaim through his socio-political engagement with contemporary culture. In a recent discussion about the nature of identity politics, Zizek highlighted that White Liberals love identity politics. Why? According to Zizek, these people encounter the challenges of disparate identity groups by adopting false humility and assume blame for the problems of these groups (racism, colonialism, capitalism etc), but, in so doing they claim the ‘universality’ in the conversation. In philosophical terms, universality is like the ‘master key’ that unlocks all the particular locks, held by the other key holders. What Zizek is suggesting, then, by simply assuming the blame, going along with the grievances of particular identity groups, the ‘white liberals’ ( probably academics, politicians, celebrities etc) are actually patronizing them, and, as such, are able to maintain the universality–keep holding the master key!
Why do this? Because it maintains or even extends power. In this example, the white liberals in question care little for the principles of their ‘own’ particular identity, rather they are far more interested in the power associated with controlling the universality, and by extension all the particulars under its control. Whilst feigning support of the various identity groups: LGBT+, Black, Green, Feminist etc, they are actually seeking to control their agenda, and, by extension, increase their own influence. This is why groups like Black Lives Matter are funded by rich capitalists, or Donald Trump supports Evangelical Christians. They don’t care about ‘the cause’ (whatever that may be), they just want to use the group to gain more power for themselves. As you can see, power finds a way.
Unwittingly, then, many of the advocates of social justice movements, political causes, and religious institutional posturing, are little more than pawns being played; useful particulars, in a greater game of maintaining the universality–the power.
Of course, the pathway of power doesn’t always take the way of subtle compromise. Sometimes it entrenches itself in the form of open militant resistance; the way of defiance, conflict and violence– a veritable fight to the death. Of course, every way that power takes never ends well, for power always divides, breeds hatred, produces slavery, leads to poverty and death. Even fluid power redirected by compromise, eventually runs into this dam wall of conflict. In the power game, there are no winners, not even those who control the universals, the only winner is power itself!
But, is there another way of relating to ‘the other’ without the will to dominate, another way of engaging humanity’s problems without manipulation, another way of operating outside the paradigm of self-willed power?
Enter human power’s nemesis, Jesus Christ.
In terms of power, Jesus remains a paradox. Ironically, he is the most powerful human in existence, and yet did not take the ‘pathway of self-will’ to gain it. In fact, Jesus took the path away from power–the path of humble self-denial. As a pre-existent member of the divine Godhead, Jesus deliberately choose to manifest his human existence, in the humblest of circumstances–born in Bethlehem into a poor family, born in an animals stable. He worked as a humble carpenter, and even when he began his ministry, he shunned the limelight, seeking deliberately not to be seen as a political deliverer. Moreover, when tempted by Satan to take up the ultimate power ( lordship over the whole world), he emphatically rejected the offer and openly renounced the one making the offer. Jesus’ life consistently took the pathway of humility, weakness, suffering, and death. And, for his contrarian approach, Jesus gained the greatest power of all–resurrection from the dead and ascension to God’s right hand. How did he do it ?
Jesus, the quintessential human, knew one secret that most humans don’t know: All ‘true and legitimate’ power comes ‘only’ from God.
All other powers are usurped counterfeits. Of course, Satan (that master evil angel), who originally grasped power for himself, falsely promises it to all who will follow his ways (as he promised Jesus, and failed). But even Satan only wields a form of power that is illusionary and transitory, for in the end only God’s power is valid, enduring, and substantive. Jesus knew that God does not bestow power on the selfish, on the contrary, God only gives his power to the humble, those who seek only God’s will and glory, as the apostle Peter rightly intimates : ‘All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.’1 Peter 5:5-6 (NIV)
Therefore, Jesus’ secret of power is simply this: True power is not grasped but bestowed, and it is only bestowed by God. Moreover, it is only bestowed on those, who humble themselves under God’s mighty hand; those who seek his bidding above all else, as Jesus did.
Strangely, then, the pathway to ‘real’ power (God’s bestowed power), requires rigorous avoidance of the self-willed kind of power, readily on offer within the popular world. The one seeking the bestowal of God’s power must embrace weakness, humility, and self-denial. That is why the apostle Paul, a man learned in all the ways of God, wrote: ‘ But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)
Regrettably, many Christians, in the contemporary socio-political climate, are tempted to embrace power models offered by this world. As such, many are tempted to jump on the latest social justice bandwagon in an attempt force the ‘power’s that be’ to capitulate to a so-called power of greater good. And, of course, on the other side of this push for power, many conservative Christians are tempted to fight back; digging in and militantly resisting these threatening changes.
What is immediately obvious, however, in embracing the paradigm of power this world offers, Christians are being set against one another, and are unwittingly undermining God’s work. After all, was it not Jesus who said, ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.’ Mark 3:24-25 (NIV) Yes, power finds a way; in this case, a way to divide and destroy.
But there is an alternative, but the way is hard.
Do you want to be a person of influence, a person of power, a person who changes the world for good? Then avoid the pathway of power offered by contemporary culture, avoid the militant desires of the human heart, avoid the temptation to dominate, to force your views on others. Rather, embrace humility, weakness, and suffering in the ways of Christ, and in the gentle presence and empowering of his Spirit and you will manifest the power of God–then you ( or rather, God) will instigate true change. Change that will heal, unite, and save. Change that works where the problem of power has its source–the human heart. Even if your influence seems small, it will not be wasted in the grand economy of God’s kingdom–little by little his kingdom advances. One healed relationship at a time: Changes a person, a family, a community, a country, a kingdom!
And then, when all the powers of this world have run their course and are vanquished at the majestic return of Jesus, the grand chorus of God’s people will resound in the victorious affirmation: ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God’ Rev 19:1 (NIV)