How to Love Power

Commentary
By Eric Barreto 6-06-2017

American politics have always been a struggle among the powerful.

First, it was white male landowners who determined the way, their owning of lands and peoples not just symbols of their powers but validations of it too. But slowly — far too slowly — and unevenly — far too unevenly — the promise, if not the full realities, of democratic power has been shared and expanded, to white women and then to African Americans.

Yet that uneven sharing and expanding of power has not resolved what it means for us to wield power over our neighbors. What does it mean for some to have more power and others less? What does it mean to be a voter, boss, parent, soldier, teacher, or even president of the United States?

Far too often, and especially in our political discourse, power is seen as a zero-sum game. Someone wins; someone loses. Victory is absolute, and so is defeat. Power can even become an end in itself, which motivates us to bash our political opponents while we justify those we deem to be in step with our political convictions. Power can be seductive.

Power can also be transformative, but only if power is suffused with love. As Andy Crouch has written, “Power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity — breeding inhumanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power. … Power, the truest servant of love, can also be its most implacable enemy.”

Many churches this week will be hearing the closing passage of the Gospel of Matthew. A resurrected Jesus gathers his disciples one last time to give them final instructions for the road they will travel, a road he has already promised will be paved by God and littered with suffering. (Matthew 24:1-14)

Jesus tells his followers that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” For this reason, Jesus continues, his followers will scatter across the world making disciples, baptizing and teaching what he taught them.

In this going out, the disciples will not be alone, for Jesus accompanies them at every step. In these verses, Jesus claims all authority to himself not because he is mighty and powerful, but because God has given him this authority. This authority is a gift.

And though we are called to be disciples in light of that authority, that authority never becomes ours. It always belongs to Jesus.

The authority Jesus inherits is not coercive or demanding or boisterous or loud. His power settles into the margins of our world and makes its home in those deserted places most of us choose to avoid. His authority empowers those who are seen as poor and broken and despised. It blesses the wretched. That is, Jesus’ power is not at all what we seem to imagine power is.

There are two little details in this passage that help clarify the scope of such power.

Notice that there are only eleven disciples mentioned. That one among their retinue has betrayed Jesus hangs heavily over this passage. Our proximity to God’s loving presence is no guarantee that we won’t be drawn away by the draw of something else, something more.

And notice one last detail: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

The key ingredient of the right use of power is not being right. Power, rightly used, is about trust. The trust someone asks others to invest in her. The trust, most of all, that someone places in God to show her the way. For, if we are honest, the exercise of power is a humbling matter, one that pushes us more toward doubt that certainty.

Here, we are reminded anew by Anne Lamott that the opposite of faith is not doubt — the obverse of faith is prideful certainty. Faith leans on God; certainty says, “I know better.” Faith trusts when we can’t see the path before us; certainty steps forward no matter who might be trampled.

Nearly all of us hold great power in our hands. Whether in our professions, or in our everyday lives, or even in the ballot box, we hold the lives of our neighbors. That kind of power can misshape us, suggesting to us that such power is deserved, earned. We might even deceive ourselves to believe that such power grants us license to act as we please and for our own sake.

But what if Jesus has called us to a different exercise of power? An exercise of power that destabilizes what we think power is, who we think we are as children of God, and who we assume God to be.

Jesus’s Great Commission in Matthew 28 is not a call to domination. Neither is it a summons to colonize everyone we meet under the demands of an ill-shaped “gospel.” Jesus calls us here to lean into his power. Jesus calls us to the kind of love that sees the folly in mere victory, the kind of love that calls us to be seen as poor and meek for the sake of our neighbors.

In short, Jesus calls us to invite God to undo all the damage we have done. When we love power in this way, God graciously unwinds a twisted world and sets right a world that has stopped making sense.

Via ON Scripture.

Eric D. Barreto is Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained Baptist minister. 

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