Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Kathryn Lester-Bacon
Power is absolute. Power is permanent. Those who have power, deserve it. Those who are without power, deserve it. Nothing will change. All is set in stone. It’s useless to try to change things.
These are the dictums about power that I’ve absorbed over the years. From history lessons, political rhetoric, movie narratives, and other places, we often receive this underlying narrative: there are protagonists and antagonists, right and wrong, the revered and the reviled, the powerful and powerless. And we all fall in place behind one or the other.
Yet, this view of power is not accurate, it is not helpful, and, most particularly, it is not biblical.
Power is not absolute. Instead, power is always situational and fluid.
My work in the NEXT Church community organizing certificate (offered through Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, in partnership with Metro IAF) has shown this to me. Through case studies, bible studies, and on-the-ground experiences, we’ve explored the dimensions in which power comes and goes, the ways in which power can be claimed and lost and reclaimed again.
This challenges me. “Power Is Fluid” challenges my theology and my way of seeing the world. This exposes how often I approach certain narratives and dialogues — be they religious, civic, political, familial, professional, etc — as fixed things, as discourses locked into templates of absolute power/ powerlessness.
Understanding power as fluid changes this. Understanding power as fluid means that I can never be certain of my own inherent “rightness,” even if I’ve ended up with the power in a situation. Power as fluid means I cannot understand an issue only by closing myself away in my office to think deeply about it. Power as fluid means that I must continually engage with others who are involved in an issue, looking around to learn from them, to learn who has power, who needs to get power, and how that exchange might unfold.
When power is framed as situational and fluid, those without power are invited to figure out ways to claim their power. Likewise, those with power are forced to confront that their own standing is temporary, impermanent.
Of course, those exchanging the power can block others from joining the exchange, block them from joining the board or the party or the informal golf dates. In this way, from the outside, power can look like something that is fixed and inherent.
But it is not. It is not. It is not.
Power is not absolute. The lowly shall be lifted up and the mighty brought down from their thrones. In Christ, all our earthly power is impermanent.
Yet, as a Christian, I must admit that there is one exception. The only power in the universe to remain absolute, fixed, inherent is the love of God in Christ revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit —and even God is always “doing a new thing!”
This adapting, “try a new thing” principle is brought home to me by the IAF stories — oh so many good stories! — of what it takes to get “to the table,” to get into a one-on-one relational meeting, to hold a decision-maker accountable. Clearly, it takes adaptation, agility, creativity, and failure.
Power is grasped when people understand that power is not absolute. Power is exchanged when people gather together and free themselves from the idea that power is a locked-up, locked-tight, done deal.
Our power is in knowing that all power is fluid — except for the inherently creative, abiding, loving, transforming, all-consuming power of God.
Kathryn Lester-Bacon is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. She is currently finishing up NEXT Church’s Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership. She enjoys life in the city with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Josie.