Thursday, 31 March 2022

Power Within

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
3rd April 2022 


John 19.1-16a 
 
I don’t know if you noticed, but today’s reading is shot through
            with language about power, and examples of its use and misuse.
 
There are symbols of power:
            a crown, a purple robe, and a judgment seat;
and there are examples of structural power:
            appeals to the law, appeals to God, appeals to the emperor;
and at every turn, this language of power
            is subverted, questioned, and deconstructed.
 
So this morning, I want us to think about power,
            it’s use and misuse, it’s symbols and structures,
            and its relation to us as disciples of Jesus.
 
Many of us who have come from a Christian background
            have a perspective on power
            that it is, in some sense, inherently corrupt and corrupting.
 
We’ve come to believe that it’s the antithesis of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’,
            and we’ve been told that we should forsake all the temptations of power
                        in our quest for a higher, more spiritual way of being,
                        that following Jesus opens before us.
 
Well, I want to question that orthodoxy this morning,
            and I hope to show that not only is power not inherently immoral,
but that for us to be agents of God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace,
            we need to have a far more open and honest conversation about power,
            and how it functions in the world and in our lives.
 
I want to suggest that, a bit like its close relative money,
            power is neither inherently good nor evil.
Rather, its morality is determined by how it is used.
 
So firstly, let’s bust a couple of myths about money and power.
 
It is not true that ‘money is the root of all evil’,
            and neither is it true that ‘all power corrupts absolutely’.
 
Rather, starting with money,
            in his letter to the young Timothy, St Paul says the following:
“But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  
(1 Tim. 6:9-10).
 
And similarly with power, William Pitt the Elder, the then British Prime Minister,
            said in a speech in the House of Lords in 1770, that:
                        Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”
something which Lord Acton coined into the more popular incarnation of the phrase,
            writing, in a letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887, that:
                        Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
                        Great men are almost always bad men.
 
Neither money, nor power, are in and of themselves evil or corrupt,
            but rather they can both be misused in the service of corruption and evil;
and they need to be handled with care,
            lest they tempt us to acts of sinful avarice and domination.
 
So let’s think a bit more about power,
            and what a Christ-like approach to power might look like,
both in terms of our relationships with one another,
            and the way we seek to address the ‘powers that be’ in the world.
 
To help us in this, I’d like to introduce four kinds of power,
            and my suspicion is that for most of us,
                        it’s only the first one that we tend to engage with
                        when we think of what makes something or someone powerful.
 
And this first, and pervasive, kind of power
            I’m going to call ‘power over’.
 
This is the kind of power that is implemented by the use of force,
            coercion, domination, and control.
It is the kind of power that is reinforced by fear.
 
And the key thing about ‘power over’ is that it treats power
            as if it were a finite resource.
If I have more power, you have less;
            or if you have more, I must have less.
 
In mathematical terms, it treats power as a zero sum game,
            where advantage for one side involves an equivalent loss for the other side.
 
It’s a bit like cutting a cake,
            where there is only so much cake on the plate,
            and if one person has a larger slice there is less for everyone else.
 
‘Power over’ has winners and losers,
            it’s like a game of chess, or a race.
 
We’re programmed by society to think of power in this way:
            My MP has more power than I do.
            Putin has more power than Zelenskyy.
            The preacher has more power than the congregation.
            The rich have more power than the poor.
            The educated have more power than the uneducated.
            White people have more power than people of colour.
 
And we can see many examples of ‘power over’ in our reading for this morning:
            Pilate has power over Jesus,
                        to have him flogged, mocked, questioned, released, or executed.
            The Emperor has power over Pilate.
            The Chief Priests start off with less power than Pilate,
                        but by appealing to the law and the emperor, they gain power over him,
                        and he in turn becomes afraid of them.
 
You can see how the balance of power swings within the narrative,
            backwards and forwards between the various characters,
with some gaining it, and others losing it,
            as they vie for power over each other.
 
And we can see this in our world, and in our lives:
            this is how the world works, or at least that’s what we’ve been told.
 
We can see this kind of power at work in church life too,
            as people take power over others.
 
My former colleague Roy Kearsley wrote an amazing book
            on Church, Commmunity, and Power,[1]
in which he reflects on ‘power over’ as a force in church life.
 
A couple of quotes for you:
 
Church as a living community cannot afford to be casual or complacent
            about something as formative for its life together as power.
It must be alert to power’s pervasive presence,
            the elephant in the room that no-one talks about.
And once awakened to the fact that power relations and strategies are indeed dangerous,
            it has to avoid falling back into any form of denial
            concerning the sociological reality of power at work within its processes.
Especially, church should take note of the hidden levers
            that can in a crisis suddenly clunk into action
            or deantly be shifted to a tactical off-position.
 
He goes on:
 
The uncomfortable truth is that power in churches
            often serves as the real cause of changes, whether positive or negative.
Even in our highly democratized society,
            power rather than policy often still turns out to be
            the single most decisive factor in strategies developed by small groups.
It can arise as the most immediate and pressing factor in every undertaking,
            despite accompanying solemn discussions
            about theology, finance and management.
Power, this slippery element of human relations,
            frequently manages to mutate or reincarnate in some form…
Power is possibly the element that is least understood, explored, or explained
            in groups like churches, even though it is pervasive.
Time and again it is the determining issue
            even around such core activities as mission,
            worship, pastoral care and sacrament.
 
So, there we have it: ‘power over’ is, I think, fundamentally problematic.
            It is the dominant conception of power in society and institutional life,
                        and its zero-sum game approach inherently diminishes some
                        whilst advantaging others.
 
But thankfully, ‘power over’ is not the only power-game in town.
 
London Citizens, the community organising network that Bloomsbury is a part of,
            suggests that the antidote to ‘power over’ is ‘power with’.
 
When someone is trying to dominate you, coerce you, or control you,
            you can resist by building power in collaboration, through relationships.
 
‘Power with’ is power built on respect, mutual support, solidarity, and influence.
            It builds bridges within groups, or across difference,
            and it can lead to collective action.
 
If, as Christians, we are to reject and resist ‘power over’,
            we can, surely, embrace the concept of ‘power with’.
 
This is, after all, the kind of power that Jesus built
            throughout his ministry.
 
At his temptation he resisted the offer of ‘power over’,
            declining to take political or religious or economic power for himself,
            refusing to build his kingdom through domination and fear.
 
Instead, he called disciples, he built a community,
            he invested in meaningful relationships,
            he built power with, not over.
 
In our passage for today, the disciples are notably absent,
            they’ve been silenced by fear, scattered by anxiety,
but they will re-emerge,
            and the community that began with Jesus and a few devoted disciples,
will grow to discover their strength together,
            their power to act collectively
            to challenge the monolithic institutions of powerful domination
 
It is no surprise that almost all of the great social justice movements in human history
            have their origins in religious convictions,
because as people give their allegiance to one another,
            working together to subsume their individual will-to-power
            in the interest of the greater good,
so possibilities for a new and better future emerge,
            as ‘power over’ is undermined by the greater force of ‘power with’.
 
This is why I’m so passionate about our involvement in the work of Citizens UK,
            and why it was so amazing
            to be part of the action this last week in Parliament Square,
as we brought the organised power of community
            to bear on the key instrument of power in our land,
to articulate a challenge for justice for those who are living with in-work poverty,
            as they care for the sick and vulnerable in society.
 
Now - here we have to pause for a moment, and ask a question:
            did our display of ‘power with’, our ‘power together’
            succeed in getting a real living wage for health and social care workers in the UK?
 
The answer, of course, is no - at least, ‘not yet’.
 
One of the sayings of Community Organising
            is that you get the justice that you have the power to demand.
And although we got attention, and we got some significant commitments from politicians,
            there is more to be done before justice is achieved.
 
And although, like the disciples at the trial of Jesus,
            we may have scattered back to our communities for a while,
we will come together again, more powerfully in the future,
            and the world as is will take a step closer
                        to becoming the world as it should be.
Or, as Jesus might have put it, the kingdom of God will come, on earth, as it is in heaven,
            and it will do so as we keep the faith
            and keep building ‘power with’ others.
 
So, ‘power over’, and ‘power with’…
 
But there are two further aspects of power
            I’d like to draw out of our reading for this morning.
 
The third kind of power I’m going to call the ‘power to…’
 
This is the power to act, the power to make a difference,
            the power to create, the power to achieve.
 
This is the power that each of us deserves,
            the power to be, to exist, to love, to live in freedom.
 
And this is something that, if ‘power with’ is successful,
            can belong to each of us, whoever we are.
 
The thing is, power, it turns out, is not actually a zero sum game.
            Empowering the poor, the marginalised, and the disenfranchised,
            is not about taking power from some one else.
 
This really is a game where all can be winners.
 
It’s a bit like education, one of the most effective tools
            for building the ‘power to…’ in communities.
 
Educating more people does not mean un-educating others.
 
Despite the fears of lowest-common-denominatorism,
            widening access to education
            has proved to be one of the most enabling factors
                        in giving individuals from across the social spectrum
                        the power to be, the power to determine their own lives.
 
And here, I want us to consider for a moment
            not the characters in the story of Jesus’ trial,
            nor even those strategically absent from it,
but rather those for whom this story was written in the first place,
            the community who first received John’s gospel.
 
This is a Christian community,
            about fifty or sixty years after the events of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
They have separated from their parent religion of Judaism,
            and are no longer worshipping in the synagogues.
Their community is made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles,
            so it is both culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse.
 
And as they separated from Judaism, they had lost the small legal concessions
            that the empire had granted to the Jewish people
            in terms of freedom of religion.
 
In other words, these were a people
            whose ‘power to be’ was now severely curtailed.
 
And in the gospel’s deconstruction of ‘power over’,
            and it’s description of a new community who shared ‘power with’,
we find the writer of the gospel encouraging his readers
            that their route to a recovery of ‘power to’ lies not with the will-to-power,
            but through a rediscovery of the collective power of community.
 
And the church today would do well to remember this:
            it is not for us to cry foul every time we perceive some slight against us.
Those kind of Christians who see every freedom for another
            as a diminishment of their own rights
            are falling into a fatal trap here.
 
It should never be for Christians to defend their own rights
            by diminishing the rights of others,
rather we should be at the forefront
            of arguing and taking action to establish the right
            of all people to have the ‘power to be’.
 
Christendom was a selling out of the vision of Jesus,
            as his followers sought political and established power over.
 
The true path to the ‘power to be’ is found not in power over,
            but in a recovery of the power that is found in collective action,
            as we stand alongside others who are different to us,
            fearlessly taking our place in the world not to dominate, but to love.
 
Which brings me to the fourth and final aspect of power
            that I’d like to draw out from our reading this morning.
 
We’ve deconstructed ‘power over’,
            we’ve seen how the alternative is found in ‘power with’,
and we’ve seen how this can unlock the ‘power to’.
 
Well, finally, we come to ‘power within’,
            this is the sense of your own capacity, your own self-worth.
 
In our passage, this is exemplified by the actions of Jesus.
            It seems that everyone has power over him,
                        from the chief priests, to Pilate, to the empire or Rome.
 
And yet… Jesus, for all his powerlessness, is the one person in this story
            whose power cannot be threatened.
Because his power comes from within, not without.
 
Edwin Friedman, the Jewish Rabbi and specialist in Family Systems Therapy,
            calls this the ‘differentiation of self’,
and it describes the capacity of a person
            to be so grounded in their own sense of who they are,
            that they are not threatened by forces beyond themselves.
 
You can see this in the way Jesus responds to Pilate,
            firstly refusing to answer him, just sitting there quietly,
            and then when he does speak, critiquing Pilate’s very basis of power.
 
This, if I’m honest, is the power that I aspire to:
            the power to be most fully myself, within myself,
            not answerable to the power of others, whatever it may be,
            because I know before God who I have been created to be.
Graham Stuart says that
            ‘Power within’ involves people having a sense of their own capacity and self-worth.
            and it allows people to recognise their “power to” and “power with”,
            and believe they can make a difference.[2]
 
So in our church community, I suggest that
            we want to nurture ‘power with’, ‘power to’, and ‘power within’,
            whilst resisting the temptation to operate from a position of ‘power-over’.
 
And in our engagement with the world,
            our aim should not be to maximise our power over other people,
but rather to create the conditions whereby power [itself] can be shared.
 
To conclude, as Severyn Bruyn and Paula Rayman put it,
            in their book, ‘Nonviolent action and social change’:
The purpose is to create the conditions
            in which each individual’s opportunity to exercise power is maximized
            in the context of the larger community.[3]
 
Or, as Jesus put it,
            ‘You would have no power… unless it had been given you from above’.



[3] Bruyn, S., & Rayman, P. (Eds.). (1979). Nonviolent action and social change. New York: Irvington Publishers. p.21.