Power exists to be given away.
The reminder of this came as I listened to the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson preach at the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn via podcast last week, in a sermon entitled “Another World.” I hit pause when I heard her words, “It’s that exousia power that we share with one another, that gets bigger and stronger and bolder the more we pass it on to one another. You would be dangerous if you ever understood how powerful you are.”
To know this in your bones is to have experienced that dangerous power that erupts when courage, compassion and community collide into a force that threatens Empire. To know this is to have experienced the transformation that is only possible through a community that relies on one another. To know this is to have seen how power can multiply when we hold it loosely and share it liberally.
Power was meant to be given, to be received, to be shared – not to be taken.
It was a human hand, reaching for a piece of fruit, that was the first power grab. Seeking to take what was neither given nor offered. Interrupting the flow of power that knows its source only in God. Knowledge is power they say, scientia potestas est, and in reaching for it, the first humans sought to take what was not offered, to undermine and supplant the role of God as giver and install themselves – ourselves – in the role of taker.
To serve an omnipotent God is to serve a God who possesses all power, from whom all power is derived, to whom all power will return. To serve an omnipotent God is to hold loosely the power that is given to us, and discern wisely how we might best give and share it with others. In so doing, we move as we were intended to do within that limitless ocean flow, sending out our waves and anticipating their return. The ebb and flow of shared power connecting us to God and to one another.
When we fail to grasp this, we grab and tumble and struggle for power, driven by fear, striving not to slip beneath the waves.
Power, whenever grasped too tightly, held too closely, guarded, hoarded, defended exists within that tradition. We fear power, and we fear losing it. We know something is amiss, just as the first people did when they hid in fear and shame.
Knowledge, being one of the many forms that power takes – when hoarded and guarded from the community – continues to exist as that fruit ripped from the tree, growing rotten in our hand. A divider rather than a unifier. A rift between us and God, between us and Creation, between us and one another.
Even children, in their innocence, know the damage that this does. Even they feel this truth as they sing their schoolyard rhymes, “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.”
Power exists to be given away. In its giving and its receiving, love is made manifest, and we are bound to God and one another.
Sitting with twelve students around a fire on an overlook at the top of Mount Lemmon this weekend, the sounds of various conversations mingled together until one student asked me, “What do Methodists teach about hell?” All conversations stopped, as silence fell immediately. I answered, shared my thoughts, then said, “What do you think?” What followed was more than two hours of what many would later describe as the most significant spiritual conversation of their life. All because they were invited into the conversation as people with knowledge, voice and power. All because power was shared and not asserted. My power and spiritual authority in the group was not diminished, even when opinions differed; it was strengthened. We all were strengthened. Power grew because it was shared.
It is easier for me to talk about campfires and baking cakes than it is to talk about my life’s work in advocacy. Most people would know my work, but do not know my name; that has been a result of great intentionality and a particular orientation towards power that neither seeks it nor flees from it, but rather disperses it.
Power is not something we can flee from or avoid or reject, because we do still live in a patriarchal world that inflicts violence and oppression. We do still have a responsibility to work together to diminish that harm.
For instance, I have spent the past 20 years watching young men get paid more, promoted more, heard more. I have watched them nonchalantly step in and fill the spaces that I have tried to step back to leave for others, blissfully unaware that the default in this life is injustice and inequality and it is only through intentionality that we create a different world. To be silent about this, would be to adopt the position of accomplice in condoning the taking of power that our culture encourages. That is not the sharing of power to which I refer.
How then do we live in this world that seeks to crush the vulnerable? We live by different rules. We live as followers of the one who emptied godself of power, not the one who grabbed for the fruit, the knowledge, the power. We live by building another kind of power, serving another Kin-dom. We cannot set ourselves free by transitioning the power from their hands to ours. We must create a new kind of power, a new way of living.
When Dr. Janet Wolf brought me to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute this past summer, I came weary and desperate to be in beloved community, to saturate myself in this different way of living with like-minded people. Yet, I did not know that what I really needed to see was exactly what I found in Janet – the image of what this life looks like in the long term. There have been so many risks I’ve taken in this journey towards justice, so many moments that many feared I would not survive, that it has been hard for me to envision the longterm. Yet, she and others are living it and sharing it and inviting others to experience it – this beautiful power, flowing rather than contained.
This orientation towards power is a lifestyle. It is not the social viewpoints or convictions that must change in order to truly set us free. It is the way we relate to power altogether.
Whereas the first humans grasped for power that was not offered to them, our true guide, Jesus Christ, emptied himself of power – kenosis. He lived a very human life and was tempted in very human ways. He was tempted three times: to assert his power, to demonstrate his power, and lastly to seek more power. In all three instances, while he was tempted in the wilderness, his response was to resist the temptation, to reject an orientation toward power that would have created a distance within the divine and between the divine and us. He was focused and sacrificial in creating a different model for us.
This is why it is so important that we follow that example that has been set for us. It would be easy to say, “Why should we try this again? People have been trying to live this way for millennia, and injustice still exists.” Yes, true. And now it is our turn, our chapter, our moment to carry this particular orientation towards power forward, trusting the Messenger, the Creator, the Guide.
It is easy to point to the dangers inherent in trying to live as creators and not controllers. It is easy to see the way that fear tugs on our attention, turning our head aside from the beauty that God holds for us.
It is therefore incumbent to say clearly what a generous orientation towards power is and is not.
It is not to surrender to violent forces. It is to confront them.
It is not to surrender the vulnerable. It is to center them.
It is not to trade power in alliances and exchanges; giving the appearance of sharing power, while truly hoarding it for ourselves. Trading it rather than releasing it. Making a market of what God has given to us.
Rather, it is to acknowledge the Source of power, its ebb and flow, and that it is only passing through us as it flows forward to connect us to someone new.
It is to ask, What do you think? – sharing the task of theological creation, both intellectually and practically.
In 2015, when Sandra Bland died in a jail in Texas, I was a speaker and writer living forty minutes away. Four hours before she was arrested on July 10, 2015, I had just submitted the first chapter of my first book, a writing journey that had begun years before in another country. Sandra was a Methodist woman with a powerful voice, who also had many powerful things to say – and in the hours and days following her death I listened as she said them in the vlogs she made in the six months before her death. Beyond all the work that we did to make sure that her death was not erased, there was a more personal commitment that I made to her than simply to sit vigil in rural Texas for the months that followed her death and caused me to face the possibility of my own. The commitment was that wherever my voice was heard, her voice would be heard. That meant that every microphone that heard my voice, heard her voice – as I held the speaker of my phone up to the microphone. Whether a pulpit, a conference, or a protest – if I had the mic, then she had the mic. She spoke in the midst of sermons, at a planning meeting for the World Methodist Conference, at trainings for the Forum for Theological Exploration, and City Council Meetings. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always welcome – but it was always just, and it was always necessary. In the sharing of power, in the way it flowed, something shifted, something changed. Praise be to the Source of all Power that shares with us that we might share with others.
Power exists to be given away.
If this seems impractical, and out of touch with the needs of institutional survival, then we must wonder what kind of power do we seek? What kind of community are we building? What kind of god do we serve?
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”