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Calculating Privilege, Abusing Power

When visiting my father a few years ago, I took off the bookshelf his high school yearbook. As I read the comments of his classmates in his senior yearbook, I was struck by a theme. They mostly all commented on his aptitude for leadership. Leadership—the ascension to power--was the concern of his times. Now those who know my father might be surprised by this, as he always absolutized respecting the autonomy of others rather than manipulating them to do as he led. He rarely sought or accepted leadership tasks in his adult life. I wondered, what about leadership was so compelling to his classmates?

I compare my own senior yearbook. The theme of the comments of my classmates was what a character I was. My sense of humor, my irreverence, and my pranks against the school as a senior. Individuality, rather than leadership, was the priority of my high school culture.

Now my father and I grew up in the same privilege but very different Americas. He came of age during the Truman administration, I during Nixon’s. My generation distrusted power. My father was raised to assume power, not evade or be suspicious of it. His generation was raised to take over leadership roles and power in society without questioning their right to enter into them. He was raised for the power meant to deploy on behalf of the deprived and disempowered. Yet by the time of my generation, I noticed that my peers who chose to pursue power did so remarkably free of any concept of “noblesse oblige,” that is, the ethic that the privileged are responsible to exercise their power to serve the underprivileged. The earlier sense of privilege of my father’s generation derived from 3 prior generations schooled in the Social Gospel. These earlier elites adopted power as their right of privilege. They justified their power by their applying it for the sake of others, not just their cronies.

Nixon’s leadership and abuse of power created cynicism in my own generation, and an ethic of “grabbing what one could” from society began to take hold. Privilege and power went hand in hand in both generations, but the application of power for social rather than selfish ends began to change. Power began to serve itself. This outbreak of power and privilege reinforcing each other for the benefit of elites has come to dominate our post-modern age.

In post-modern culture, truth itself began to be deconstructed to reveal issues of underlying power. By the 1960s, radical skepticism began to be applied to truth claims because these claims were seen as buttressing power, and power was becoming to be understood as illegitimate by those lacking it. Nixon had abused power, and politics became more culturally perceived as serving the economic and cultural interests of elites. A developing mistrust of truth served the deconstruction of the legitimacy of power. There’s an irony here: in combatting power, lies have been favored which only further entrenches power. Untruth has now come to characterize our current historical moment. While American political leaders have always used falsehood tactically for governance, our current political leadership strategically lies, employs propaganda, and denigrates competing truth claims as “fake news.” Trump heaps abuse on the press as "liars" and "sick" and "un-American.” The post-modern turn to suspicion of truth has made falsehood a normal power ploy. In this political environment, ordinary citizens are becoming inured to the possibility of accessing truth. They believe facts are indeterminate. Many only believe what feels good to them--that which supports their preconceived picture of the world. The loss of ability to perceive truth is itself the loss of power. Some of this suspicion regarding truth is a result of the escalating complexity of the post- modern world. The ignorant, resentful, and lazy often cannot trouble themselves to train in the intellectual virtues of discerning the good and the scientifically true. Instead, as a default they look to authorities and authoritarian leaders to broadcast tweets and bromides that deceptively simplify issues and demonize opponents.

What are we to make of this state of political affairs? How do we recapture a view of power that faithfully mediates truth and exercises privilege for the greater good? The Apostle Paul in this morning’s reading brings us an astonishing assertion: “power is made perfect in weakness.” This confounds our understanding of power, which we normally experience as an exercise of force—often violent force. One common definition of Power is the ability to have effect through the sanction of force. Through recent experience, humans have come to identify power with the ability to compel others to do another’s bidding. That compellence is often violent, as when we speak of military power. It’s hard in today’s America to think of power without militarism or weapons coming to mind.

But Paul is leading us to consider that power is not based on our normal expectations of force and violence. “Power is made perfect in weakness” seems like a paradox to us living with continual war on terrorism and crime. Paul is commenting on the danger of coercive power, as in the British historian Lord Acton’s dictate, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Paul may be asserting that power in weakness evades the corruption that power applied through force engenders. It is my experience that power is a temptation: too much of it does corrupt, but I believe there is some threshold amount of power below which can be applied for the good of the dispossessed and deprived. “Power made perfect in weakness” may indeed be a useful lesson for those of us who have power in society. In the church, our greatest power is the ability to act as a truth-telling conscience for leaders. We speak truth to power in the weakness of our Christian identities that locates all sovereign power in God. Because all power is God’s, Christians are to display a suitable humility and training in the truth of justice as the legitimate instruments of power delegated to us by God. In the post-modern confusion about where truth lies—and to what ends power applies—our virtue of humility and training in God’s word of and for justice make up the implements in our struggle to bring in God’s kingdom--for the benefit of the weak no less than the strong.

Those are my first two lessons from this morning’s scripture assertion that “power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul's claim guides us to a habit and virtue of humility in asserting truth. Second, we recognize that whatever power we have—pastoral or financial, intellectual or compassionate—whatever power we have can be a temptation unless we use it for the weak. And my third lesson from this morning’s claim that “power is made perfect in weakness” is that we can raise the threshold where power begins to corrupt through training in civic literacy and the development of political and personal virtue. Through the virtue of recollection, we update our beliefs to match our experience. Recollecting our historical and social practice of power is to evaluate their effects toward a just community.

The entire bible--both testaments--is concerned with sovereign power. In consultation with the Word, we humbly subordinate ourselves to God’s justice and practice the habit of recollecting how we have used or abused power. These virtues of humility and recollection demonstrate where and how we exist in God’s well-ordered society, where hierarchies of power and favor are upside down from all natural expectation.

The Framers of the Constitution shared the Reformed Protestant distrust of amassed and corrupting power. They recognized that for governance, power was necessary to accomplish the common and universal defense of personal freedom (save, lamentably, for slaves). They also recognized that Paul’s “power of weakness” was a wisdom that directed them to design a government that checked and balanced power. 3 branches of government, a split branch in the legislative, rules regarding supermajorities and electoral colleges. These structures were explicitly designed to control the abuse of amassed power that, when raised above its corrupting threshold, gives rise to tyranny and social dysfunction.

And yet, increasing concentration of wealth has solidified power in incumbents in the legislative branches of both states and nation. Alongside the advent of Citizen’s United decision of the Supreme Court, an authoritarian turn in the executive branch has brought us dysfunctional government. Its abuses of power have drastically inhibitd ordinary collective action from the grassroots.

In this political environment of disimagination and disinformation, a form of historical consciousness which I call the virtue of recollection is essential in repaying our debt to the Constitution’s Framers by holding accountable those who abuse power and who retreat from any sense of moral responsibility. Including Trump’s promotion of white supremacy, obstructions of justice, and the corruption of men like EPA director Pruitt,[1] Interior Secretary Zinke,[2] and Commerce Secretary Ross,[3] rampant abuses of power in the Executive Branch must be addressed by collective action that assembles power in its individual weakness deriving from silent outrage.

As my and my father’s yearbooks show, we came from a family with privilege. Privilege is not power, privilege is the access to power. I was recently told that my height gave me privilege. I confess that I was irritated at being told this. Privileges have become identified with the abuses of power all around us. I accept that I am privileged by race, sex, sexual orientation, and economics, but marking my height seemed a particularly trivial accusation. I thought immediately of airline seating. Because power is so suspect in post-modern culture, privilege has become its proxy. I think this is a problem for leftist politics which has grasped onto the rhetorical denunciation and calculation of privilege at the expense of team building.

Partisans for humanization in politics, also known as Progressives, have become focused, in their post-modern suspicions, on accusing others of bearing a corrupting privilege from their own claimed social vantage of powerless. These partisans may claim: "You aren't 'woke' enough," "You are too privileged for me to take seriously," "You couldn't possibly understand my situation enough for me to work with you ..."

Claiming political authenticity based on one’s lack of privilege can devolve into a posture of piety. That piety has been manipulated by Russian propagandists and Western plutocrats to create political division and separation rather than community. This identity posturing can make us susceptible to believe the worst of those “not like me.” This is piety which separates. As we’ve learned in the church, pietistic posturing of any kind drives a wedge of separation between those with whom one might otherwise find common cause. “Given how weak and fragmented the organized Left is, and how crucial it is to maintain what's left of a decent civil society (free press, rule of law, etc), we all need to come together -- liberals, moderates, progressives, radicals --to defeat Trump.”

Yet, peripheral progressives seem often to relish destroying ally and foe alike in their quest to display their righteousness and pious integrity that never compromises. In our contemporary political and environmental crisis, radical autonomy derails collective action. Radical autonomy instead serves elites’ interests: it is “bowling alone” in the political sphere. Atomization of identity through the calculus of privilege inhibits the team building the left needs to undertake.

My friend Virginia Vitzthum, an activist based in Brooklyn, said, “I hear you, Doug, but our team has more people who have been ignored, silenced, belittled, etc. in ways overt and subtle. So part of being on the inclusive team is making sure we're not shutting anyone down. Our team has a much bigger lift -- true equality -- but it's worth the work, even when historical anger seems unfairly directed at you personally.”

Granted. If I am to embody the virtue of humility, I must defer to the historically ignored, colonized, silenced and belittled. For the sake of collective action and team building, I must put aside my irritation at potential allies’ calculating my privilege. I must instead try to apply my privilege to bring about God’s kingdom for the benefit of the weak and oppressed.

I want to conclude with one more thought about power. In witnessing Trump’s abuse of it, I note he has identified but abused for his own purposes three Constitutional checks on power: compellence, obstruction, and pardon. His administration is forcibly compelling parents to leave behind their children at the southern border. His administration is obstructing laws and regulations on the books, such as Environmental Protection and provisions of the Affordable Care Act. His family is also considering, if they haven’t already, obstructing the legal process by the Mueller investigation. But most intriguingly to me, Trump, earlier than any other modern president, is exploring the Constitutional power to pardon those found guilty of federal crimes. He is even asserting that he has the power to pardon himself, something Nixon also explored. The way Trump is exploring the power of pardon is characteristically intended as an obstruction of justice and abuse of power, in that he is contemplating pardoning his cronies whom he tweets have been “treated unfairly.”[4]

But the power of pardon is a real power. It is not power as we often think of it, involving force or obstruction. As we see in the ultimate display of weakness-- in the full suffering of the Cross--Jesus demonstrates the transformative power of pardon. God’s power demonstrated in Jesus’ weakness is the power of pardon and cosmic forgiveness.

So my last lesson from this morning’s scripture is to practice power in weakness by pardoning others. By our pardoning others, we practice God’s true power of weakness. We know that it is God’s power because forgiveness creates community, while the powers of compellence and obstruction do not. In pardoning, we bring about a calmer and saner world. In pardoning, “we the people” create community. “We the people” instituted pardon in our Constitution. In pardon, we can create a new world!

"Don't despise the small but significant symbolic act [of pardon]. We live still in this [grandiose] dream which says, 'Unless you can change the whole thing, it's not even worth trying.' That's not what Jesus did. Jesus performed small but significant symbolic acts, each one of which was freighted with kingdom meaning.... [He] model[ed] genuine [forgiveness] in…[building]…relationships"[5] from a position that gave up strength, that found power in weakness.

Do this with a commitment to honesty.

Do this with a posture of humility.

Do this, practicing recollection.

This is our disciples’ walk of power inside Jesus’ weakness.

“For whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul noted. Whenever we are weak, we are most dependent on our faith and trust in God—when we are most aware of how God’s power is close and working through us.

What the world sees as weakness--our faith and compassion--is real power! God will keep faith with us if we keep faith with God! “When the power of love overcomes love of power the world will know peace."[6]

Let it be so for you and me. AMEN





[5] N. T. Wright, quoted by Rachel Marie Stone in "Eat With Joy."

[6] Sri Chinmoy

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1 Comment

Douglas Olds
Douglas Olds
Jul 08, 2018

Another reference for a statement in this sermon:

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