Friday 22 February 2019

The Gift of Power

The below article was written for the WorkForum at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ So says Uncle Ben to his nephew, Peter Parker, at least as the line appears in the 2002 movie version of the Spider-Man story. That’s good advice for superheroes, perhaps, who might be tempted to use their powers for personal gain, fulfilling Lord Acton’s famous dictum that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

But we don’t have to look too far to see the corrupting tendency of power. In Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (London: Penguin, 2013), David Priestland offers an intriguing account of history as a competition for power between the three major groups of his title. These ‘castes’ (as he terms them) – symbolic of capitalists, militarists, and the intelligentsia – are locked in a struggle for power which triggers a crisis (war, revolution, or economic collapse) when any one of them gains prominence. Hence, according to this account, the West is now paying the price for succumbing to the values of the ‘merchants’ with their belief in the market and their pursuit of profit.

Inevitably, whether and how far Priestland has overplayed his hand is up for grabs. In addition, there is a yet bigger story against which we, as Christians, might understand power. According to Andy Crouch, in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), Christians often see power as a danger to be avoided rather than a gift to be stewarded. But we best understand power, Crouch says, as we see ourselves made in the image of God, called to cultivate creation, to ‘make something of the world’ – building houses, designing software, writing poetry, baking cakes, teaching children. In this way, all of us – not just those thought to be ‘powerful’ – have ‘great power’ and are responsible for using it well.

For instance, we image God when we manage people. When we do that well, and in a way that reflects our union with Christ, we’re countering the argument that power and authority can’t be trusted. If I use my authority as a boss or a leader or a manager well, I’m painting in a positive light God who is the source of all authority. It’s no surprise that in Ephesians 6:9, Paul connects the master’s authority with God’s authority: ‘you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven’, he tells masters. In stewarding well what God gives us – including our leadership roles – we say something of who God is and what God is like.

Robert comes to mind as an example. When he was promoted and made head of his department, Robert was concerned that his opportunities for evangelism would disappear. Most of the people he worked with would be working for him, and he’d have to be sensitive to this and not abuse his position. As it turned out, he found he had more opportunities to share the gospel, and it almost always came from using his authority for the benefit of his team instead of his own benefit. Robert’s way of exercising power was different, and people would talk to him about it.

To be sure, in a damaged and distorted world, power has the potential to be misused and misdirected, abused and abusive, leading to idolatry and injustice. But true power is exercised on behalf of others, and is concerned with cultivating the best environment for someone or something to thrive – in line with God’s original design for his world.

Here as elsewhere, Christians take their cue from Christ himself, in whose image we are being recreated. In this way, we exercise the gift of power every day, often in mundane ways, but infused with love and seasoned with confidence in God’s plan to restore all things.

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