Friday 24 January 2014

Great Power

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by 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 especially tempted to use their powers for personal gain, fulfilling Lord Acton’s famous dictum that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

We don’t have to look too far to see the corrupting tendency of power. In Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (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. As it happens, however, there is a yet bigger story against which we might understand power. According to Andy Crouch, in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP, 2013), Christians often see power as a danger to be avoided rather than a gift to be stewarded. 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 clothes, writing poetry, baking cakes, teaching children, managing people. In this way, all of us – not just those thought to be ‘powerful’ – have real power and are responsible for using it well.

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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