Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

The Joy of Weak Power

Previously.... Weakness (Part Two)

If God is not a God of hard power then we should aim to be a people who are not a people of hard power. How else can we claim to follow our God?

How , then, do we live in a world which sees hard power, even if judiciously applied, as the way to success? It is the way to make money. It is too often the only way to have good ideas heard. We need it to make the place safe; it's hard power that has Ivan Milat locked up, and I'm glad of it.

But it shall not be so among you, Jesus says. (Mark 10:43) For those who aspire to the Kingdom of Heaven, hard power is an indicator of failure to be kingdom.

If our use of the god-word is meant in some way to correlate with, and inform us of, basic ultimate realities, it is nonsensical to imagine a god which does not have some correlation with those realities as we experience them, or might potentially experience them. The god may call us from a far distant place, and severely challenge our present behaviour and ideals, but an impossible god is, well... impossible, and not helpful.

So, is the creation really being brought to fruition by the weak or soft powers of love, compassion, generosity and egalitarian cooperation? Or is that idea mere foolishness and a failure of moral fortitude? Did strong power beat Hitler, or love, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness? Even to ask the question seems ridiculous!

Not for nothing does Paul say the message of the cross is foolishness. (1 Cor 1:18) But among us (Mark 10:43) can it be different?

The first place to test the coherence of the notion of the weakness of God is not in some extreme situation such as the way Bonhoeffer acted in World War II, or even in the halls of Canberra. The first place to act is in our own life and congregation. If we cannot at least come near to what we espouse, why go further?

My theology of God has to pass what I call "The Fred Test." If weak power has nothing to say in the face of Fred it is a pointless word game.

Fred, like me, is some forty years a Christian. He has been a powerhouse of involvement and service in his community, far more visibly active than I have been. I admire his energy although, paradoxically, his enormous energy has done him great harm.

Like me, Fred is deeply insecure and longs for people to love and need him. I simply don't have the capacity and energy for being with people enough to make that happen. I've had the good fortune to be defeated and humiliated by my incompetence and my introversion; it's been a saving grace. Fred is still, by all accounts, working tirelessly to be needed and appreciated; you will need him, even if you don't. He is deeply passive aggressive, and if occasionally cornered, will say in front of witnesses that black is white, shortly after you and he have agreed that black is black. Some of those same witnesses may have been present when black was agreed to be black, but dare not contradict Fred.

My sense is that Fred was deeply unhappy, poor bugger, and deeply harmful to his community, which is the last thing he wanted. But unless he found other people's vision helpful to his being loved and needed he had the intransigence of a stone wall.

Fred nearly destroyed me. I was completely ineffective working with him, and in trying to work around his subterfuge and lies. The only time I ever made clear progress over a point of contention was when I saw Fred turning white with fear in a church meeting, and realised I was shouting at him, and about to explode in a completely destructive rage.

I can't "do" hard power. I don't like confrontation. If I move to impose my will I am more toxic than Fred. I cannot "talk softly and carry a big stick." It is "no stick at all, or you will destroy people." Is there any grace for me, or am I simply a failure? Is weak power simply an excuse, a rationalisation of my basic incompetence?

There are two things which must be said here; please be clear: Fred is a real but amalgam portrait of some folk for whom I still hold a certain fondness. If you think you can identify Fred, you are wrong. And Fred has been a vehicle of grace for me. His breaking of me has been a part of my healing for life.

How do we deal with simple intransigence, let alone the nastier side of the Freds in our congregations? Does weak power do anything? I remember a sermon where a colleague said, "This is our vision, and if you are not on board with this we would like you to leave." I was stunned. I sat with a friend as another colleague and the congregational elders bluntly told her to leave their congregation. It was all cloaked in pious lovey language, but underneath was naked hard power silencing a dissenting voice.

These memories horrify me, yet I have met intransigence which is "sinking the ship" and appears to leave no option but to silence or expel people, or to let the ship of the congregation go down. How do we live with Fred? Do we simply undergo a long crucifixion? Is that weak power?

In one place where there were deep divisions that threatened our future I tried another tack. I made the issues of contention the "fixed order of the day."

I sought to respect everyone by

  • providing a written copy of what I was saying. (That also protects me.)
  • affirming the positive and costly contributions everyone was making to the issue
  • outlining our shortcomings with concrete examples, but not naming people
  • explaining why these shortcomings were real and costly to everyone
  • listing my own shortcomings in with the rest and naming me
  • expressing my sense of the complexity of our situation, and being honest that I could not seek a clear way through

I then did something I accidentally discovered in my first parish. It helps if the minister goes and prepares supper somewhere else so that people can talk honestly and without restriction. Which they did— in shovels!

This is weak power. I could not defend myself. I could not clarify. I could not correct people. I could not defend people.

The issue was not solved. But there was no pretence that by expelling someone or crushing someone we had fixed things. It never works. I've seen people leave a parish when the minister has won, and come back five years later after he has gone, and take up their previous role.

What was changed was that everyone knew where everyone stood. I never managed that with Fred. The ridiculousness and unfairness of some attitudes was exposed with unmistakable clarity. People saw themselves with other people's eyes, and were stunned.

By the time I came back with the tea tray no one was holding back; in the end I had to calm us all down.

Because I had not enforced silence my analysis of the situation was confirmed, but also corrected and refined. I saw the strength and integrity of those who agreed with me far more clearly, and was heartened by their generosity of spirit. I saw the pain of those who, by their own lights, were trying to work for the congregation yet standing in the way. None of this was visible in our cliques and separate conversations. And hard power would have kept it that way.

Yes, all sides hurt. But all sides were much closer to each other. We saw each other's humanity. Nothing was solved, but everything was!

This was weak power. We had been called to a certain course of action, and the call of God was clearer than before. But those who were without the vision and were against it were not stopped. They were not purged. The issue would rise again. But we were whole in a new way.

If we had driven people out we would have compromised everything we stood for. I don't mean in some theoretical or philosophical sense. I mean in actuality.

Each time I have failed to avoid hard power it has damaged me. I still sometimes churn over actions from decades ago which are irredeemable. I know that in the worst case the object of my abuse is fine; I am the one with the problem. The sheer animality and un-human part of me has left me with scars which sometimes still weep.

Like Fred, I am often deeply tired— all that energy of (in my case) of avoidance. Weak power released me! I cannot win— there is no winning— this is a joyful recognition and release. I can be part of the Calling by God, but I do not have to win. I can give, and work with. It is not only release; it is also energising and healing, even thrilling, to find agreement together.

Those without the vision and who wish to stop it were not stopped. That intransigence was still there: the gossip, the slander, the evil eye. Weak power has to endure this and often far more. But in the aftermath of weak power I saw those same people not only as a problem and sometimes malicious— they were— but with a certain amount of pity and unbidden love. I had a glimpse of their pain. Weak power heals us.

Thomas Merton said— you'll see this as a header on Richard Beck's blog— "You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man (sic) for it is the image of God."

Weak power is human and humanising. Strong power dehumanises and corrupts. We are saved by the cross. Amen.

Andrew Prior


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