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This page is an excerpt from a page of the Gamaliel website - www.gamaliel.org

"Power" Is Not a Bad Word

Some people are put off by the blatant appeal to power, which is an integral part of congrega­tion-centered organizing. We tend to think of power as manipulative, as domineering, as too political, as "power over" someone else, and we suspect such power is out of keeping with our Christian values. We recall Lord Acton's famous dictum: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely."


More recently, however, we have come to recognize that power in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Power is nothing more than the ability to accomplish something.


Whether the goal is to accomplish something helpful or harmful is another question, but power itself is a necessary ingredient for any action. Power is constitutive of life.


Think of some of the positive ways power is treated in our scriptures. Whether the technical term is exousia, sometimes translated as "author­ity," or dynamis, usually rendered as "power," the New Testament often uses the concept in a positive and godly manner.


Thus Jesus is said to have had a reputation for ministering "with authority and power" (Luke 4:36), and he gave his disciples "authority ... over all the power of the enemy." (Luke 10:19)


After his resurrection, according to Matthew (28:18), he reminded them that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and then he assured his followers that he will be with us to the very end. And before his ascension, according to Luke (Acts 1:8), he promised his followers that "'you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you."


St. Paul was not afraid to admit to the Philippians (3:10) that he wanted "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering." When he described his ministry to the Thessalonians, he insisted that "our mes­sage of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction." (1 Thess. 1:5)


And years later he could assure the Romans (1:16) that the Gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith."


You can't frame an entire theology of power on a handful of selected texts. But these examples should demonstrate that the concept of power is a respected and valuable scriptural concept.

More to the point is the question whether we will accumulate power in God-pleasing ways and for God-pleasing purposes. We need to focus not on "power over" but on "power with."

And Neither Is "Self-Interest"

Such power is generated by and expended on behalf of our mutual self-interest. Which can be another off-putting phrase. At first glance a phrase like "self-interest" looks too much like "selfishness," and we all know that Christian people are not supposed to be selfish.


If Jesus taught us anything, it is that we are to be self-giving; we are to promote the welfare of others, if necessary even at the expense of sacri­ficing ourselves.


Self-denial, self-giving, selfishness, self-love, selflessness, self-interest-it may not be easy to sort these concepts out clearly.


For starters, imagine that "selfish" is at one end of the spectrum and "selfless" is at the opposite end. Clearly, selfishness is not in keeping with our Christian principles, because if you are selfish you want everything for yourself and nothing for your neighbor.


On the other hand, selflessness may not be commendable either. For if you were completely selfless, you would try to take everything away from yourself and give it to your neighbor. Ultimately, if one were entirely self-less, there would be no self left! It would be a kind of suicide.


Think of "self-interest" as the middle term between "selfish" and "selfless," and recognize that our self-interest is never a personally private matter. Our self-interest is always formed in the context of the people around us whom we respect and admire.


So what we are promoting is our mutual self-interest, which is a product of the values we share together. When Jesus and Paul commanded us to "love your neighbor as yourself," (Mark 12:31, Romans 13:9) they were appealing to an appropriate form of self-interest, one that respects both our own and our neighbor's needs.


Thus in the context of congregation-centered organizing, "self-interest" is always a short-hand term for "our mutual self-interest based on our shared values."


So when Christian people and responsible citizens can work together on the basis of their shared values and mutual self-interest, we can more powerfully and effectively strive for the common good of the communities and neighbor­hoods in which we live and work and play. In short-and properly understood!- self-interest is the key to effective organizing. 


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