A decade ago, I sat in the back of a room in the Palestinian territories. I was a part of a delegation of US American Christians traveling throughout Israel and Palestine in an effort to understand the conflict there more fully. The overall objective of our presence became evident as I listened to a prominent Palestinian leader say, “We’ve brought you here so that you can see for yourselves what is real in this place. We’ve brought you here so that you can return home and build power to change our reality.”
Five years ago, I journeyed with colleagues to Ferguson, MO to learn from the activists and peacemakers who, in the wake of Mike Brown’s death-by-cop, sought a holistic change in their city. Training sessions included topics such as non-violent direct action, viral storytelling, and surviving the protest. The one that caught my attention was “Building Power to Change our Future.”
A few days after the Presidential inauguration in 2017, I was a part of convening hundreds of dominant culture people of faith and good conscience in Bend, OR. These people were outraged by the election’s results and wanted to “do something to change the system.” Leveraging their unrest, we decided to focus on our migrant neighbor as they were the ones in our midst who were most dehumanized throughout the campaign. They were the ones at risk. After 90 minutes of learning and training on practical ways of being present to our neighbors, a local influencer stood up and offered that the only way to beat power is not by grassroots relationship-building but by building power.
Last weekend, I facilitated an Immersion Trip into the borderlands between San Diego and Tijuana. The delegation was comprised of faith leaders from coast to coast. After three days of exposure to the human stories of our broken immigration system and training on the comprehensive (internal, interpersonal, and systemic) peacemaking way of Jesus, our delegation began to synthesize their learnings. One gentleman, who happened to be the most restless of the group, said, “Peacemaking sounds great. But the only way this system changes is if we build power and then leverage it in Washington D.C.”
I’m troubled by the strategy that has been adopted by Christians of “building power” in order to achieve a desired outcome. It seems that James Hunter was equally intrigued by this phenomenon. Thus the questions that frame To Change the World: “How do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the later modern world?” and What role might Christians play in remaking the world?
Hunter begins by wondering about the intersection of Christianity and world change. He highlights the “common view” of culture change arguing that it “comes from transforming the habits and dispositions of ordinary people.” This kind of change, argues Hunter, is thought to occur by changing the hearts and minds (worldview) of one individual at a time; can be willed into being; and is democratic in that it occurs from the bottom up.
Hunter then points to how American Christians have historically sought to deploy this common strategy through evangelism, political engagement, and social reform. The idea, according to Chuck Colson, was that if enough Christians were good citizens, carried out their civic duty, engaged directly in politics, and acted as society’s conscience, then culture would shift from a secular ethic to a Christian one. Colson’s commentary undergirds much of what I heard in the aforementioned illustrations: American Christians seem to believe that civic engagement, generally, and voting, specifically, are strategies for building power. Toward what end? Perhaps the desired outcome is the “Christianizing” of the United States and, ultimately, of the entire world.
This strategy for culture change “is almost wholly mistaken.” It isn’t working.
According to his research, culture isn’t created in the hearts and minds of individuals. Thus, culture change “does not occur when there is a change in the beliefs and values in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.” Rather, culture is generated in the ideas that are embedded within “very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.” Thus, “the potential for world change is greatest when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose.”
Hunter’s research should create a crisis for followers of Jesus. How do we reconcile this contemporary strategy for culture change (the accumulation and leveraging of power in a desired direction) with the change-making that Jesus employed (the laying down of power for the sake of the common good)? What do we make of a strategy that prioritizes the elites and power brokers over and above the common folk and marginalized communities? Is this strategy a Christian approach and does it change anything, or, is it “deeply problematic, shortsighted, and…profoundly corrupt?” And, perhaps most profoundly, was building power in order to change the culture a priority of Jesus?
In her review on To Change the World, Jenny Taylor points to Hunter’s argument that power built and leveraged to change culture was not a priority of Jesus. Thus, it should not be ours. Hunter writes: “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world…it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
Building power politically to change the culture is a strategy that compromises the message of the gospel and mars the witness of the Christian movement. To secure power in an immoral way to wield a “moral” agenda is antithetical to the good news that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. Further, this accumulation of power frequently occurs under the banner of the Christian God, as it is in the contemporary moment, has (perhaps irreparably?) damaged the Christian witness throughout the globe.
So where does this leave us? How do we become a hopeful alternative to the power-over approach to culture change that “could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane?” First, we must discover and redefine power through the lenses of Jesus as “the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate.” Second, we must learn to leverage this power to engage in counter-cultural presence, and proximity that generates solidarity. Third, we must learn to enact our solidarity sacrificially on behalf of the marginalized and creation as an expression of worship to Creator and honor of the created.
 Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ix.
 This question is posed in my language.
 Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World., 8.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 91.
 Jenny Taylor, “Changing the World Through Faithful Presence: A Book Review of To Change the World,” Lausanne Global Analysis, September 2017. https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-09/changing-world-faithful-presence.
 Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 193.
 Ibid., 235.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 193.
 Ibid., 95.