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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Problem with “Building Power” is that Jesus Didn’t Do It.

Written by: on February 20, 2020

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?”[1] and What role might Christians play in remaking the world?[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] Rather, culture is generated in the ideas that are embedded within “very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.”[8] 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.”[9]

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,[10] or, is it “deeply problematic, shortsighted, and…profoundly corrupt?”[11] 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.”[12]

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?”[13] First, we must discover and redefine power through the lenses of Jesus as “the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate.”[14] Second, we must learn to leverage this power to engage in counter-cultural presence,[15] 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.

~~

[1] 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.

[2] This question is posed in my language.

[3] Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World., 8.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 77.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] 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.

[11] Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 193.

[12] Ibid., 235.

[13] Ibid., 92.

[14] Ibid., 193.

[15] Ibid., 95.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

10 responses to “The Problem with “Building Power” is that Jesus Didn’t Do It.”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    You wrote, “This strategy for culture change “is almost wholly mistaken.”[6] It isn’t working.””

    I’m wondering if you see any benefit to people like Colson and others working towards change in this way or is it as you write- it isn’t working.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Based on the current marriage of white American evangelicalism to Trump and his administration, we could say, “Yes. Christians can amass enough power to elect the President of the United States.” But what has actually changed within our culture? I would argue that a white Evangelical-endorsed Trump has only exposed the realities of American culture which are, in my opinion, antithetical to the values of Jesus. As I read Hunter, I was struck by how anti-Christ the strategy of “building power” seems. We can build power, but what do we have to forfeit in order to do so?

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Amen and Amen. Great distillation of application. I thought you’d like this quote, too: “[The] contemporary understanding of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective” (p. 95). I’m curious how you experienced Hunter’s use of kingdom language in his book. Even your great quote from page 193 is in the context of kingdom language.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      As we’ve discussed before, “Kingdom” seems to be an unavoidable biblical motif. I appreciate how, in the quote from page 193, Hunter defines it with such poignant terms. While it is familiar within the Christian vernacular, I do hear enough folks, almost exclusively non-dominant culture folks, balk at it. Thus, their input has my attention. I do wonder about another phrase, though. In Revelation 21, Jesus speaks of “making all things new.” I could point to the Hunter quote as well as many biblical passages to describe the new world that God is making. I like the idea of our vocation as followers of Jesus being “joining God and others in remaking the world.” On the one hand, I can imagine Hunter’s pushback to that idea as being a fresh take on “changing the world.” On the other hand, I can hear him saying, “Yes! Through faithful, sacramental presence.”

      What do you think?

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    In my research on death and the death care industry, I’m finding that it is our lack of understanding in what it means to be human that prevents us from being present with others in dying, death, and grief. The less proximate we are with our dead, the less we are able to embrace our mortality and the mortality of others.

    If we truly want to be transformed in the image of Christ, we have to be willing to become more human just as He was fully human. Once we begin to embrace our humanity through formative practices resulting in internal transformation, then I believe we will be able to “influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane.”

    Becoming human takes time; it’s a process. And as noted in our zoom, we much prefer the one-off rather than the process. The one time acceptance of salvation through Christ is way more appealing to our American way than the long road of living humbly, caring for those on the margins, and loving the unlovable.

    The quote I shared last semester keeps surfacing in my mind: William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, 1809–1898 “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” How can we encourage “proximity that generates solidarity” with the living when we have no proximity of solidarity with our dead?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I really appreciate what you’re saying. I haven’t drawn the connections between our discomfort with proximity with our dying and our lack of understanding of what it means to truly be alive. I’m eager to hear more about this from you.

      I’m struck by the idea that we have to be transformed first before we can have a transformational impact in the world. While I largely agree with that sentiment, what gives me caution is that it seems to perpetuate an unnecessary bifurcation of spirituality. I guess I’m dismayed by a couple of related issues here: (1) our lack of grasp of what it means to do the interior work; (2) our chronological paradigm (interior transformation happens before we engage in the world); (3) our lack of understanding that following Jesus in the real world is the practice that awakens us to the need for our ongoing transformation. You hear my rub here?

      As to your last question. Good grief! Such a good question…and one that I have never considered. Can you offer me your thoughts on this?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Great blog. The leverage of power in Christendom goes back a long way. Reading your blog I am reminded of the the section of scripture in Mark where Jesus warns his disciples about the leaven of religious leaders. The narrative then transitions into the healing of the blind man who progressively gained his sight. Yet another transition takes place Jesus asks about the opinions of others on who he is. Then he drops the million dollar question “who do you say that I am?:” We see it is Peter who gives the correct answer but with the wrong motive. In a single moment Peter states he is the Christ and disciplines Jesus for saying he would suffer. Jesus then sums it all up with the rebuke “You are looking through the eyes of the world not the eyes of God.” Peter wanted a political warrior king Jesus came as a servant. Though Jesus was a great influencer he avoided political power at every turn. Why is it that we refuse to see the value of influence that doesn’t rely on power grabbing? Have we become so self absorbent that we forget that we are called to die to self in order to live for Jesus?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Greg. While I agree that Jesus didn’t play the political power-grabbing game, I do understand Jesus as wildly political. He took on and actively subverted so many broken systems, from hunger and poverty to misogyny and patriarchy. His own reading of Isaiah 61 was a political declaration. That said, the new order of things that he ushered in was catalyzed by powerlessness which, it turns out, proved to be the most powerful power that, over time, began to transform the Empire from the bottom up.

      Spirit-animated powerlessness is likely the fuel that generates influence in the direction of heaven. It is the only source of power that doesn’t corrupt but, instead, makes us more fully human.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    No, Jesus didn’t “build power” in our worldly understanding of it. But he did talk a lot about it. And prior to his ascension he promised the power of the Holy Spirit to be poured upon the faithful. And the Church has been wrestling for 2000+ years trying to understand what we’re supposed to do with it. Seems like we still have much to learn.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      That’s right. And, as I mentioned in my thread with Greg, “Spirit-animated powerlessness is likely the fuel that generates influence in the direction of heaven. It is the only source of power that doesn’t corrupt but, instead, makes us more fully human.” What’s more, it’s a source of power that cannot be accumulated nor leveraged for the sake of personal gain. Instead, it’s a power that is only received by those humble (& crazy) enough to use it in order to give our lives away.

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