Encounters with Power

In commenting on last week’s Gospel (Mark 6:1-13)  I noted how faced by the impoverished imaginations of his family and their neighbors Jesus came up against a real limitation on what he was able to do. Mark tells us that Jesus could do no deed of power there.

I refer you back to my pervious blog entry The Familiar: a Barrier to our Imagining. Mark begins Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John. He draws this first phase to a close with the sending out of the disciples to become participants with Jesus in his ministry. He follows this with the beheading of  John. Why does Mark place the beheading of John here? Well, there seems to me an implication that ministry of necessity will involve encounters with power and the powerful. Like John, Jesus and his disciples go on to discover that such encounters can prove fatal.

If you are like me this is a very uncomfortable realization. I have spent a lifetime perfecting the skills that  have helped me avoid becoming the object of abuse by the powerful. Nan is a friend of mine. Like me, we both spent many years working within the British National Health Service. Now, you don’t work in the NHS and avoid seeing the daily exercise and abuse of political power. She once asked her CEO the question: “what would be your resigning issue?” He replied ” I hope I am skillful enough never to find myself in such a situation”. The CEO’s answer captures the assumption that resigning issues can be avoided through adroit skill. A very modern attitude we might think, or is it?

Nan’s question and the CEO’s response reminds me of the popular English tavern song  The Vicar of Bray. You may know of it but if you don’t you can find the words and tune at: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/song-midis/Vicar_of_Bray.htm

The song tells the story of a Vicar of  St Michael’s Bray, a small town in the Royal County of Berkshire just upstream from Windsor Castle. The song chronicles his boasting about the way he has kept his benefice despite the sudden rip-tide like shifts in the of political currents that characterized the period from around 1660 when Charles II returns after the death of Cromwell to the accession of the German, George I in 1714. This is a man who has no compunction is changing his political allegiances to suit the tenor of the times. Like Nan’s CEO, we surreptitiously admire his skillfulness while more consciously disapproving of all flip-floppers.

So how do you and I sit with the experience of power? I know that I instinctively abhor the naked display of power. Power is not an aphrodisiac for me. Or do I delude myself? Well maybe you all are about to find out as I assume the mantle of the Dean in-between?

My uneasy relationship to the exercise of power lies in my life-long fear of being a victim of its abuse. What typifies the experience of victimhood is a psychological helplessness in the face of the abusive use of power. Like all of us who carry this fear, I am passionate about justice. What will make me incandescent with rage is to witness the abuse of power, particularly within the varied contexts of  interpersonal relationship. My politics arise out of an instinctive aversion to the comfortable abuses of power enshrined within patriarchal society. My political world view is not the hollow posturing of liberal correctness. My politics are deeply rooted in my personal fears. The political is always personal. If you want to understand my political world view the you only have to remember that as gay man, patriarchy desires to kill me.

One of the ways I have successfully protected myself is by maintaining a stance as the outsider. For example, my experience as an adult has been shaped by my 30 years living in England. Yet, I never once felt disadvantaged by the operation of the class system. The English class system is a complex and subtle system of signals that locates each person in a particular relationship to the sources of power in that society. I protected myself as an outsider. I was after all a New Zealander. Someone from a new world egalitarian society, to whom the classifications of the English class system did not apply.

Yet, you may have noticed that unless you look and listen very closely for the residual signs of the NZ flattening of my vowels I pass perfectly as a pucker Brit. The skill of being an outsider is the ability to maintain a psychological sense of separateness while appearing to pass camouflaged as one of the crowd. So for me outsiderness is a skillful defense. Yet, it is this very defense that perpetuates in me a sense of being vulnerable to the abusive exercise of power. Hiding and protecting myself only increases my fear. The path to freeing myself from fear of the abuse of power is to own my own power.

Life forces us to fashion complex psychological defenses against the fear of being abused by power. For me its maintaining the fantasy of the outsider, which is a fantasy that I am not part of my host societies power relations and therefore cannot be abused by them. For others I notice  the primary defense is their craving of power and their desire to grab as much of it as possible. This orientation to power is just as much rooted in fear. For those of us who have more of the Vicar of Bray in us than we might be comfortable admitting to, we adopt the defenses of the flip-flopper in our attempt to protect ourselves through ingratiation.

My main point here is that because we all live in complex webs of power relations the apparent success of our very defenses also perpetuates our state of fear in relation to power. That fear prevents us living-out  Christian values. Jesus shows time and again that to live the values of the Gospel leaves us no choice but to challenge the abuse of power. We don’t even have to go out of our way to protest a challenge. Being women and men living from our Christian core, informed by the actions of Jesus in the Gospel is enough to be a challenge to the abuse of power. Yet, its only by living the values of the Gospel that  we have the courage to own our own power.

The abuse of power is endemic to the very structures of human society. It operates in families, in the work place. We have recently seen its operation in the corruption of College sports. It operates powerfully in our churches, in government, and of course in relations between nations.

There are many different ways to challenge power. We often carry models designed to limit our belief that we can challenge the abuse of power. We have the model of John the Baptist which is a kind of head-on crash and burn approach seemingly favored by prophets. If this is what we think it means to challenge power then we are unlikely to imagine ourselves doing this.

Personally, I favor a quieter approach which recognizes that there may be nothing I can do about the central abuses of power in society. So I take the courage to own my own power through taking-up my position on the margins of power, working quietly to subvert abuse through identifying with and supporting the abused, themselves.  My many years of ministry among those with disturbed mental and emotional health is the way I have used my outsiderness a gay man to identify with those who are differently disadvantaged by social rejection.

Mark uses the beheading of John the Baptist at this point in his gospel to present us with a painful truth about the exercise of power. Mark is not inviting us to become prophetic firebrands who immolate ourselves through headlong confrontation in the manner of John the Baptist. He is inviting us to understand Jesus’ deeper challenge to power. This challenge lies in accepting God’s invitation to change and thereby inviting others to change. The nature of this change is to become liberated from fear by the greater power of love. This is an invitation that will be accepted by some and resisted by others to the point of violence. Following Jesus may cost us our lives though in our present social context probably not physically, but in some other manner, which in the words of T.S. Eliot will cost us nothing short of everything (Little Gidding).

Don’t run. Stay present. Remain committed. Tell the truth in love. And stand for what is right. Ideally one should have a great deal of courage and strength but not boast or make a big show of it. Then in times of need one should rise to the occasion and fight bravely for what is right (HH. the Dalai Llama)

About relationalrealities

Episcopal Priest currently Rector of St Martin's Providence, RI
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One Response to Encounters with Power

  1. Nan Carle says:

    A very powerful and personal analysis. Thanks for sharing and for remembering!
    With love, Nan

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