The Myth of Redemptive Violence: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 19, 2018

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent . . . The church must affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming . . . Jesus has never seemed more relevant. The world has never been more ready.

 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

It may be the warmest, most intimate memory with my father. The picture in my mind is vivid. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 to 7:00 my dad and I listened to the “Lone Ranger.” I picture him stretched out on a chaise lounge sofa with me sitting on its edge and the bronze radio a few feet away. For thirty minutes we are huddled together in a bubble of shared imagination. This regular ritual continued from about my seventh to tenth year.

But more was happening than just a warm, memorable experience with my father. When Walter Wink and his award-winning book, Engaging the Powers, appeared in my life in 1992 our Lone Ranger experience took on deeper meaning. Each Lone Ranger episode followed the same pattern, a pattern also consistent with the other prominent cartoons of the day — Popeye, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and others. This same pattern runs through the high-tech games that currently occupy the imagination of our youth.

The pattern. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are the good guys pitted against the bad guys. It looks like the bad guys will win until the good guys somehow overpower the evil threat. And, at the end, the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride away victorious, leaving me as a young boy enamored with their moral greatness and wondering “who is this masked man?” Similarly, Popeye, protecting Olive against the brute Bluto, would at the last minute from the spinach infusion of power pummel him to near death.

Wink makes a bold claim. He builds a case that these seemingly inconsequential childhood stories quietly condition us with the dominant spirituality in America. He sees this same socialization occurring from the stories we tell about our history and current events. This secular spirituality, or if you prefer, this pervasive ideology Wink names the myth of redemptive violence.

Let’s break this bold assertion down into parts. Violence is destructive, overpowering acts that demean human dignity and soul with the goal of winning at all cost (the end justifies the means), as in “winning” an argument or “winning a war.” Redemptive violence is the assumption — violence redeems, violence saves, violence wins, violence deters aggressors, violence solves problems, violence brings peace, violence is trustworthy, violence eradicates evil. Myth is a worldview or belief or narrative that mirrors a particular view of reality. We all have myths or narratives through which we see the world.

Let’s return to the Lone Ranger myth. He and Tonto redeem or save an evil situation by overpowering the enemy through violence, usually gun violence. They are righteous, the opposition is evil. Within the Lone Ranger himself there is no sign of ambiguity, no sense of internal contradiction, no trace of sin, no hint of evil. What fear or outrage he feels is projected on to the face of the enemy. The evil is “out there” to be destroyed. As a young boy, I was being invited to identify with the good guys, to feel righteous, superior, and justified in overpowering what or whoever opposes me.

Walter Wink opened my eyes in 1992. I began to see this myth of redemptive violence everywhere. I observed it being played out on macro and micro levels, for example, from the macro event of forcing with violence democracy (a nonviolent form of government) in the Near East to the micro violence of “winning” an argument with a friend or spouse through a power-play of some form.

Other examples are plentiful. These come to mind: countering murdering by killing murderers; stopping children fighting by spanking them; maintaining control in the home through physical or psychological abuse; establishing security with more guns for citizens; annihilating the evil of terrorism; declaring war on poverty or drugs; defining opposing leaders as enemies, not colleagues; winning the best divorce settlement by whatever means possible.

In all these illustrations of conflict, and those that come to your mind, the desired solution is accomplished through violence, that is, some method of overpowering the other. But this for me is the new insight — all of these violent actions are efforts to save or redeem some problematic situation, large or small.

In retirement I have worked with inmates in a nearby maximum-security prison. Even they, at the moment of their violent act, felt they were solving a problem. They were trying to save or achieve something vital to them.

This pattern of redeeming through violence is an assumption so entrenched in our culture that to think otherwise requires a deliberate, conscious effort. For most of us it’s just the way life works. It’s so common we don’t name it as insane. We don’t notice that violence always breeds more violence.

More to the point of our vocation, I want to name some ways that Wink’s wisdom affected my ministry: understanding of Jesus, understanding leadership and understanding my inner life.

* * *

During seminary years and in my early years as a pastor, like many of my peers I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement for racial equality. Along with the nation, I watched the power of social change through nonviolent action. I read in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail about the concept of breaking an unjust law in obedience to the higher law of justice. Along with an alarmed world, I saw its cost and redemptive power embodied in the children being hosed to their knees on the streets in Birmingham. They and others in the movement absorbed the suffering and loved in return. I knew at the time that Gandhi’s wisdom was informing King, and Leo Tolstoy was informing Gandhi, and all of them were informed by the Sermon on the Mount.

But Wink took me to another level by grounding this wisdom in the very core of Jesus. It was as if Wink was focusing my camera lens. He gave me not a new Jesus, but a clearer Jesus. Direct nonviolent behavior was not just a way for social change. It is the way to live your life. It’s the way Jesus lived and died.

Underneath all this capacity to live nonviolently is Jesus’ rock-bottom conviction, the central commandment — connecting loving God to loving the neighbor (the “other”) as yourself. On the deepest level the “other” is part of you, you are part of the “other.” I acknowledge it does not look that way. We can’t see how deeply we are connected with all that lives around us. But we are. According to Jesus and current physicists, we are profoundly “quantum entangled.” This means what happens to you affects me and vice versa. If this invisible connection is true — for sure, a radical shift in worldview — then any violence toward our neighbor (including the earth) is violence to ourselves. And conversely, as strange as it seems, loving our enemy is a form of loving ourselves.

Let’s assume, as Jesus does, that reality in its essence is relational. Simply, life is relationship. Furthermore, in most relationships some have the power to dominate and violate — what Wink calls domination systems. Predictably when conflicts occur within these relationships, the myth of redemptive violence is activated. Those with the power, either in overt or covert ways, dominate or oppress the other as the way to reestablish comfort and order.

Jesus offers another stance, another kind of power, a third option to fleeing and fighting. We watch him taking stands in the face of dominating power, not fleeing in fear, not responding with escalating violence. He never “takes the bait.” Neither does he define the opposing “other” as foe or victim. The enemy, according to Jesus’ behavior, is to be loved, not hated; prayed for, not ignored; valued, not demonized. We follow his life with amazement, watching him always on the lookout for a third way beyond the polarizing differences fueled by domination.

I hasten to add that to follow this nonviolent third way of Jesus is not only costly. It’s impossible. Our determined will-power to be like Jesus is futile. To follow this alternative way is to be driven to prayer. Only with God’s power as Abba, Spirit and Christ within us can we approximate this Love.

The re-frame is Wink’s gift. He deepened my awareness of the radical good news of Jesus. Against the backdrop of the myth of redemptive violence — the favored secular religion of our time — Jesus could not be more relevant. The church, if willing to offer and embody this radical option of Jesus, could not be in a better position. Without soft-pedaling the cost of those who choose this Way — after all, to love is to suffer with and for — Wink writes of the joy of participating in nonviolent behavior that is history’s only alternative to non-existence. The spiral of redemptive violence spawned within Domination Systems, unless checked, will lead to the non-existence of life as we know it. The Jesus vision is not only relevant, it is urgent.

* * *

And Wink’s understanding influenced my way of leading as a pastor. I have already mentioned one example in another re-frame on the “angel” of a congregation. But, beyond that insight, Wink challenged me to see leadership through the lens of redemptive nonviolence. I mention a few examples.

At a point in my ministry I was planning to change a staff configuration. I wanted a part-time person to become full time and in the process change her focus. Time was short to make this change. I mentioned this hope of mine to a supportive member of the congregation. Matt, let’s call him, immediately became invested in helping me create a strategy for achieving my goal. With a spark in his eyes, he said, “Mahan, let’s figure out your allies. Then let’s name your opposition.” Before I knew it, I was swept up into a strategy to overtake the opposition and win what I wanted. But, thankfully, I woke up, seeing it as a violent plan of action. The more collaborative process, a bit long and messy, yielded a conclusion opposed to my original goal. It became a gentle reminder that this congregation belonged to them, not to me. After all, we are “interim” pastors, privileged to be present only for a season.

Another example of Wink’s wisdom impacting my leadership occurred during a denominational crisis. For reasons I need not elaborate, I became a point person to be attacked in the effort of one faction of our denomination to overpower another faction. I was the enemy. In their mind I must be eliminated. Devious strategies were implemented to discredit me — taping my talks without permission, quoting me out of context, mounting a campaign to fire me as an adjunct professor and “dis-fellowship” our congregation from the denomination on local, state and national levels. They were successful on all points.

I happened to be reading Wink during those years. He gave me a way to see what was happening. These leaders, within my family of faith, saw me as a threat to their vision of our denomination. They were trying to save, to redeem what they feared was being undermined. They were working for redemption. The end — saving the denomination — justified any violent means. I, and those like me, were a cancer to the body that must be destroyed. That’s the conventional approach to cancer.

This knowing didn’t produce any joy but it did help me understand. In understanding I could carry it all more lightly as a season of conflict that would eventually pass. Wink also challenged me to look for active, nonviolent ways of responding. Sometimes I found them, sometimes I didn’t.

At every point in our leadership amid conflict these Wink glasses are there to be picked up. These lenses will bring into focus the power dynamics at work in all relationships. And with such awareness come options.

* * *

The strongest payoff from reading Wink’s Engaging the Powers is in the relationship with myself. And, not only does Wink speak about this inner work, he, with considerable vulnerability, takes us into his own violence against himself. The myth of redemptive violence, so pervasive in our culture, is internalized in all of us. It’s the log in our own eye that keeps us from seeing, not just any splinter in another person’s eye, but hinders our seeing the violence we do to ourselves. Living nonviolently is largely an inside job. This is the place to start — our internal violence.

Just listen to the voices in your head. Your inner voices might be similar to mine. I hear the voice, “You’re not enough. That sermon or idea or pastoral response was not good enough. You can do better. Try harder. Do more. Work harder.” This voice blesses excessive over-functioning that never counts the cost of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that eventually sets in.

Another voice is full of fear. “I fear exposure. I fear being caught in my inadequacy. I fear failure. So, play it safe, don’t risk, hold back.” Another voice is anger. “Who can I blame? Who is at fault? Not me. Who needs to change for me to feel better?”

You know your own self-talk. You also have turned to various modalities that help in understanding these inner parts of yourself. But this insight from Wink might be new to you as it was for me. These self-judgments, he is saying, are a form of redemptive violence internalized. This means that these violent, inner voices are for, not against us. They are attempts to help us, save us, redeem us. They are loud in their desire to assist us in reaching our goals.

Yet these violent messages against ourselves, while attempting to be redemptive, are destructive. Violence is violence. What is true externally is true internally. Violence breeds violence.

Yet, like the Lone Ranger, I want to see myself as right, on the righteous side of conflict. How uncomfortable it is to say, “I am violent to myself. I can be an enemy of myself.” And we all know what happens next. To maintain the illusion of being right we must project our uncomfortable feelings of fear, guilt, shame and anger onto the face of some “other.” We must keep evil and wrong “out there.” The Lone Ranger, as you may recall, had no sense of inner contradiction or evil. For him the enemy was external and must be overcome. Remember, he’s the “masked” man.

I’m challenged by Wink’s conviction that the practice of loving your enemy is the acid test of discipleship in our time. He keeps lifting up the central place of nonviolence and love of enemies in Jesus’ teaching, life and death.

But I am more challenged by the practice of loving the enemy within. According to Wink it means allowing God’s love to engage these voices of “not enough,” fear, shame, anger and self-despising. It means loving yourself with God’s power to heal and transform. Indeed, God’s assurance of grace is the very strength needed to engage these inner, potent, self-judgmental voices. If John the Baptist declared, “Repent and be forgiven,” Jesus declared, “Be forgiven and repent.” God’s forgiveness comes first. It is security of God’s nonviolent, unconditional love that grants us the courage to face the ways we are violent to ourselves. Internally, as well as in external relationships, it is only this force of nonviolent love that truly saves and redeems.

Strange as it might read, the enemy, both internally and externally, turns out to be a gift. The enemy, both within and beyond, reveals what we would not otherwise see. These opposing powers smoke us out and compel us to acknowledge what is being denied, hidden and projected. Only then do the resources of confession and forgiveness make sense. Our inner violence can propel us toward God. This vulnerability of seeing the ways we violate ourselves is a doorway into freedom and grace.

These words of Thomas Merton to his friend Jim Forest stopped me in my tracks with conviction when I first read them.

 “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Wink’s concept of facing and then loving the enemy within puts in perspective Merton’s confrontation. It’s the inner work that makes the outer work of nonviolent shalom-oriented ministry possible.

I hope you can feel my gratitude for this New Testament scholar who wrote for church leaders like us. He focused my lens, making clearer the urgent relevance of Jesus by showing his embodiment of nonviolence within a violent world. This changed my teaching, preaching and pastoral leadership — a re-frame that mattered.


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Power-Over to Power-With: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 14, 2015

“I’ve been Pharaoh to every liberation movement,” once wrote William Sloan Coffin. “Me too,” I remember thinking when these words passed in front of my eyes over thirty years ago.

I’ve been “Pharaoh” in this sense: I was born into systems — family, church, nation, world — that work to my favor, my well-being and to the dis-favor, ill-being of others. Just being male, white, heterosexual, upper middle class, American — not my choice or achievement — gives me a privilege and power edge. “Born on third base” makes the point. At times this fact has been a source of guilt; at other healthier times, it’s been a resource of influence, an “alongside” resource to mercy and justice making.

During my life-time I have been engaged by the major freedom movements of our day:
women’s liberation; black liberation; gay liberation; class/economic liberation; and liberation from USA as empire. The surprise to me, or more accurately, the grace to me has been the taste of inner freedom these movements have brought to me as well. In my advantages, often disguised, I have found some liberation from the loneliness, constriction, and fear that comes with being in “Pharaoh’s” seat. Or to shift to a biblical metaphor, privileged positions are “logs in our eyes,” preventing clear vision. Every liberation movement is all about seeing clearly and acting from that awareness, from that awakening.

The re-frame that mattered is this: from relationships characterized by power-over to relationships embodying shared power, power-with. Unlike the other re-frames I have named, this change has been gradual and incremental, sometimes painfully so. The older I become, the deeper I see my complicity with domination systems that privilege me. But this re-frame has been clear for decades. It has provided a lens through which I have viewed power. This aspiration for just relationships, which I take to be God’s intention, has been a theme of inner work for all these years.

The rise of feminine power came first to my awareness. In my nuclear family, it was my education that received priority, since my sister would be “only” a wife and mother. There were no females in my seminary classes. At the time, there were no female pastors anywhere except among Pentecostals. And it was assumed that once married, Janice and I would move to where my vocation took us . . . with no questions raised.

But the question was raised soon after Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique (1964) set fire to a revolution. Around 1968, my wife, Janice said to me, “No longer do I want to be the woman behind the man. I’m returning to graduate school to prepare for my own vocation.”

She did. And we entered therapy. The hard, long work of redefining our marriage began. We relinquished marriage as a one-vote system or one-vocation system while reaching for the capacity and skills to become partners, equal partners. We risked, both of us did, toward a fresh life in this new way of experiencing power. Janice and I were among the fortunate ones, making it through these rapids without capsizing. Beyond marriage, this shift opened me to the gift of women in church leadership, the gift of feminine scholarship, and friendships that have gifted my life and ministry ever since.

Next came the black liberation movement. “Black power” was the awareness finding voice in neighboring Washington, D.C. in 1967. Our suburban congregation, Ravensworth Baptist Church, formed a partnership with a black congregation, First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. On many Saturdays about twelve members from each congregation met with a trained facilitator to explore the possibilities of honest, interracial relationships. We keep meeting until they became tired of helping us see our racism. However, during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, our church partnership provided a bridge of support during those fearful, divisive days. It was the beginning, a very small beginning, of interracial friendships that allow for difficult, transformative conversations.

Let’s stop at this point, allowing me to name the theological shift that was under-girding this re-ordering of power-relationships. Walter Wink was my primary mentor, in particular his Engaging the Powers, the third book in his trilogy on Powers. Other theological framing, such as process theological thinking, has shaped me as well, but Wink addressed directly the theme of this essay. He notes the rise of systemic domination around 3000 B.C.E. with the city-states of Sumer and Babylon, each system being authoritarian and patriarchal. He steps back, noting the prevailing assumption of “domination systems” for these five thousand years — the fundamental right of some to have coercive power over others (power-over). There developed what Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that power as violence can save, can solve problems. No wonder, with so many centuries of re-enforcement, this transformation of power in relationships is slow, arduous work, one step at a time.

Domination systems have largely prevailed as the norm during these centuries, but not without challenges and not without alternative options of relational power. The Old Testament prophets denounced the domination arrangements of their day, giving words to the longing for a more just order. In Jesus, God’s domination-free order of nonviolent love is clearly and profoundly unveiled. By word and action Jesus gave flesh to this re-frame of liberation by up-ending assumed power structures of his day. But the domination system proved too strong. Roman imperial forces joined with Jewish leadership to crush the Jesus non-violent movement of compassion and equality. Well . . . not fully or finally. Resurrection, among other things, means that this God movement could not be crushed. Indeed, and in every century since, within domination systems there have always been counter witnesses of Domination-Free relationships. Against this historical background, we can marvel and hail — and yes, join — the multiple liberation movements over time, and in particular our time.

Then came the gay liberation movement in the last decades in the 20th century, another challenge to “Pharaoh.” At that time, when I was a pastoral counselor, some persons came to me struggling with their sexual identity. A few became clear: their orientation was same-sex attraction, not opposite-sex attraction. I was close enough to feel their dilemma — costly to “come out of the closet,” costly not to. There it was again: I, a person of privilege, hearing stories of abusive power, including condemnation from the church. By 1984 I had returned to the church as pastor. Soon I began hearing from some clergy: “AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I knew better, I thought. I was, in some sense, forced out of “my closet,” feeling called to offer another voice from the church. Once again, the paradox was at work. In joining a freedom movement I experienced a measure of new freedom and grace.

Economic injustice, another form of abusive power, remains even more entrenched in my life. My privilege of income, house, insurance, and automobile has set me apart, in spite of efforts here and there to come alongside the hungry, thirsty stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned — those relationships where Jesus said we could find him. I remain, certainly by global standards, an affluent Christian, just as I remain in systems that favor me and disfavor others.

Within these systems, I can and do attempt to dis-identify, dis-engage, and de-tach from the abuses of power, while at the same time I continue to enjoy the fruits of privilege. Rooted and grounded in mercy within this soil of ambivalence and ambiguity, I can find some laughter at my efforts, even a measure of joy in my half-heartedness.

In this reflection I am not advocating the effort to dismantle hierarchy, even if we could. A hierarchy of roles is necessary in families and other organizations. I am advocating a different understanding of power, one incarnated clearly in Jesus of Nazareth. We know the difference between power that is coercive, dominating, and abusive and power that aligns, comes alongside, empowers, and invites, valuing mutuality, offering partnership. We know that difference.

It’s the difference I saw in the re-frame: from power-over to power-with in all relationships.

This re-frame mattered. It still matters.