Faith and the Power Problem
by Justin Hancock
As the Christian Church enters, shakily, into the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are facing what often seem like too many insurmountable challenges then we can mention. How will we, as people of faith, confront and minister to those who are victims of trauma and abuse at the hands of those who are suppose to be spiritual shepherds and guides? How will we interact with and speak into the increasing wealth disparity around the world? What will we have to say in terms of what love between two people should or shouldn’t be? How can human sexuality be fully and truly expressed?
As I do my work of advocating for those with diverse physical and mental embodiments, I constantly run into one issue that runs through and is at the heart of most of the things mentioned. Yet, most often no one knows or cares that this underlying cause exists. That is the problem of power; who has the power, who doesn’t have the power, and what does it mean.
Recently I was having a conversation with a very dear friend, when this concept once again came to the surface. This dear friend of mine is a clergy person within a fairly progressive Protestant Church in the United States. He also deals with physical disabilities, most predominantly cerebral palsy, that can make it challenging to live without fatigue and without a considerable amount of pain. I know my friend to be a kind, intelligent, and deeply empathetic listener as well as being a teaching pastor of not inconsiderable talent. Over the last several years this friend has tried and tried to find pastoral work through his denomination, and has been told several variations of, “if you just work with people with disabilities, we are sure that is your calling.” Perhaps most frustrating for this friend is hearing, “if you just get this training, things will turn around,” when nothing ever does. My friend was recently chatting online with a ministerial colleague who is African American, when the subject of white privilege came up. The colleague, who I do not know, raised what is in my mind very reasonable points about white privilege, and the difficulty of being an African American male clergy in a world where so much of the power structures are still dominated by a white, heteronormative narrative. As I’m sure it is not too difficult to imagine, the conversation quickly began to touch in areas both inside and outside the church. My friend, who has many family members in law enforcement, brought up points of overall generalizations and assuming things about those who are white and in law enforcement. I was not privy to the end of the conversation of these two people, who evidently had valid concerns and the best of intentions. I only attempted to hear my friend’s concerns and frustrations about being chronically underemployed because of his disability while his denomination does good and noble work among a number of other disenfranchised communities.
After our conversation, I began to reflect on what got under my skin. Why could I not move on from this conversation and compartmentalize it in the same way as my other spiritual direction conversations? I think the reason is the problem with power and the church’s relationship to it.
Let me be very clear; white privilege is real and it has been and remains one of the most insidious consequences of how this country has dealt with its racial history. I think one of the most unfortunate results of not acknowledging white privilege within this country and the church is the way in which those who are white and economically marginalized can operate with white privilege without realizing it, while being victimized themselves. I think the overarching problem is that we have been told that power and being heard is a zero sum game. Those who are powerful in the United States have told those who are not, that if another disenfranchised group has its needs met, theirs will not be.
As the political discourse has continued to create enemies from nowhere and remind us of whom we should be afraid, the marginalized look to the church to say something. Anything at all in the midst of the chaos. Either to be completely complicit in how the power is districted or to stand with the marginalized. Too often, the Church has done neither. We have tried to split the difference. I call on the Church to fully acknowledge its complicity in continuing to allow those with power to turn this country into a land of haves and have nots. We, as the people called Christians, must kneel before God and say, “we are Your tool and Your tool alone.” We must not be silent. We have to admit the ways in which privilege and power have infected our own leadership structures across all denominations and we must let them go. We have to be honest with those who would minister the Gospel and look different doing it. We must say that whether you’re white, black, disabled, or otherwise there is a place for you and it is our job to help you find it. Only when the church is no longer just a voice for the marginalized but rather is the servant of the marginalized, will this country be truly able to say, “if I am black, disabled lives matter to me,” and “if I am disabled, black lives matter to me.”
There are any number of marginalized groups I could mention, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of the Gospel. It requires us to put down the power of the state and embrace the power of surrender and love. Love for one another, and love for the cross. This is a pathway that very well might lead to death for those who fight for the forgotten. But if fully embraced, will absolutely lead to the new life of the resurrected, only found in Jesus Christ.