What Kind of Power?

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By Sarah S. Howell-Miller

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quote from Lord Acton often is used as a warning when someone gains a position of authority or as an explanation when someone in power behaves badly. Power, it seems, is like fire—play with it, and you’ll likely get burned.

I have always loved 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” To me, this verse calls those who represent Empire—all who have power, authority, privilege, and advantage that others do not—to lay down their earthly power, to become dependent instead on God’s grace. Power, it seems, is to be given up.

But what about those who have no power? Telling someone that in order to draw close to God they must give up their power stings, but saying the same to someone who has been oppressed and victimized by Empire, who lacks the kind of power that Empire wields, doesn’t make sense. And simply praising their powerlessness as an asset in their spiritual journey is disingenuous and denies the reality that the poor and powerless in our society often are made to suffer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about power and whether it can be wielded for good. People in power can do good without fundamentally changing an unjust system. Is the answer, then, to take power from the powerful and give it to the powerless? Transferring power from one group to another seems like it would just perpetuate the system in a new way.

I found the beginnings of an answer in Cyndi Suarez’s book, The Power Manual. Here, she asks an important question: what kind of power are we talking about? Suarez distinguishes between two kinds of power: dominating power and liberatory power. Dominating power is about supremacy, submission, and scarcity, while liberatory power is about creating a world based on abundance. The distinction between these two forms of power comes down to how they deal with difference: is it a problem, or is it an asset?

Suarez says that to change what kind of power we engage with, we need to refuse powerless identities and change the way we interact with dominating power. We need to engage with God’s abundance rather than with the world’s scarcity. Dominating power corrupts, but liberatory power has the potential to heal.

Those who represent Empire are not to blame, but they (we) do bear responsibility for changing the balance of power—as do we all. Power is made perfect—transformed and made liberatory—in weakness—in life-affirming, abundance-believing interactions that honor others’ humanity without seeking domination over them.