Finding power at the margins

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on February 29, 2024

“Those were the days,” said my friend John wistfully. “We could line up a meeting with a cabinet minister with a phone call and know that we could count on Ted Scott and other church leaders to be on hand.”

A former lawyer who worked for decades alongside First Nations, John was recalling how church leaders, including former Primate Ted Scott, could easily access the corridors of power in Ottawa to have a voice on critical issues facing Canada. Knowing that church leaders represented millions of Canadians in the pews, the politicians listened, even if they didn’t always follow the advice they heard.

Today, as church memberships plunge, those days increasingly feel like another era. That can cause us to lament our waning influence in helping to shape the country’s direction and in having an impact in other ways.

Perhaps there’s another way of thinking about the Church and power, starting with how we think about power itself. Not surprisingly, we tend to think about power in the way the secular world does, largely in terms of “power over,” that is, hierarchical power. It’s a kind of power tied up with the elites of our society, those small groups of people who wield extensive influence over our lives. And while the Church has often used its influence for good, too often the Church has gotten caught up in worldly power with tragic results, the saga of Residential Schools being a notable example.

Jesus offers us a radically different model of power. God set a ground-breaking example of power by coming among us not as a powerful political leader or an influential rabbi, but rather as that least powerful kind of person, a baby. A baby born to a couple of very modest means. Those humble beginnings and the humility Jesus showed can serve as a model for us.

In his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, author and journalist Andy Crouch notes that by washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus doesn’t give up power; he redefines it. “Jesus knew that God had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel wrapped around him.” (John 13:3-5)

The disciples knew about Jesus’s immense power. They’d seen him perform miracles and confound the teachers of the law. Yet in this moment, Jesus takes on the role of servant. And he doesn’t relinquish his power but exercises it in an unexpected way.

When Jesus washed feet, he made it clear that the gospel transforms how we use power in this broken world. Rather than lording it over the less powerful, we too can choose to lay down our egos and demands so that others can enjoy the abundant life God wants for all.

Another way of thinking about power is to consider what might be called “bottom-up power” rather than the top-down power that dominates our thinking. There is – or can be – immense power in the actions of ordinary people coming together around common goals. Throughout history, the actions of large numbers of people at the grassroots have helped move society forward. Think only of India gaining its independence, South Africans ending apartheid, or in Canada today, the large numbers of people in the Church and across society working to put authentic reconciliation with Indigenous people into action.

We still need to strive to influence our country and the issues it faces in ways that reflect biblical values of justice and peace, and to do so through our Church and through networks such as the KAIROS ecumenical social justice coalition. And we still have greater access to those corridors of power than many others in our society have. Years ago, I was part of an Anglican delegation meeting an Ontario MPP to urge the government to take stronger action on behalf of people hard hit by poverty and the housing shortage. We had a fruitful dialogue, and as we walked out of the politician’s office, he quietly said, as if to himself, “Thank you for speaking up for those who don’t have a voice.” His words still resonate today.


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