Sermon - 21st October 2012
Power Over or Power With?
Scripture - Mark 10:35-45
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
If you follow politics the last month has been fascinating. If you don’t follow politics, please bear with me for a bit.
A month ago, all sides agreed, an incident took place when the police asked the former government chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, to dismount from his bicycle as he left Downing Street. All sides agree that Mr Mitchell didn’t acquit himself well and that he swore. The police say he swore repeatedly at them, Mr Mitchell, in his resignation letters holds he used foul language in the presence of, but not at the police. The greater row, however, was over his alleged use of the word “plebs” to describe the police.
This, of course led to much comment and played into a view of events that many in the media, and the opposition, are painting of a government of the very rich, out of touch with the rest of us. The police greeted the Tory conference in Birmingham with posters and T shirts proclaiming they were proud to be plebs and some of the banners on the TUC march through London yesterday proclaimed “plebs against the cuts”.
The use, or perceived use of the word “pleb” is what caused the row and it resonated with a public consciousness which is resentful of people in power seeming not to care. This feeling was reinforced over the weekend with the row about whether, or not, Mr Osborne tried to dodge paying for a first class ticket to London.
The Current Climate
Now this perception that many have in society about an out of touch government may not be accurate but it is increasingly taking hold. Over the weekend Lord Tebbit – hardly a left winger – joined in with the analysis of the right wing press that this is, indeed the case. A news piece on Friday had Giles Brandreth, a former Tory MP saying that he was once travelling with fellow Tory Anne Widdicombe who stopped him using the first class compartment with the words “are you sure you see yourself as a first class person, Giles?” and told him that he would stay out of trouble if he travelled standard class. I suspect we will have more of this type of analysis over the coming months as it is becoming part of the story that is told of our times – accurate or not.
Our current climate is one of uncertainty; economically the country is troubled, benefits and wages are being cut or frozen yet bills, especially fuel bills, continue to rise. The countries of the Eurozone continue to struggle and we are seeing the most awful consequences of the financial mess being played out in Spain and Greece.
The anger felt by many is born out of a sense that we can’t make a difference to the politics that affect our own lives. We can vote but in many European countries voting doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference as the people whose decisions really matter aren’t elected. There is a sense that those with power aren’t really accountable to the rest of us and this sense of unaccountable people having power over us leads to resentment.
Power over and Power With
Who drove here tonight? Did you speed? Which side of the road did you drive on? Did you indicate before you turned? Did you drive and use your mobile phone? Why did you obey the rules of the road? Simply to obey the law?
We probably don’t resent the Highway code because we understand that the power that is in the law is for our wider benefit. If we could decide, at random, which side of the road to drive on there would be madness. If people don’t indicate and turn we get annoyed. If people are on the phone whilst driving we know that this could lead to an accident and so harm others. We recognise there is power at work here but it’s power-with. The power being used is designed to protect us. It’s like a parental power which is about safety, growth, and nurture. It’s a different sense than power-over.
Empires are all about power-over. Imperial systems don’t like dissent, rule with might, and use force to inflict their own will. The small and the weak don’t do well in empires. All have to show loyalty to the greatest power. The problem for the government in recent weeks is that people are perceiving the power they have as power-over and not power-with.
Ideas and definitions
Power-over is about dominance, control and uniformity. Power-with is about dispersed authority, protection, growth and democracy. We’ve seen how the government at the moment is suffering because it’s seen as being too much orientated to power-over the rest of us – the plebs – but we also see these ideas played out in the Church which also has a troubled relationship with power.
When the Church had grown in the Roman world it, at first, was quite counter cultural. Roman Christians wouldn’t take part in the Imperial worship system, they wouldn’t be part of the Army and they started to buy slaves in order to free them. They adopted the babies exposed on the hillsides. After a while they, however, became victims of their own success and more and more Romans joined them. By the 4th Century we were the state religion and bishops became more and more important. As the Roman Empire collapsed the Church became the only institution that had international leadership and bishops became as much civil administrators as they were spiritual leaders. They took on an almost Roman persona and became addressed as “my Lord” – a title still used now. Election gave way to appointment and the people who were “ruled,” rather than led, had less and less say in who led them. Part of the Reformation controversies concerned governance in the church and whether bishops were the best people to govern. Luther felt that the church would never give up power and so gave it to the civil ruler; Calvin wanted power dispersed between the minister and elders of the congregations.
Now the church is a mixed economy as regards government. Some churches are still very much based on power-over. Someone else decides how the church should be run, leaders are appointed by other leaders and the vast majority of worshippers have no say in what goes on. We see this at both ends of the theological spectrum – Catholic and evangelical. The Church of England tries to balance appointed bishops with an elected church parliament, the Free Churches generally give a higher degree of power to lay people so that power is more like power-with than power-over.
The Gospel Passage
These differences in how power is exercised can be linked to tensions in the disciples seen in Gospel passages like today’s. The disciples were still not understanding the fact that Jesus isn’t interested in power-over. He was avowedly political, he criticised the civil and religious leaders of his day, he spoke for and he used the Messianic language and imagery of the Bible to make his points. The problem was that people expected the Messiah to be a political liberator who would overthrow the power of the Roman empire in Israel. Jesus did take on empire – but he didn’t do so using the imperial tactics of power and might. The disciples hadn’t yet understood this and so were wanting to be given places of honour at the banquet to celebrate the overthrow of the Romans. They wanted to sit at Jesus side and share his glory, his authority and his power. Whilst they dreamt of sitting on either side of his throne, they didn’t realise that Jesus’ throne would be a cross and his crown would be made of thorns not gold.
Power in our own lives
Jesus gives us the model for power. We encounter power all the time – whether it’s obeying the laws around driving, paying our taxes, or the power that comes from the rulers, or the power that comes from those who protest. We may have power in our jobs – if we manage others we have a degree of power. If we are in a professional role like a nurse, a doctor, a teacher, a counsellor we have power. We can’t change the fact that power is a part of our lives – what we can do is choose how we use it and how we respond to it.
We can, like the disciples in our reading today, want the glory, the honour and the privilege of power-over others. On one level this may be quite satisfying but, as Lord Acton said many years ago, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We can, instead, strive to follow Jesus’ example with power and seek to use it with others, to be accountable for the power we have and hold others accountable for the power they have. Jesus's use of power was vastly different to what the Romans and religious authorities of his age expected. He claimed that power comes from service, leadership from slavery, strength from weakness.
We can see, within the Church, who has respect outside the Church. Mother Theresa was part of a church which has a power-over style of government yet she was respected by millions because of her gentle love of and care for the poor. The power and influence she had was a kind of power-with. We see the same with Francis of Assisi who left a place of privilege and economic power to preach the Gospel to the poor, the marginalised and those who were despised. From this place of weakness he renewed the Church.
How will we use the power we have been given? Will we seek to dominate others, persuade them of the rightness of our views, our ideology, our culture? Will we share power, see that truth is more truly found in dialogue, exploration and diversity? Will we hold those who have power, in church and state, accountable or simply become apathetic and leave unchallenged expressions of power which don’t build up, which seek only to enrich those who already have power and which, in the long term, do damage?
Mr Mitchell and Mr Osborne have had bad weeks. They may, nor may not, be guilty of the things they are widely perceived to have done wrong, but they act as symbols for a form of governance and power which is deeply damaging. This is, of course, unfair as the reality may be very different from what has actually gone on. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a different problem – he has authority without power and is widely blamed for all sorts of things he has no control over. We need to hold our leaders to account for how they use the power and influence they have, but we also need to pray for them, have a degree of sympathy for the plight they find themselves in and seek to show others, through our own lives, better ways to model power in our world – ways which follow the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.