Exercising “power with”

by Marshall Scott

There’s been a lot of talk about power lately. Perhaps it’s the political season (oh, how I envy the limited campaigning season in some countries). Certainly, it’s been part of the conversation about the Anglican Covenant.

Perhaps it’s because of that old and well known aphorism: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The author was John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton. He was a believer in power spread around and not concentrated. His was one of the voices in England that during the American Civil war supported states’ rights, and so the Confederacy.

But that wasn’t the context of his most famous statement. Lord Acton was also a Roman Catholic, and with his sentiments he was opposed to papal infallibility. Some years after the First Vatican Council, he wrote,

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.

It is of interest that he wrote that to a scholar of the papacy – not a Roman scholar, but an Anglican. Mandell Creighton was a Cambridge scholar and a future Bishop first of Peterborough and then of London. It was in reviewing Creighton’s A History of the Papacy During the Period of Restoration that Acton wrote perhaps his most famous words. (Perhaps these days that seems an observation that continues to be entirely too apt.)

And yet that is not the comment on power that has proven most interesting and most compelling to me. Long ago, during my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education a CPE Supervisor said to me, “Power is the ability to persuade.” I don’t know where he came up with this, but with some digging I found two similar quotations. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” President Eisenhower wrote, “I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone.” Remarkable, I think, that these two warriors, accomplished leaders of armies, were convicted of the value of persuasion over force.

The point, of course, is if we think about the end rather than the means, the ability to persuade can well be more powerful than power as we usually think of it: the ability to coerce. Indeed, coercion is simply one means of persuading – and if our two generals, separated by so many centuries, are to be believed, a means not all that effective.

From those seminary days that thought stayed with me. It was reinforced when I encountered Touching Our Strength by Carter Heyward. Heyward called her readers to a different approach to power: power with instead of power over. Power with calls for respect and mutuality. It is about what we can do together, and not about what you will do for me or I will do to you.

Much of the anxiety around us reflects a concern about power over. Consider, for example, our controversy about the Anglican Communion Covenant. Many are concerned (and I believe rightly concerned) about Section 4. It seems designed to create power over, even as much of the rest of the document tries to persuade that it’s about power with.

Or consider our recent discussions about the structure of the Episcopal Church, and whether it needs revision. Much of our discussion has seemed to reflect distrust – distrust of leadership and distrust among leaders. At times our concern about who might lead, about how to prevent power over, leads to suggestion of leadership so distributed – indeed, so disparate – that there seems hardly to be enough with for power with to function.

But in both cases this is based on a presumption power over, of power as enforcement, power as coercion. What if we were instead to embrace the concept of power with, and of power as the ability to persuade? What structures, for example, would best reflect the mutuality and engagement that power with requires? Certainly, too much would not meet the need; but neither would too little. Again, leadership is not truly shared if we are not all actively engaged. There can be no power with if there is no with.

Or, what might mission mean? We have discussed at this site mission as vocation and mission as message and mission as activity. We have talked about buildings as encumbrances and buildings as tools for ministry. What if we began with considering how we might exercise the ability to persuade? Sure, we will begin with the critical questions of “Persuade whom?” and “Persuade to what?” And after our first immediate responses, we’ll get into the real discussions. We’ll wrestle with persuading our own community, and then persuading the wider world. We’ll wrestle with what we ought to be persuading to. We’ll wrestle with what structures and leadership and tools might be required. We’ll wrestle, really, with all the things we’re wrestling with now. But, we’ll be wrestling, I think, in a different spirit – even in a different Spirit.

If we turn our concern from a fear of power over to a commitment to power with, how will that shape our expectations of our leaders? If we expect our leaders – if we expect ourselves as leaders – to measure success not simply by the ability to effect change but by the ability to persuade, that may well change the qualifications we expect, the structures we require, and the tools we provide.

And after all, isn’t that the model of the One that we follow? As recently as Good Friday we heard again Pilate’s examination of Jesus. When Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’ ultimate answer was, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” And again and again, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his followers, it was not to command but to persuade. “Here,” he said, “look at my wounded hands. Look at my wounded side.” On the road to Emmaus he did not assert his glory, but instead “opened the scriptures.” It was persuasion that warmed hearts, and brought Thomas to his confession. When we look at our Lord who spent his time preaching and teaching, healing and hobnobbing, and doing almost no commanding, surely we see most profoundly the power of God expressed not in coercion or enforcement, but in the ability to persuade.

So, I have to ask what that would mean for us – for us as leaders, certainly; but also for us as the Episcopal Church. We argue about many things precisely because we see them through the worldview of power over. What would it mean for us if we turned to the model of Christ, and sought to exercise power with, and to measure our own power first and foremost in our ability to persuade?

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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