Speaking a Different Truth about Power

CHICAGO, IL (October 9, 2013) — Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a book review posted on a blog written by David Swanson, pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Chicago.

In his new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch offers insights that are fresh, theologically nuanced, and utterly intelligible.

It is a book that already has benefited me, a white man who serves a multiethnic church in a predominantly African American neighborhood.

As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it’s talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a zero-sum game: one’s attainment of power is equal to another’s loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view.

In Nietzsche’s world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power’s gift.

Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche’s cynical view of power until they read Crouch’s compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book, the author very helpfully differentiates power from privilege—dynamics I’ve made crudely analogous in the past.

This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I’m convinced that white privilege is the Achilles heel of most multiethnic churches. Playing God, with its more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.

The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I’ve interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I have come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not.

I was glad the author devoted a chapter to “principalities and powers” as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I would have liked there to be more about this, perhaps some interaction with philosopher Jacques Ellul on this important subject. While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains hopeful:

Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of God to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God’s promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well—“may you see your children’s children!”—a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one’s own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures.

Playing God has much to commend it and offers far more than the few examples I’ve pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.

As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn’t help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn’t the best word, and Crouch does a great job of outlining abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But despite the compelling case he makes, from where I stand it’s hard to share his hope about power.

In the structures and systems of our city, power’s evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, many, many people and churches are using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.

I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, “In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.”

This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians these days strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow—or geographically distant—view of justice.

When I think of justice for many of my neighbors, I think of changes to policy—education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy—along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture’s power.

But these are mostly quibbles, and I’m reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God’s presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.

 

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1 Comment

  1. At its best, power is not something to be feared, for Acts 1:8 promises power, along with the Holy Spirit. Yet there is nothing good that can’t be misused in one way or another. In general, history and human nature show us that whoever and whatever have power do not give it up willingly: it must be seized. Consider: family members, church boards, managers, CEOs, governments, banks, bullies, individuals in your coffee group. It doesn’t matter, for there is power everywhere, waiting to be used, and it will be, sometimes even for good, but those who have it seldom willingly give it up – as did George Washington.

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