Sunday, July 8, 2012

Three Types of Power

When you think of images of power, what comes to mind:  President Obama reviewing the predator drone kill list with his first cup of coffee on a Monday morning, or senators fawning over Jamie Dimon, despite his overseeing JP Morgan Chase’s 2 billion dollar loss on risky investments?  What does power look like to you?  To me, it looks like Karen Ridd.

While volunteering for Peace Brigades International in 1989, Karen Ridd and her friend, Marcella Rodriquez, were suddenly arrested by the Guatemalan military.  Falsely suspected of affiliation with the guerrilla group FMLN, the women were bound, loaded on a truck, and taken to a prison.

Fortunately, Karen, a Canadian national, was able to alert the Canadian consul and another PBI volunteer of her danger prior to her arrest.  At first, her confidence that PBI and her government would bring pressure for her release, and the civility of the soldiers, brought her a measure of consolation.  That soon changed when they arrived at the prison.

Marcella overheard the soldiers describing them to their new jailors as “terrorists from the Episcopal Church.”  They were subjected to hours of interrogation, blindfolded and tortured as they listened to the screams and sobs of other detainees.  Now, it was a race against the clock to see if international pressure could save them in time. 

PBI did alert its worldwide network to their plight, and the Canadian government quickly brought pressure to bear on the Guatemalan government, hinting that their extensive trade relations could be compromised if Karen was not released.  No such effort was made on behalf of Marcella, a Columbian national.

Within a few hours of the Canadian government’s intervention, Karen found herself walking through the prison yard to a waiting embassy official.  But she couldn’t shake from her mind the vision of her friend, Marcella, blindfolded and battered, slumped against the prison wall, that she had witnessed when her own blindfold was removed. 

Glad as she was to be alive, something tugged at her.  She made some excuses to the shocked and exasperated Canadian diplomat, and walked back into the prison.  Not knowing what she would do or how the soldiers would respond, she informed them that she would not leave without her friend.   

The soldiers were as shocked as the diplomat.  And they were angry.  The immediately handcuffed her again.  They informed Marcella, while banging her head against the wall, that some “white bitch” was stupid enough to come back, and now she’d see how terrorists should be treated. 

Laughing, the soldiers asked Karen if she had come back for more.  She patiently explained to them her devotion to her friends in words that they could understand.  “You know what it is like to be separated from a compañero,” she told them.   That got through to them.  The released the women, and Karen and Marcella walked out of the prison together, hand in hand under the stars.

What was the source of the power Karen exercised over these hardened killers?  How was it that her very vulnerability became the vehicle for exercising this power? Is this kind of power available to you and me?

There is the power to control.  There is the power to acquire.  There is the power to heal.  All three kinds of power are present in Karen’s story.  Notice how they operate.

The power to control works through coercion.  It makes use of the capacity to threaten and follow through on threats to get its way.  In Karen’s case, the soldiers exercise threat power:  “You do what I want or I’ll do something you don’t want!” 

The power to acquire works through the medium of exchange.  It makes use of the carrot instead of the stick.  In Karen’s story, the Canadian government uses trade relations as a form exchange power:  “You give me something I want and I’ll give you something you want.” 

The power to heal works through vulnerability.  It makes use of empathy and compassion to foster integration.  In Karen’s story, her willingness to risk her life for her friend, while simultaneously recognizing and appealing to the humanity of her captors, was an expression of integrative power: “I will practice self-giving love, and together we will become more fully human.”[1] 

Threat power works only so long as the imbalance of force is maintained, at the cost of trust and freedom.  We cannot control anyone or anything forever.  The war in Afghanistan is a contemporary example of this truth.  Exchange power works only so long as I have what you want and vice-versa, at the cost of objectifying everything it touches.  Everyone and everything is not forever reducible to a commodity, as the reality of global climate change reminds us.

Integrative power endures because it respects the dignity and fundamental interconnectedness of life.  Agents of integrative power refuse to coerce or manipulate others.  They do so even at the risk of their own life, but never at the risk of their integrity.   It is their vulnerability that allows the power of love to flow through them as a healing force in the world. 

This is beautifully illustrated in today’s Gospel story (Mark 6:1-13).   Jesus and his disciples are focused on their mission of multidimensional healing: restoring bodily integrity (cure), freedom from the domination of alienating desires (exorcism), and conscious awareness of reality (repentance).   Notice that their power to heal is based entirely on trust.  There is a relational dimension of healing that requires mutual vulnerability.  In the absence of trust, they can do no deed of power. 

Jesus and his disciples do not heal people against their will; in fact, they cannot, because to do so would violate the integrity of the person that healing seeks to restore.  It would replace one form of domination with another.  Acceptance of the real possibility of “failure,” detachment from any particular outcome, is part and parcel of the vulnerability they must accept as the means to exercise integrative power.

Notice too, that Jesus and his disciples freely offer healing without expecting anything in return.  And yet, they travel light, entirely dependent upon the generosity of others to sustain them on their journey.  They give themselves away freely, and trust that others will respond in kind.  Here again, there is a recognition and acceptance of mutual vulnerability, and validation of their own humanity and that of those with whom they serve.  To expect others to be simply the objects of their integrative power, and not also its agents, would be to undermine the possibility of its authentic exercise.  To be fully human, completely whole, is to exercise our gifts as well as humbly accept our need. 

This is why Jesus and Karen Ridd are such iconic images of power.  The integrative power they exercise calls upon the trust, compassion, and generosity even of their enemies; it opens up the possibility for everyone to be more fully alive, for everything to become more completely whole.   It is through their very vulnerability, their weakness as St. Paul put it, that they become strong, capable of evoking the humanity of others as love mirrors love. 

It is in this context that we can understand St. Paul’s joyful affirmation of the Lord’s word to him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

When I am vulnerable, then the healing power of love, integrative power, can flow through me.  Love risks everything in order to heal everything. 

Jesus invites you today to make his power – the power of love – perfect in your weakness. It’s really quite a relief, when you think about it.  No more need to pretend to be anyone or anything other than you are.   He doesn’t ask you to be anything else other than human, vulnerable, open. 

What risks are you being called to take today for the sake of love?  What is it in you, in your life, in our world that only integrative power can heal?  Will you exercise that power for nothing, without regard for the outcome, in trust that love endures when threats are exhausted and there is nothing left to leverage? 

[1] The story of Karen Ridd and the discussion of the three types of power are taken from chapter two of Michael Nagler’s book, Is There No Other Way?.

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