Three Ways of Inhabiting Power

A candidate for president of the United States was caught on video reveling in the way he could use his power as a celebrity to cross boundaries that others could not cross. He clearly described his practice of using fame to get away with harassing and molesting women with impunity.

The video was made public over three weeks ago. Now we’ve seen much of the fallout. Many of his supporters still support him and offer a wide range of justifications — it was a long time ago or it’s just words or it’s private morality unrelated to his public actions. For others this was a bridge too far. They couldn’t support someone who would treat women this way, though they still support much of the remainder of his practices.

Inhabiting power to win

Separating this event from the rest of his life baffles me. The description he gave is fully consonant with the way he has inhabited power throughout the campaign and indeed his whole career: Power is to be used to pursue one’s own interest over and against others. A few of the many types of power he has used this way are:

  • The power that comes with the podium. He has been given a stage and a microphone and constant media coverage and has used them openly to stoke already smoldering resentment of many toward the most vulnerable among us.
  • The power that comes from wealth. He has used the vast differential of wealth between himself and those with whom he has business commitments to flagrantly abandon those commitments, knowing that the other could not afford to defend his or her legal rights.
  • The power that comes from being a man in America. He has taken the process of getting away with objectifying women to a whole new level because of his wealth and fame but the process is open, available, and practiced by ordinary men all the time.

For those that seek the same ends that he seeks with his power he is seen as “strong,” “bold,” even “manly” for inhabiting power this way. For others, they seek different ends but are content with the same use of power, as if the only way of inhabiting power is to use it to seek the ends of my own people over and against others. We inhabit power to win.


Some kinds of power we can seek and cultivate, other kinds come with our social location. Either way power is granted to us by the vast network of people we live among. Power gives us the ability to bring about the ends we seek. We as a people grant power to the wealthy, to the charismatic, to the well-connected, and to those we identify as “one of us.” The poor, the outsider, and the foreigner have very little power in America, and when they gather together to seek power they are frequently crushed.

Acknowledging that we, the people, grant power means that we are not without blame when those we give power to end up acting destructively. It also means we are not helpless to withdraw this power.

But once power is granted to someone he or she has a choice as to how they will live within it. Inhabiting power to win is not the only option.

Inhabiting power to negotiate

Our liberal democracy is built on the assumption that inhabiting power to win is always a risk to the common good. That’s why it puts limits on the power of any one individual or group. And it’s why safeguards are built into the system to protect minority groups from the tyranny of the majority. We still seek to win but we do it through a system where we have to negotiate with others that have equal standing within the system.

Liberal democracy remains a pretty good idea. It has allowed us to transfer power between leaders at regular intervals without bloodshed for quite a long time, which historically is kind of a miracle. We don’t prosecute and jail our political opponents after elections. When in power our leaders are required to work with their rivals to get things done, finding common ground and seeking compromise.

It seems we need to be reminded of this.

Our system, though, routinely ignores those with no place at the table.  In a negotiated way of inhabiting power we debate with those that speak and ignore those that have been silenced. “The middle class” and “the working class” each get lots of air time and at least nominal support. They represent lots of votes. The resident alien only finds an advocate among the powerful when we need her labor to fuel our economy. The desperately poor worker caught in a cycle of debt has no advocate. Those accused or convicted of crimes have no advocate.

Liberal democracy is built on a great wisdom that humans, when given power, tend toward domination and that governing power needs a deep, structural chastening. Christians can support this to the extent that it takes seriously both human finitude and human fallenness. We are both limited in our capacities as individuals and we are prone to putting our interests over others to their detriment.

But that’s quite a bit different from saying that the way power is inhabited in a liberal democracy is Christian. It is absolutely not.

Many American Christians have, for some time, acted as if our goal should be to seek this kind of power. We need to seek a place at the negotiating table to be able to bring about the ends we seek for the country. We look for superheroes to put into office to pursue our values. Or, failing that, we fight against supervillains who we decide are the ones standing in the way of our values.

It may sound like I’m describing only politically conservative Christians here but I’m not. Politically progressive Christians can be just as prone to acting like the most important thing we can do is to vote for those that will bring about our values. The values that conservatives and progressives seek may be different but often the process looks the same.

We act as if Jesus forgot to tell us that the most important thing we can do to bring about God’s kingdom is to vote properly. Or maybe what Jesus really needs from us is to elect a new king for the kingdom.

Inhabiting power to serve

The Messiah we follow inhabited power by giving his power over to those without it. He came not to be served but to serve.

  • He used the privilege that gave him a place at the table of the powerful to lift up those that were systematically left out: the sinners, the foreigners, the poor.
  • His power to heal was most often used to remove the barriers to full participation in community life.
  • As a man he could participate fully in the rabbinical process of passing on wisdom to new generations and he used this access to include women in the process.
  • He willingly allowed the religious and political leaders of his day to torture and kill him, both demonstrating the violence of power used over and against others and demonstrating a strange alternative way of inhabiting power that brings reconciliation and new life.

This is not democratic. He did not promote a system where everyone is given an equal voice in the contestation of political power. It’s much more radical than that. Jesus practiced and described a process of setting things right where we each in our own contexts give preferential care to those whose lives are characterized by exclusion and injustice. We use the various forms of power we have in service to those without power.

Let’s assume that Jesus did not mess up when he gave us a way of living our everyday lives of self-giving love with one another. In the new kind of life together Jesus inaugurated, people gather with one another in a committed sharing of family life across all the barriers that were once thought insurmountable.

Putting our faith in systems and structures would be safer. We wouldn’t have to work through differences with people that make us uncomfortable, we could allow the system to do that kind of work. We also wouldn’t have to give of our own resources like time, security, assets, privilege, even life itself.

Jesus and the apostles didn’t just neglect to tell us that we should be seeking governmental power by putting Christians in office to rule the empire. They seem to have thought it was more important to spend their time and energy teaching people how to live in communities that loved another and, through this love, to turn outward to love their neighbors and even their enemies.

I still think liberal democracy is a better idea than the uncontested self-interest of the tyrant. Nothing about being given the vote can keep us from electing people openly proposing tyranny. So we should be careful to vote for those that both understand and believe in the negotiated power of our liberal democracy and against those that seek to use the processes of liberal democracy to win for themselves.

But let’s not pretend we’ve done very much by voting. Inhabiting power by working within a system where we negotiate power with others leaves our rivals as rivals. And it only works for those with a place at the table.

Inhabiting power by giving it over to those without it has the potential of making enemies into friends. It lifts up those without a place at the table but doesn’t leave them there as negotiating partners. They become our family. Maybe after the election is over we can give it a shot.

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