Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

The Cult of Power (Nov-Dec 2001)

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by Larry James
November – December, 2001

American culture teaches me that power is about position. Financial position determines leverage. Political standing affects influence and outcomes. The box I occupy on an organizational chart means certain doors open while others may remain closed. Race, ethnicity and gender determine when my head bumps an invisible ceiling. Privilege delivers power automatically. Educational attainment usually means influence and advantage. Aggression and assertiveness, self-confidence and insistence often allow me to muscle my way to the front of the line to assume a better position.

Everything about being human and being American urges me on to a place of advantage and power, often down very “respectable” avenues. The higher my position, the greater my power. Too often people in positions of power misuse the power they possess either in self-serving ways or, worse yet, in ways that crush, block and destroy others.

Living and working among “the poor” teaches me that real power is all about purpose. Defining people in terms of economic status repulses me. I always resist definitions such as “the poor” or “the needy.” Everyone is poor and rich, needy and fulfilled just in different ways and to different degrees. Our unknowing thoughtlessness in categorizing others is itself a part of the game of positioning that we all play. My neighbors in inner city Dallas, Texas reveal the power and the importance of purpose over position. Many of my good friends possess little in the way of material goods, political influence, or educational attainment. Many understand from lifelong experience the sting of discrimination and the indignities of racism. But I have noticed that they do possess great joy, unselfishness, a willingness to do their part for the community, unfailing faith and deep spiritual reserves.

Power defined by position in America usually flows from the top down. Power determined by purpose rises in my community from the bottom up. The purposeful power that is changing our community appears to be a grassroots movement led by people with little or no standing in the community, as standing is normally determined in American society.

My friend, Hazel, a mother of four with few marketable employment skills, works until 8 p.m. each evening and then takes a one-hour bus ride home. Hazel has known deep disappointment, physical abuse, illness, and poverty. She is, however, a leader in our community. Her voice blesses us with powerful song on Sundays. Her wisdom and her consistent presence encourage all of us. She serves. She places the needs and dreams of others ahead of her own. Because she lives with purpose, she possesses power. Other names and faces come to mind – Miss Hazel, Lagean, Roy, Don, Lloyd, Wendell, Miss Lou, Lidia – each exerting considerable power as a result of their life’s clear purpose.

My friends remind me of Jesus, wrapped in a towel washing dirty feet – the one who freely surrendered his legitimate position to answer his father’s call to the highest purpose (Phil. 2:6-8), the one now exalted to ultimate power because of the purpose he embraced and pursued to its completion. I see him in my “poor” friends. The longer I live among my friends, the more I suspect that they have discovered the power that could change the city, especially the ravaged inner city, for the better. The power that flows from the purpose they have discovered changes everything.

Ironically, my city is filled with huge churches where the well-positioned power brokers of the community worship week after week. But there is a horrible chasm between the pews of the powerful and the pain of the streets. For all its wealth and prestige, Dallas faces a shortage of fit and affordable workforce housing – between thirty and forty thousand units. For all the glitz, glitter, and influence in our high-tech world, thousands of children in Dallas cannot read. For all its boasting and bravado, the public health system in Dallas serves only half those who are eligible. Children arrive at school hungry in our city. In this city of beautiful churches and powerfully positioned leaders, I see very little political will to provide hope and opportunity equally for everyone – a picture of power without adequate purpose.

Jesus beckons us to a strange life. He encourages us to forget position and the factors that arrange it for us. He asks that we remember the position he assumed and the amazing, life-changing power he brokered. He calls us to empty ourselves of the advantages of our position, of the claims we could make on life for ourselves. He urges us not to use our position for our own purposes and goals. He compels us, rather, to give up our strivings for position so that we can understand our true purpose in him.New Wineskins

Larry James

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