When journalist and theologian Andy Crouch told people that he was writing a book on the subject of power, the most common response he heard was “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This cliché is inserted as a sort of conversation stopper, as if our Christian faith has nothing to add to the subject of power. There are other more sophisticated claims by academicians, especially sociologists – that also conclude that power is de facto a bad thing. Consider the phrase popularized by C. Wright Mills that “power is violence” (Crouch, 2013, p. 132).
How does Christianity respond to such a cynical view of power?
The benefits of power
Crouch’s Playing God (2013) is a deep reflection on the benefits, as well as dangers of power. He gives the example of the Heimlich maneuver (p. 140). I could relate to this: At a birthday party recently, a relative of mine began choking on a piece of tri-tip. My wife, who is a nurse practitioner, ran behind him and began doing abdominal thrusts until he spit out the meat. Here she was using a form of power (her knowledge as a medical provider, as well as her physical power) but this force or power was certainly not a form of violence, because it resulted in his flourishing rather than his detriment.
We see power that results in flourishing every day. In fact, even if this is not the normal experience with power differentials for many in the world (especially the marginalized), it is the normative result of power (that is, it is the way that God has designed the universe for power to work).
I will develop an example that Crouch hints at. Imagine a married couple that has dealt with infertility. Meanwhile, another couple has relied on artificial insemination to successfully implant some embryos that were carried to term, but the medical process involved freezing some of their embryos. The first couple uses the legal process to adopt the biological parents’ embryos. Then a skilled physician implants the embryos in the adoptive mother’s womb, but she eventually develops complications, and a skilled obstetrician performs a cesarean at 24 weeks. The 1-pound baby survives in the intensive care unit for the next 12 weeks and eventually thrives. The parents then take the child home and provide an overall nurturing home for their precious child. In this case, there are many examples of power, power differentials, and powerlessness. The couple who has dealt with infertility feels dis-empowered, but the legal system empowers them through adoption. The obstetrician is in a position of power over the patient and uses this power to give life. The parents are in a position of power over the child. The medical providers in intensive care are in a position over the parents and the child. The surgeons were, at one point, students subjected to the power of their professors. The physicians, in fact, are still subjected to the power of the hospital administrators. Here we see a system functioning properly. In each case, one used his power to cause flourishing for himself, as well as for the other. The teacher and student both benefit when the student does well. Parents flourish when they use their power to help their children flourish. Doctors flourish when they use their power to help patients flourish. And so on. This happens all around us.
Note that flourishing is a central concept for Crouch’s theology of culture, which he further describes in Culture Making (Crouch, 2008). Crouch’s thesis is that the meaning of “image bearing” is that humans wield power in a creative way that leads to flourishing, just as God does. Hence, the title of his (2013) book Playing God. Of course, this is a double-sided concept. We can use power as God does for creative purposes, or we can play God by making ourselves or something else into an idol, and use power for destructive purposes.
Is power a limited good?
What separates Crouch’s view from critical theories of power is that he does not see power as a limited good. We can use power to empower others – resulting in more net power. Or power can be used to dis-empower others, which ultimately leads to the detriment of everyone, including those who wield the power. Unjust leaders like those in North Korea end Venezuela eventually bring the house down on themselves.
But wasn’t Jesus powerless?
Crouch (2013b) skillfully points out that Jesus exercised power without demanding status or privilege. He commanded power over wind and waves, over sickness, over heretical teachings and unethical religious leaders, over unjust laws, and He even exercised power over His own, when he said “follow me.” He used power for good as He initiated new traditions and ethical mandates like “love your neighbor as yourself.”
But what about political power?
Is the logical end of power violence, as critical theorists suggest? To answer this, Crouch described his own sense of awe as he watched the inauguration of President Obama in 2008. He found it remarkable that for over 200 years US presidents have handed over power to their rivals without violence. Indeed, this is a common experience of political power in the United States. (In an updated version of this treatise on power, Crouch might do well to compare Obama’s transfer of power with Trump’s in 2020). Violence is the logical end of idolatrous power—not the necessary end of all power.
What about institutional power?
The critical view may concede that individuals occasionally use power for the good of others, but what about institutions? Crouch (2013) details how institutions use their power to create “artifacts, arenas, rules and roles” that ensure flourishing (p. 172). To take the example of the adoptive parents above, the legal and medical “industrial complex” (if you will), when used as God intended, allows for tremendous flourishing. I have another personal example. My daughter was born with nearly no septum between the two atria in her heart. The cardiac surgeon had spent nearly 20 years as an apprentice in a teaching hospital in order to master the procedure whereby he went through her femoral artery and implanted an artificial septum in her heart. It was the medical-educational institution that allowed for this flourishing.
What about hierarchy and meritocracy?
Yet the critical theorist would want to dissolve hierarchy and “meritocracy.” In this example above, which hierarchy or merit would be desirable to be dissolved? I do not have the intelligence, nor hand-eye coordination, nor patience to develop the skill that the cardiac surgeon developed through his own apprenticeship with someone much more skilled (at one point) than he was. Flourishing happened because an institution allowed for specialization. Or as Crouch pointed out, institutions allow for individuation. Hierarchy, skill and merit make our advanced medical and legal and educational practices possible.
The dark side of power
Of course, power has its dark side. Crouch (2013) explains,
Nothing in this world east of Eden has escaped the corruption of the divine image- certainly not institutions. For the patterns that institutions sustain with their artifacts, arenas, rules and roles are not just the patterns of image bearing, but the patterns of God playing and God making played out over space and time until they become woven into the very fabric of culture. These institutions consistently fail to provide the comprehensive flourishing that is the test of shalom. (p. 200)
Because of this, even though the first half of Crouch’s (2013) book develops an apologia for the existence of power and institutions, he does not allow Christian readers to be content with the status quo where power simultaneously yields flourishing and injustice. The third part of the book implores us to use powers and institutions to upend injustice. Just like Joseph used his political power in Egypt to result in the flourishing of his host nation, as well as that of his own people, we can use our powerful institutions to combat the injustices today, such as racism and global sex trafficking.
Lastly, there are times we should limit our own power. Just because we can produce more crops by working on the Sabbath does not mean we should. Crouch envisions that the Sabbath years and the Jubilee year were instances where power was limited in order to curtail idolatry. The jubilee system is unpopular – even painful – for lenders and landowners, because it limits their power. But holiness involves learning how to relinquish our power to allow others to flourish. Consider how God set aside some of his creative powers to put the power of creative expression in our own hands!
Crouch, A. (2008) Culture Making. Intervarsity Press
_____. (2013). Playing God . Intervarsity Press.