Are you a control freak?
A few of you identify with that descriptor, but my guess is that many do not. I would be amongst this latter group. I’m generally fairly laid back and roll with the punches, but recent events have made me see that I am sadly more of a “control-freak” than I thought and not only that, I’ve come to see how much of fallen human nature has an ultimate (and unrealistic) need for control or using another word – power.
The common idols (and temptations) in our culture often come in the form of disordered desires for money, sex and power. There is nothing new about this. But while people can transgress in the areas of sexual immorality (and it is fairly obvious) and the sins of money might be only just less obvious, I often thought the sins of power were more related to those who had trouble with having narcissistic personality disorder. I have discovered, however, that a disordered approach to power is much more subtle and much more pervasive than many would think.
A Brief Review of Power in the Last 200 years
Many of the conversations in our cultural dialogue today revolve around power dynamics between different groups who are identified by different identity markers. As with so many conversations, this is not new. In the 19th and early 20th Century ideas began to circulate and crystallize that the masses or the proletariat (we might call them the 99% today) were being duped by the bourgeoisie in the upper classes of society so that said power brokers in aristocracy could retain their status quo of power. One oft-repeated thought during this era was that “Die Religion… ist das Opium des Volkes” – religion was being fed to the people and was the opiate of the masses – to subdue or dull them and prevent them from seeking power. While there was much truth to this critique, the revolutionary minds at the time painted those in power with one brush and at the same time threw out any belief in a worldview that made space for God. They said that the people could not just expect the false promises of religion – “Pie in the sky when they die” – but rather they should be fighting for equality and their outlook should be more a demand for “Steak on your plate while you wait”.
This more philosophical movement in the 19th century, fomented into violent revolution in the early and middle parts of the 20th Century. The pathway to equality was through the door of violent revolution and the hope was that this would ultimately lead to a utopian world of equality and brotherhood. The challenge was that as a third of the globe struggled to achieve this utopian dream of equality, wherever it was tried, the communist governments never got much beyond the violent revolutions and totalitarian regimes of control and fear.
This last week in the news I noted the death of a fairly notorious camp commandant of a Khmer Rouge torture prison. It was only last year, I was wandering around this prison (turned genocide museum) and considering this, one of the purer attempts at achieving the ultimate goals of Communism/Socialism in a beautiful nation called Cambodia. As I toured the torture prisons and killing fields in a nation that saw a regime of fear combine with a Communist ideology leading to a horrific genocide of around 3 million over the course of approx. three years. I was not terribly surprised to hear that my colleague (twenty years my junior) was completely unfamiliar with the events that had transpired in Cambodia and asked why he was not been taught this in American schools.
The truth is that as many of the communist regimes began to falter and fail towards the end of the twentieth century (with China even embracing a new form of “controlled” market economy) the relevancy of such history and the likelihood it was making a comeback seemed in both cases not that great (although why Stalin never became as great a bogeyman as Hitler is perplexing), besides which, it was another 19th century German Philosopher that had become popular. Marx was out of vogue and Nietzsche was decidedly “hot” as the postmodern take on power took root with a vengeance.
Power Dynamics Today
The workers were no longer in the ascendancy, the dot com revolution and the free market were surely bringing wealth to everyone? Would the class struggle finally become consigned to the pages of history? The answer is yes and no. Many of the class workers who rose up in revolution throughout much of 19th and the 20th century were men, who were mainly heterosexual and by and large had skin color which was generally pinkish. Gender, sexual preferences and skin color really had no part of these earlier uprisings. The power dynamics were all important. The rich, privileged bourgeoisies possessed all the power and the poor underprivileged workers wanted to gain that power (theoretically so it could be distributed equally between them). Violence was the answer to right the wrongs.
Now the questioning of any objective truth and suspicion of anyone making a truth claim in any position of “power” through postmodernism strangely opened a door to a new form of struggle for equality, only this time the struggle was not about class differences (even though the gap between the “rich” and the “poor” has increased in recent decades), rather the same power dynamic scenario was interposed onto another construct. In this construct there is a very similar hierarchy in society with those on top with privilege and power and those at the bottom of the pile who have neither. The difference in the current scenario is the identity markers changed. Now those at the top are white, heterosexual cis gendered, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males, which meant that many in the previous construct who were at the bottom of the pile were suddenly elevated to the top because of their gender, sexual preference and skin color. The “victims” of society in this new construct are women, non-whites, and those who were not heterosexual. Each one of these “victim” points is a bonus on this new intersectionality construct and the more points you are awarded, the more those on top of the construct have to be silenced and stripped of power to make way for those at the bottom of the pile. The power dynamic in the 19th century iteration and the 21st century version is remarkably similar.
Now please bear with me as I have a point to make with these observations, and it is not a bid to get neo-conservative brownie points or to mansplain or whitesplain away the fight against injustices. I am all too aware we live in a world that is full of systemic injustices, and this applies to both the old construct of the power dynamic that was played out in the 19th century and in the new intersectional power dynamics being promoted today. So, I do not want to downplay injustices that must be righted.
However, I am a follower of Jesus and so I am interested in the perspective that Jesus and his followers have brought to the subject t of power. A brief look into this may that sometimes the assumptions many bring to the conversations on power and the direction much of society is headed is antithetical to the “Jesus” approach. And so I want to delve into this perspective because, as per usual, it brings the deepest conviction of all.
Can we Really Control the Future?
As a way to enter into this perspective let me return to my first question of whether I personally am a control freak. I didn’t think so, but recently due to the COVID situation I along with a number of other friends were laid off from our jobs and as a result lost our incomes. I was brought face-to-face with my need to control my own destiny (or the fact that I could not), and by control, I mean, my need to “hustle” to get money to provide for my family. Now I don’t want to demean a noble (and biblical) desire to provide for my family, however, there was more in my desire that wasn’t quite as noble and that was the desire to take away the uncertainty of life and try to control what comes ahead – my thirst was not simply for provision, it was for control or for power.
Ultimately our need for control is a desire to take the uncertainty out of our own future. Quite a number of times I have had two work colleagues petition me as their supervisor to be the tie breaker in their conflict. I was always welcome to step into these situations, however there was generally more to the request. Typically, what underlay these requests was an implicit request that one of the colleagues should be the boss or hold power over the other colleague. I often knew that if I acquiesced to such a request the one who now was forced into a more subservient position would either quit or be fired. I would generally not acquiesce to this request. However, on the few occasions where one of the colleagues got to take control over the other colleague’s position, there was always an interesting outcome. Disordered desires for money, sex or power are typically a mirage and never deliver what they promise. More often than not as the colleague with the new responsibility started to walk in the same shoes that their old colleague had they too actually made the same decisions that they had so critiqued their previous colleague.
I have seen this same dynamic in politics. The opposition party consistently makes a big song and dance about the policies of the party in power, but when in power themselves and faced with same nuances, will often make similar choices.
What did Jesus Think About Power?
You may agree with all this analysis, but still be left with a question, of what is the right “Christian” approach be to these situations. The answer is remarkably similar in both the cases of money and power. In both cases a naked desire for money or power is condemned in scripture. In both cases the Bible makes clear these are deceptive destinations. However, in both cases money and power are issues of simple entrustment and stewardship. Not only that, but they Bible actually deals fairly harshly with Christians who react in ways similar to the way that I reacted to losing control.
Jesus was not silent about such issues.
These issues affected his own “leadership team”, as they jockeyed for power, and therefore he had to address them repeatedly. The thirst for power amongst the disciples manifested in several ways. One recurring conversation, if the gospel writers are to be believed, is the question over which of the disciples is the greatest (see Matthew 18:1, Mark 9:33, Luke 9:46, 22:24).
Now what is interesting is that Jesus never rebukes the desire for greatness.
It is a legitimate desire.
The desire to be a leader is not bad – however the requirements for power in the Kingdom that Jesus leads are completely contrary to the instincts from our fallen fleshly nature. Jesus leads an upside-down kingdom in which servanthood is the epitome of greatness (see Matt 20:26, Mark 10:43, John 13:1-17), being like a powerless child is what it means to be great and this is followed up by apostles like Paul who are quite clear about the husband being “the head of the wife”, but then follows this up with requirements for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5).
Our societies obsession with leadership, money and power is often simply about control. We desire for power and money so we can remove the fear of the future; if we have power then we think it will remove worry. Yet the Kingdom view is that control is mirage and that any power you do possess should be used in the service of others. This is borne out by simple observation that increasing power and money simply does not remove worry, if anything it increases it.
These issues are taken up again and again throughout scriptures. From the Children of Israel only being given one day’s supply of manna to Jesus’ repeated warnings against worry, to the apostles speaking of the elevated position of the poor versus the humble position of the rich.
This continued in the early church. The early monastics prized amerimna or “Freedom from care” as one of the perfect states to achieve if a believer was to pray effectively. Similarly, one of the chief virtues which the early church fathers would return to repeatedly was that of patience. Alan Kreider in his excellent book “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” has highlighted this seeming obsession with this virtue in the early centuries as the slow ferment in the body of believers which worked through the entire church and far from causing its growth to slow actually meant that the habitus (or habitual behaviour) of early Christians was massively distinct from the societal norms of the Roman empire and therefore surprisingly entirely attractional.
So, what am I trying to say about power? Simply this – while seeking justice for the oppressed is correct, often our ideas of taking power off those who have it and giving the oppressed the power are misguided. They are misguided, not because we need to retain the status quo of power, but simply because the fight for power is like seeking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. The critique that Marxism, cultural Marxism and intersectionality presents us with has some merit, but ultimately it too is a mirage – there will always be someone higher up the ladder of power subjugating those below. Rather, I submit that the Gospel presents a truer vision of justice, but also perhaps a more difficult approach to power, for the view of the world that Jesus presents us with invites us into a world of voluntarily embracing weakness, embracing patience, embracing prayer, embracing trust in a heavenly father who desires good things for his children – no matter who is in power.
At the end of Song of Solomon a question is asked “Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved?” (Song of Solomon 8:5). Many commentators see this as an analogy of the Christ and the Church. A posture of leaning is not a one we typically like to embrace and yet this is the position that believers are invited into. We desire power, but we are invited into weakness, and as believers it is only in this position that we will truly find the power of God.