Posts Tagged ‘power’

“But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves he seeks no power, therefore he has power,” Alan Paton (Cry the Beloved Country)

During a recent weekend trip I had an intense discussion with an agnostic friend. Church and religion are to her one of the great evils of our time. Her experience has been one of manipulation, coercion, disrespect, and hypocrisy. I found it difficult to defend the church in light of her experiences. In fact, my own experiences have often echoed the things I heard her share –and I am one of the insiders. So, if my experiences have not differed too greatly from hers, what has kept me active in the church and in faith despite these “great evils”?


I’m not sure when I first started viewing religion through the lens of love vs. power, but it has been my saving grace . . . and a thorn in my flesh. I’ve seen religion practiced both ways. I’ve felt the weight of both. I am regretfully an undisciplined practitioner of both.

Power: By using the term power I do not mean capability or strength. Rather, I’m referring to the authoritative aspects of power like hegemony and sway. By exercising this kind of power, we are lured by the ascendency of position in order to influence others, particularly if that influence makes us look benevolent and bolsters our reputation. The true motivator here is self.

Love: Likewise, when using the term love, I do not mean passive warm feelings, but rather  the activity of gratuitous affection without want of compensation.

Perhaps, these lenses are a result of working as a religious storyteller for many years and encountering powerful examples of religiosity practiced during intense times. Allow me to give an example of one such intense time.

I still cannot shake the disgust and frustration I felt in the wake of the Indonesian Tsunami a few years ago. I was first struck by the magnitude of the disaster. Then, as I began stumbling across watches, boots, and baby stroller parts in the rubble, a tsunami-sized force of grief struck me for the individuals who were lost in the rolling waves. People all over the world felt this grief and gave to countless relief organizations with the hope of making a difference.

The response of American churches was immediate and generous. That was my initial thought anyway. But as I began listening to the stories of the people on the ground, my heart sank. I learned of relief organizations competing with one another by staking-out villages with airdropped packages. Along with the packages came stipulations for the village leaders to choose that particular organization as a patron and refuse help from others. Often, the villages waited months for follow-up and were sometimes abandoned for more sensational villages. In many cases, the aid was driven by the appeal to donors more so than by the actual needs of the tsunami victims.

In one situation, a NGO hired workers outside of the area to build ships for the tsunami victims so that they could begin fishing again. A noble cause indeed! However, when the fishermen received their new boats, they found them to be useless in their local waters and incompatible with their style of fishing. They pleaded to be given the resources to make their own boats but the good deed was done and the NGO and it’s donors were already celebrating back in the US of A.

Love was not the primary motivator of these actions. This was very clear. And yet, donors were applauded for their altruism and benevolence.

The good news is that I did encounter many examples of love-motivated activity while I was there and felt surprised to see how these actions brought about a profound sense of empowerment (meaning strength and capability) to those in need.

I’ve witnessed good and bad stories like these all over the world and struggle with the best way (and most ethical way) of communicating them. Many relief workers also wrestle with this tension. Social psychology refers to this dynamic as altruism (action motivated by a selfless concern for others) vs. egoism (action motivated by self-interest).  Economist Brian Duncan labels donors who give out of a sense of “making a difference” Impact Philanthropists.* He warns that “impact philanthropist may fall into a codependent relationship with recipients in which the recipients remain dependent on philanthropy.”

The power of influence is a strong motivator and has led many relief organizations to set up giving models to meet this demand. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You probably receive catalogues in the mail that let you set up yearly giving administered to a single child, or allow you to buy a sheep for a specific family and drill a well for a remote village. If you raise extra funds for yourself, you can take a trip and see the work for yourself and call it a missions trip.

Aid organizations realize that they need these sexy projects that cater to a donor’s sense of power (AKA altruism) in order to fund the less sexy projects like overhead or maintenance, which are essential to meet the broader needs. This causes substantial ethical dilemmas for many relief organizations.

But let’s take a step back and look at the broader relationship between religiosity and power that stretches far beyond charitable giving. It seeps from pulpits and blogs and facebook status updates. Desperate appeals for influence under the guise of gospel truth simply reek of manipulation. This is the sort of thing my agnostic friend can sniff out before a Christian opens his mouth. When it comes to proselytizing, she says it starts with a look of pity followed by condescending words that reveal their moral superiority.

“If they would just say, ‘I have found the most amazing thing in Jesus. It has changed my life. I can’t help but tell you about it and would love for you to experience it too’, I could handle that. I can see that it is motivated by something real and out of a love for Jesus and for me”, she says. But this she rarely hears.

Choosing love isn’t easy.

The day following our discussion, I had one of those uncomfortable pew sessions. I jostled and shifted and sighed and finally walked out during the sermon. I was really glad my friend was not with me. She would have sniffed it out before the sermon began. Initially, I was bothered by the eisegetical engagement of the text – I get fidgety when the sermon becomes a support for personal agendas, guilt-trips, and manipulation (I’m not just talking about pulpit bullying but also minor things like seeking affirmation, reputation, or just meeting a budget goal).

When I walked out into the sunshine and took a stroll around the parking lot, I became aware again of this tension between power and love. My first response was anger followed by a desire to protect the naïve souls of the young congregants. Then I felt the pang of Christ – so many words that could have been spoken about his beauty and character where lost in the narcissism, focusing instead on the deeds of men and the awesomeness of this particular church.

In the face of “great evils” and injustices, will my response be motivated in love or power? It was a hard question to ask myself. Did I see Christ active in this church? Yes. Why is he active here despite these “evils”?

Love. Gratuitous affection without want of compensation.

I thought of the speaker again and felt that strange and heavy weight of compassion. Was I able to see beyond his words to glimpse at his heart? Was it really full of “evil” or was there something else there–perhaps insecurity or fear? What does Christ see? I spent the remainder of sermon time praying for him.

I believe that power will always be a temptress to those in authority. I believe it will always be a motivator of religiosity. And yes, I believe it can cause great social and spiritual harm. But I am coming to terms with the reality that my instinctive response toward religious power plays is often a religious power play in itself.

“But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love.” Alan Paton

Walking in love will require of me a more deliberate look at how I give, speak, defend, and pray.  I have a long walk ahead.

* Duncan B. 2004. A Theory of Impact Philanthropy. Journal of Public Economics 88:2159-80


Recently, I read Frank Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God and was struck by how much we have in common. We were both raised overseas as MKs (Missionary Kids), both immersed in the fabric of Christian fundamentalism, and both became disillusioned with American evangelicalism. And like Frank, I find myself trying to shake off some of the philosophies of Frank’s father Francis Schaeffer, which were driven into to me as gospel since birth. Crazy for God made me feel kind of crazy as it illuminated just how many of my core beliefs stem from the work of Francis Schaeffer.

Challenged to deconstruct some of my own “fundamentals,” I revisited Francis Schaeffer’s view of truth in post-enlightenment. Schaeffer, an astute critic of art history and continental philosophy, devoted much of his writing to the concept of absolute truth. He became a rock star within evangelical circles and helped lay the foundations for the powerful rise of the Religious Right.

In the Great Evangelical Disaster he says, “Christianity is no longer providing the consensus for our society . . . the consensus upon which our law is based.” 1 Without this consensus, Schaeffer concluded, society relies on post-modern relativism and humanistic thought to determine morality. When society walks away from absolute truth, it heads into chaos void of moral code and, ultimately, disintegration.

Truth lies at the heart of the evangelical movement. It’s also one of the ideologies that makes me most uncomfortable with evangelicalism. Let me clarify upfront that I do not question the viability of absolute truth. However, what fascinates me by the evangelical rhetoric of absolute truth is not morality, but power. While I still appreciate much of Schaeffer’s teachings, it is the trajectory of the discourse which fueled the Right-wing powerhouse and Dominionist philosophy that gives me worry.

Schaeffer was a leader in the fight to restore morality through enforcing the truths of Scripture on big issues like abortion, euthanasia, and evolution that energized the growing Culture Wars in America. Dominionism became viral. Lazy Sunday afternoons were replaced with hyped rallies and picket signs. Youth (like me) were bused to DC to march on the Mall and reclaim Washington for Jesus. Radios across America (including ours) were tuned in to Coral Ridge Ministries’ daily show Truths that Transform.

Coral Ridge president, Rev. D. James Kennedy, expressed Dominionism to conference attendees this way: “As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government … our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”2

George Grant, Executive Director at Coral Ridge Ministries (later called Truth in Action Ministries), reinforced this position by declaring, “it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest.” 3

While this may seem like fringe extremism, I recently heard an evangelical pastor say that he is not afraid to speak truth from the pulpit. In fact, when he speaks truth, the world takes offense. He went on to celebrate how boldly he preaches on topics like the role of women in the church and homosexuality. Even if he was indeed speaking truth on these topics, I had a hard time understanding how celebrating our own offensiveness is ever a good thing. Do offensive statements bring about restoration and redemption?

Over the years, I’ve heard similar statements by other pastors and lay people alike and wondered what lies at the root of these statements. Is this really about truth? Is it really about morality? Or could it be that manipulation (in the name of truth) is employed to reduce complex issues into simple beliefs in order to harness power? While I don’t know the motivation behind these sentiments, the bully pulpit is a dangerous temptation for many in a position of spiritual authority.

So, what happens if the “true” claims of the Church are found to be false or merely opinion?  Of course, there was the extreme case of Galileo who was arrested for his heliocentric view of the universe, which was in opposition to the church-approved geocentric model. While most of us are no Galileo, I believe there is a subtler consequence that affects regular folks like me and Frank Schaeffer: disillusionment.

The danger for aggressive banner-of-truth waving evangelicals is that their dogmatism often provokes skepticism within those outside the picket lines. For many of my peers, the harsh rhetoric on political hot-topics like abortion and gay marriage reduces the other “truths” of the Church to mere ideology. Nietzsche predicted that the unraveling of truth in such a way would lead to the Church’s own dissolution and ultimately to a “despair of meaningless.” Wouldn’t it be ironic if the church’s iron-fisted clutch on truth ended up fuelling the very nihilism that we are trying to defend against?

Jesus relates to truth and power in unexpected ways. He declares the earth as an inheritance for the meek, rather than a conquest for the powerful. He manifested the fullness of his power through humility. In contrast to the rulers who wished to lord it over the people, he declared his intent was to serve, rather than be served.

I resonated with Pope Benedict’s January 2012 radio address where he said, “For man, authority often means possession, power, domination, success. For God, however, authority means service, humility, love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash the disciples’ feet, who seeks the true good of man, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great as to give up his life, because he is Love.” 5

As the evangelical church continues to grapple with big issues like abortion, evolution, and homosexuality, it is important to do a gut check on our motivation. Do we reflect the humility of Christ? Do we care more about pointing out fault in others or washing feet and healing wounds? Are we seeking aristocracy in a Christian empire or servanthood in the Kingdom of God?

While the Church has a lot to say about truth and morality, it must take great care to distinguish truth from cultural ideology and resist the temptation to use fear, manipulation, and power as weapons to control congregants and society.

Bringing it home, the greater challenge for me in reconstructing my “fundementals” is not just navigating the complexities of discerning truth but, perhaps more critically, knowing what to do with it. I hope to become the sort of truth-teller that speaks in humility and love to witnesses the power of God in its most spectacular form–setting the oppressed free, breaking the chains that bind people, and healing the broken-hearted. I echo this prayer attributed to Methodist Minister Albert Outler: “Lord, protect us from the mindless love that deceives and the loveless truth that kills.” Amen.

1 Chapter 2 from The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway Books, 1984)

2 Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 2005

3 George Grant, “Changing Of The Guard” [PDF], Dominion Press, 1987 (

4  Pat Robertson, The New World Order (Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing Co, 1991), 227.




For several years now I’ve wrestled with my inner “evangelical”. I like the music, the coffee, the manger scenes. There’s something so American about church. It’s a great show, often quirky, but to me, always a little foreign as I watch the others swaddle up the fake baby Jesus and grab another cup of coffee. Although I have struggled against it for so long, I find my inner evangelical is now on the outside looking in at the American evangelical church. A drive-thru nativity spectator. Some say I’m recovering. I prefer cagey. . . wary, skeptical, trapped. Perhaps it’s the Third Culture kid inside that’s having a hard time recognizing this American god. Perhaps it’s the media critic in me that just can’t stop analyzing script in terms of culture, power, and hegemony. Or perhaps God is doing something very fascinating and utterly confusing. These next few posts will explore some of the questions a cagey, recovering evangelical ponders, a few book reviews, and some interesting thoughts I hope to borrow from respected friends. Come on ring those bells and everybody stay tuned.