Power is one of the most interesting social variables, particularly here in the West. On the one hand, we readily look towards politicians, entrepreneurs, church leaders, etc. to institute our visions for government, business, church, etc. However, at the same time, we are deeply skeptical of power, with a looming fear of those who power hurting the wrong people (who the wrong people to hurt often depends on our political persuasion), whether it be the middle class, LGBTQ, ethnic minorities, women, etc. Despite this two-sided nature of our views of power, rarely do we actually have a complex view of power in actual practice. We have a predilection to idealize or demonize those who hold power in an all or nothing manner. We idealize those who cast visions that seem compelling, those who seem to produce the results we want, etc. Rarely does a sense of caution get placed towards such figures; they are worthy of honor, respect, and praise and any critique of them is “clearly” laid with hidden agendas, selfishness, manipulation, etc.
It is precisely this idealize of particular empowered persons that create many of the conditions for abuse, including in the church. Debbie Doughtery observes the relation between power hierarchies and sexual harassment in organizations:
Although no single factor has been identified that characterizes a sexual-harassment-prone organization, one common thread seems to be the presence of a strong authoritarian management structure. Strong authoritarian management structures attempt to impose a single unified meaning system on workers, often with disastrous impacts on the workplace culture (Zak, 1994). Research suggests a significant relationship between sexual harassment and rigid authoritarian structures in military organizations (Firestone & Harris, 1999), healthcare organizations (Dougherty, 2001a), and blue collar work environments (Zak). Zak makes the most direct link between such management structures and harassment-prone cultures.
The primary disadvantage of an authoritarian style of management is the inflexibility in adapting to organizational change. Because authoritarian managers tend to have a singular, rigid, vision of the organization, they rarely provide a climate in which a new discourse community can develop. For example, AVTA, a vehicle maintenance unit of a larger organization, had no discursive structure for adapting to demographic diversification. As a result the “bully boys,” those who saw themselves as the guardians of the old culture, began a systematic series of assaults on newcomers ranging from racial to sexual harassment (Zak, 1994). Although not all sexual-harassment-prone organizations have rigid authoritarian structures, inflexible authoritarianism can provide the conditions that nurture sexual harassment.1
This principle studied in the context of sexual harassment but the principle spans beyond that form of evil.
Because organizations, cultures, nations, etc. normalize discourse that has a positive view of those who power, which is one possible condition for creating strong, authoritarian leadership, such authoritarian contexts have a predilection to immediately suspect, minimize, ignore, and demonize all speech that conflicts with this positive view of people in power. Complaints, objections, and grievances direct towards those with power are met with derision, retaliation, and smearing. What is particularly alarming about this is that all of this can be done with sincere beliefs. People who legitimize and justify those who abuse their power may have a pragmatism undergirding their support, but very frequently it can be an idealization of those in power that would not allow them to believe it is possible. Do those insiders who support Jesse Duplantis’s appeal to get a new, private jet from donations have some ulterior motive? Or, do they think this “man of God” is justified for this request? While the former can be the case, for the vast majority of people, it will probably be the latter.
What does this mean? It would mean that a majority of persons enabling the coverup of abuse by people in power is done by people who really do believe in their innocence. It is done by people who could not stomach the idea that someone they support, a cause they are really behind, an organization that they highly esteem, are participating in destructive and abusive behaviors. Instead, they revert to a competitive, tribal instinct that assumes any “attack” against their tribe and its leaders is false, illegitimate, and evil. Authoritarian cultures based upon the fostering a culture of an unthinking positive legitimation of those in power is a variable in controlling discourse and information flow that can silence any discourse against abuse.
While this has in the West this has been typically associated with “conservatism,” this is a bit misleading. Insofar as the values of “conservatism” has been influenced by the power the people who held to such values had, then yes, “conservatism” has a tendency to legitimize strong authoritarian structures that perpetuate abuse. But if we have learned anything about the power of Hollywood in this past few months, sexual abuse and the covering up of it via power is shared by the “progressive” side of the spectrum. Whenever those with power are unthinkingly legitimated because of the purposes they purport to use their power for, whether they are “conservative,” “progressives,” etc., you have a context where abuse is possible.
However, more often than not in Western culture that has attempted to enculturate the value of individual persons apart from status, those who are unthinkingly legitimized will not abuse others.2 Because most power is not used abusively, we will tend to overlook the link between abuse and the legitimization that empowers power figures and their following to silence critics and look more to other explanations, such as the evil of the abuser, blaming the victim for not speaking out, the apathy of bystanders, etc. In other words, we will find other explanations, some of which may have truth, some of which may be false, rather than identify the way cultures control discourse and the spread of information that is critical and accusing of those who have power through the way they idealize power-holders.
So for the Body of Christ, this stands as a challenge for the Church to be distinct from the way the world deals with power. When James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus about having a place of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom in Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus asks if they are willing to suffer in the way that Jesus will suffer. However, he does not even guarantee any sort of prominence based upon such a virtuous action as suffering alongside Jesus. For Jesus, power and status are never to be automatically conferred to another, even for genuine, virtuous behavior. Instead, status is legitimated only insofar as people are taking the role of slaves. Slaves do not have the automatic protections for their behaviors as the Gentile lords may have, but their authority conferred AS they are serving, not because they served in the past.
If I may suggest, what is being offered by Jesus isn’t some premise that people in power must use their power for those under them. The Roman Caesar was seen as working for the benefit of the people of the Roman Empire, which legitimized their power to forcefully institute the Pax Romana. A close reading of Jesus here is not some way of legitimizing power by how you use it. Rather, it is something more radical. It is the idea that power is never a person’s possession. Jesus’ followers were to never treat their past actions as earning some sort of status that gave them a fixed position of authority in the future. James and John’s faithfulness to suffer alongside Jesus was not going to grant an automatic possession of power and status from God.
In other words, power and status in the Body of Christ should always be negotiated by the present actions, not automatically conferred into the indefinite future for any meriting past actions. Leaders are never worthy of automatic, unthinking approval and protection. Our assumptions about power should be challenged such that there is never acceptance of a static power hierarchy, by which abuse of power can be covered up and minimized. We should not run from there being those who have power, because, for instance, God certainly bestowed spectacular gifts to the apostles for the sake of leading the Church in its early infancy. However, this power is never a secure possession of individual persons, nor is it even a secure possession of an organization, institution, etc. Power-holders are to be accountable to what they doing, not to simply what good they have done. This means unthinking legitimation of power-holders is counter to the very way that Jesus conceives of power. This means liturgies, practices, and participation in worship that acknowledges and celebrates the God-givenness of each momentary need of powerful action on behalf of the Church. This means instead of focusing on bestowing certain people titles that are based upon a permanent role one acquires, as Jesus warns against in calling people father or rabbi,3 we learn to be the types to discern to whom God is working through at that moment rather than focusing on who have been given a persisting role based upon whatever criteria in the past that was used to authorize them. Not that persistent roles are inherently offensive to the Church, only that ideally they should not be persisting roles of authority over others that are unassumingly immune to persistent re-negotiation and accountability. Nor is the stability of the Church to be grounded upon the stability of human authority as the Western Catholicism made the mistake of doing, but only in the eternality of God’s power made known in the Lord Jesus Christ and realized afresh by the work of the Holy Spirit is the Church’s stability and hope to be firmly and absolutely grounded. Nor is the safety of the individual leader in the Church sufficient grounds to immunize them from the potential false complaints that might arise when power is not automatically immunized from critique, as Jesus connected status in the Kingdom of God with bearing the cross.
While this might seem idealistic, and it can come across that way, it is this type of practice of power that has been enculturated, embodied, and expected that would undercut the powerful nature of claims about God from being marshaled for other purposes than God’s own design. We can bemoan the abuses that occur within the Church, or even society at large, but until we recognize 1) how our practices of, expectations of, and assumptions about power train us to think in such ways that we unwittingly cover over and support the misue of the verypower we celebrate and 2) have the courage to learn how to do it differently as the Body of Christ, resisting the temping pragmatic results of the modern Western society, then we will always be reinforcing one of the most conditions for allowing for and covering up abuse. This would take a real faith, a faith that would shift from the value of uniting people through compelling visions from leaders for purposes of collective power that Western democracies have celebrated, to a faith in the power of God to provide what is needed. And even if it is truly unrealistic, it is by comparing the modern practices to such an ideal to see how our practices fall short and reinforce the problems we bemoan about what is happening in our churches and even in our societies.