The good kind of power

Dec 6, 2019 by

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“I did not give you a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” So wrote Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:7).

Gingerich Stoner

Gingerich Stoner

The church doesn’t believe this, or so it seems. It rarely talks about power in positive terms. Mennonites have often pitted “faithfulness” against “effectiveness.” We can be skeptical of people or groups that are effective, grow in number and wield power. This, we all too often believe, is a sign of having sold out. Many of us prefer holding a sign on the corner, not having much impact but knowing we are right.

Power can be misused and abused. But if we simply reject power, we create a vacuum for power to be exercised poorly.

Whether we admit it or not, power is at play. It’s just a question of what kind of power, how it is used and for what purposes.

Power is simply the ability to accomplish something. When a child learns to tie a shoe, ride a bicycle or read, he or she gains power.

We usually think of “power over”: power to control or dominate. Power exercised at the expense of others.

But there’s another kind of power: “power with.” This is the power that comes from being in relationship, from collaborating. The power that comes when everyone in a group brings their gifts, experiences, relationships and energy into an effort. In community organizing, we call this relational power.

We have to ask: For what ends is power being used? For the narrow interests of a few or to serve the well-being of the many?

It is important to note that in 2 Timothy Paul links power and love. The ability to get things done is linked to a connection and concern for the other and a desire for the common good.

That doesn’t just happen on its own. It requires work and self-discipline — the third part of the trilogy in 2 Timothy.

One person can send a letter to the editor. Four people can stand on the street corner with signs. They will likely be ignored or dismissed.

But when 500 people get together in a room across differences that normally divide (race, creed, class) and engage decision-makers on critical issues, they are exercising power that is not easily ignored.

Community organizing is about building relational power: power linked to love and employed with self-discipline. Roughly 20 Mennonite congregations across the United States are part of community-organizing efforts, building relational power, working for change.

Power corrupts, so the saying goes. But powerlessness also corrupts. It distorts, deforms and cripples the human spirit. It creates hopelessness, fatalism and despair.

The Chamber of Commerce, developers in our city, CEOs of businesses — all seek and wield power for their purposes. Church folk who only talk about power in negative ways leave a vacuum for others to exercise power for their narrow interests.

When people of faith build relational power to work for the common good, we experience the promise of the writer of Ephesians: God’s power at work among us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

André Gingerich Stoner works as a neighborhood networker for the Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind., and as an organizing fellow for Faith in Indiana. He has served as a Mennonite pastor. His Doing Justice blogs at explore how communities of faith love their neighbors by organizing to address policies and funding priorities in their cities, counties and states.

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