Having Power…is a Good Thing
In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen applies the three temptations of Jesus to challenges in pastoral leadership. In Matthew chapter 4, following his baptism, Jesus fasts 40 days in the desert and then is tested by the devil. He’s told to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off the temple, and to fall down and worship Satan in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
In part three of his book, Nouwen addresses the third scenario as the temptation of power. As a priest who had recently moved from teaching at Harvard to serving as a chaplain in a community of people with mental disabilities and their caretakers, Nouwen writes, “It took me a long time to feel safe in this unpredictable climate, and I still have moments in which I clamp down and tell everyone to shut up, get in line, listen to me, and believe in what I say. But I am also getting in touch with the mystery that leadership, for a large part, means to be led.”
From here, Nouwen proceeds to romanticise powerlessness in a way that only a person securely in power can do. He advocates downward mobility and powerlessness—and to this, I say, “Yikes” and “No, thank you.”
He’s conflated power with control in a way that minimizes the goodness of power. Power is agency and to not have power is to be marginalized. It’s the ability to choose to control a situation or person—or not. The fact that Nouwen can even entertain the idea of relinquishing control shows how much power he has in his community. He’s right that he shouldn’t be controlling the people in his community, but that choice does not demand relinquishing one’s power (which I would actually conflate with privilege), it just means using power well.
Poo-pooing power, he writes:
“We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power—provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing.”
Let’s cut out all the conditional parentheticals and get down to the good stuff, shall we?
We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power— provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing.”
In support of his argument for glorifying powerlessness, Nouwen writes:
“Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ We ask, ‘Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?’ (Matthew 20:21).”
I’m all for playing with scripture. But, no. No, no, no, no, no.
First of all, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21:15) So let’s give credit where credit is due. Peter did actually get that one right.
Jesus tells The Twelve about his impending death and resurrection, and they don’t respond themselves. Instead, their mom says (doesn’t ask—says), “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matt. 20:21)
As I’ve posited above, having power is a good thing—and Mrs. Zebedee is a woman who knows a good thing when she sees it. She’s a woman in a culture where she must glean power from the men in her family (notice that we know the names of two of her sons and her husband, but not her name). Perhaps she sees this as a kind of insurance policy for herself. Her husband could die in a fishing accident or for lack of modern medicine. When that happens, she will be reliant on her sons and she has a vested interest in their success.
Jesus has told his guys, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matt. 20:18-19) The next thing we know, Mama Bear is the only person whose response is recorded. Did James and John walk away from Jesus’ revelation and and rush to tell everyone they knew? Did they mention it over brunch the next weekend like, “Oh, you know what is new—totally not a big deal, you probably don’t care, but—our boss said something super wacky the other day.” And their mom is like, put your sandals on, we’re going over there right now.
Jesus speaks the language of the marginalized and it’s marginalized people who most readily get his subversive message. The boys always come around eventually, but maybe the reason Jesus called only men to be his special interest group was so that he could give them more focused teaching. Think about it. Jesus draws all kinds of people to himself. Privileged, oppressed, sick, healthy, rich, poor, women, men. Everyone’s curious and curiously drawn. But most often, it’s men who are dying or ostracized or women who are healthy or dying or ostracized who meet him one time and are like, “I totally get it. What do I do now?” The disciples, meanwhile, are with Jesus all day, every day, for three years and they’re like, “Sorry, could you just explain it one more time?” In their privilege and power, the man disciples have the opportunity to do great things in the world and he takes the time to train them in how to do so, even though their privilege is in some ways a barrier to understanding his radical kingdom.
Having power is a good thing. The mother of James and John looks at Jesus, and she’s like, “This guy. He’s my ticket to security, wholeness, hope. Let’s do this.” She knows it’s a good thing. And you know who else does? Jesus.
Scripture as a whole tells the ongoing story of God and God’s people drawing near and away from each other and near again. Over and over again, God’s people beg God to be near them and when Jesus says he’s leaving, they say, “Take us with you!” And Jesus responds, “I mean, you won’t be able to handle it, but you’re pretty much going with me either way. And it probably won’t be as glorious as you might hope, but at least you’ll always be with me, and I’ll still be God.”
Jesus is the answer to our desire for healing and wholeness, and scripture is full of stories of people drawing power from him and being praised for it. So let’s not glorify powerlessness and instead be grateful for the ways Jesus showed us not to hoard our power but to use it wisely and share it freely.
More power for everyone!