Submitted Thoughts on Power (Redux)

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Christianity

I began this blog two years ago as a forum for sharing thoughts about God and life and to practice writing. Last month, for the first time in my life I submitted an article for publication. I was excited when the editors expressed interest in my work, but ultimately it did not work out. The submitted article was a remix of sorts of one I posted here a year ago, thus many of these ideas will be familiar to regular readers. However, I felt I put enough time into it and perhaps added a few new worthwhile thoughts, that it was worth posting the updated article. Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast causing major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England. Our experimental suburban community missed the worst of Irene as she passed through Connecticut. We lost only a few trees whereas some folks south of us had their homes swept into the sea. When the damage was surveyed following the tempest it became evident Hurricane Irene would not primarily be labeled a wind or water disaster, but a power crisis. In our small state alone approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some still had no electricity or running water after a fortnight.

We couldn’t help but notice in the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity. There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back to the right people. Everything power.

While electricity is a measurable indicator of power, the overuse of the word caused us to think about the real connection between power and resources in our culture. It is said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or how this power is being attained? Whom it may have been stolen from? It can often appear that our manifest destiny is simply a winner’s take on highway robbery.

Inevitably, an uproar of attention and assistance follows when people who are used to being in power lose it. Yet rarely are the oppressed aware they too have a voice due to frequently being occupied with more elementary needs such as simply surviving on limited resources and inadequate education. Standing up for one’s rights takes a backseat to drowning out harsh realities through self-injurious decisions which can lead to generational imprisonment. Who is intent on restoring power to these brothers and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who unites on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who has the courage to incessantly pray on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time offenses?

Are we aware that 86 percent of black fourth graders in our country currently read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate? This disparity contributes to the projection that one third of black males born today in the United States will become incarcerated during their lifetime. Complicating matters is the fact that by 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our current lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. In a country which overwhelmingly selects attorneys as leaders and policy makers we have a problem.

At a recent Yale Law School symposium on educational disparity and minority youth, Susan Taylor, of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, stated we have lost our way. Ms. Taylor added that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our churches preaching?”

What are we preaching? More importantly, what are we as the Body of Christ proclaiming in our actions above our rhetoric? God appears to be fond of using people outside the clergy to stand in the gap and call out the way things are versus the way things should be. What if God is calling all of us to be a modern day Amos? A church of the ordinary, refusing to continue selling whole communities into captivity and unwilling to persist in disregarding our treaty of brotherhood.

I write this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in these questions. Conscious of the evils of racism and socioeconomic inequality. Armed with stats and few solutions. Though, I am also a white man with a tithe of Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood spilled on the Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. Yes, I continue to benefit daily from the institutional racism forged by the inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others. However, this type of oppression can only persist so long before the oppressed begin to be represented within the oppressor. We share the same blood and thus hopefully begin to remember that we belong to one another.

We live in a culture divided against itself because we have bought into the illusion of us versus them. One of my heroes in the faith is Father Greg Boyle, founder of the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the country, Homeboy Industries. Through Homeboy, former rival gang members work side by side baking and silk screening and Father Greg has pointed out there’s only us. Father G proclaims, “Once you have kinship, you can get to justice and peace. But if you think there’s an us and a them, we’ve got too far to go. And so the task is to remember that we belong to each other.”

Perhaps societal reconciliation starts with realizing that undoing racism and redistributing wealth cannot be goals in themselves, but that these are inevitable byproducts of knowing Jesus and committing to a relationship with Him and each other.

Jesus did not simply help the poor, he was the poor. While some have honorably joined Jesus in the streets, the Good News is not a mandate to poverty. It does however point us to regular interaction with the powerless and does so for all of our benefit. The Western church has frequently taken to either ignoring these folks or at best “serving” them on our own terms. I see now the Gospel is calling me not to simply do things for the poor but to do things with the poor, to share life together, not just an infrequent meal. Building these relationships aids in moving from judgment of the burdens they bear to awe of the things they have had to carry. If the Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, we are not being called to RSVP but to participate now, and it is the powerless who know best how to lead the way.

As we try to discover what it means to be a dominant people in a dominant culture and also participate in this Kingdom, we hear the Spirit’s call to find out what it means to visit orphans and widows in their distress in our own communities. This voice led me to working with adolescent foster care youth in New Haven where I am privileged to be able to connect our society’s orphans with food, clothing, shelter and family. Many days I find myself standing by their side in Court facing possible jail time in front of Judges or sitting by hospital beds during the onset of mental illness. On better days we move into college dorm rooms, pick out furniture for first apartments or get out of Connecticut for a day to take in a comic book convention or basketball game.

God has promised us all a life abundant and these words have power. Recently I overheard another hero in the faith explain that the best things in life are “darn near impossible” to achieve. But we believe in the midst of life’s adversity there is a Way. We pray as we storm the gates of Hades together, that the strength of unified action in suffering love can be a hurricane force bent on restoring power to those without. Will you join us?

(Note: At the time of this writing, I had been led to believe that I had Native American ancestry. A 2014 DNA test revealed otherwise.)

  1. Randy Fisher says:

    Hi Josh!
    I think most people recognize a disparity in the social-economic battle front. First, the average Christian would be better equipped to make an impact by giving back to the community if they themselves are debt free. Most of those who need help from us don’t cross our everyday path of life. Or are we so occupied that we just don’t see it? Maybe a game plan and an actual spelled out recipe of who and how to help would help a lot. We shouldn’t need for anyone to spell it out. But we need to point out the best social economic medicine that we can. We need to obviously be working on solutions. You mentioned the connection between lack of education and going to prison. How do we get tutoring help to all those children. How do we change a cultural mindset on Education when it is not found in the home. How do we change the problem of the growing number of single parent families? How do we combat drugs in our neighborhoods when our society is frankly making too much money profiting off it? Why does it seem that sometimes everything is running (wrongly) the way they want it to run? “They” being our government and big business.

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