Power

Green Lantern's Power Ring

Green Lantern’s Power Ring
Image: JD Hancock

This last week I had the opportunity to gather with Sisters and Brothers of the United Church of Canada to discuss what intercultural ministry means for our denomination and – in particular – in the context of Winnipeg. This day gathering saw us engage in small groups to discuss what our hopes might be and upon what we might need to reflect to make those hopes a reality. One of the consistent themes that seemed to arise during this time was the idea of power and intention.

Power is a funny topic to explore (a previous A Deacon’s Musing, during Lent 2012, examined it in connexion to Authority). For some, it’s an energising discussion and for others exploring it can be anxious-making, perhaps even (understandably) fear-causing. The ways such a conversation can unfold are many and varied and – in particular – how it is framed from a faith-based context can add layers that lead to uncertainty. I thought, therefore, that I might frame power in the following manner for the sake of this particular blog:

I admit – that’s a lots of words – so perhaps an example from a church perspective when we have (unfortunately) been culpable in the way power has normalised in a manner that has been experienced as hurtful and destructive. I would suggest, therefore, that we consider our ongoing work around acknowledging our role in colonialism and the residential schools.

Looking at that aspect of Christian history, power was and continues to be experienced overtly (removal of children from families, corporeal punishment, the force of law and inappropriate sexual interaction). As well, power was and has been experienced subtly through the use of laws and legal processes that use(d) Treaties as a means by which to acquire land and resources by dispossessing those who calle(d) the land home. Furthermore, through the use of addiction, poverty and education, colonialism has led to a use of power in which individuals and indigenous cultures internalise what ‘normal’ looks like. For those who do not conform, the internalised message of brokenness and ‘otherness’ protects those who are ‘normal.’ This subtle and frightening form of power leads to stereotypes that flatten a person to a thing, a diagnosis, and a pathology: ‘drunk Indian,’ ‘violent nigger,’ ‘Arab terrorist,’ ‘white trash.’ These are just a few examples of the subtle use of power that ensures that resistance – challenging how power normalises – remains suppressed.

intercultural

intercultural
Image: Richard Manley-Tannis

I am aware this analysis may be new, perhaps even unfamiliar, and I am most open to furthering a possible conversation about power. So – for the sake of the blog – let me try to highlight what being intention implies in this respect; and, particularly, looking at power in this manner from a Christian context.

If we – as church – can (uncomfortably) accept that we have (unintentionally) supported a process of normalising that has hurt others, perhaps even caused soul-trauma, then we may recognise the need to ask: what next? How do we undo, apologise, and/or begin to seek forgiveness for such complicity? What do we do in a globalised context as various expressions of power’s normalising now mixes?

• I wonder what might happen
if we intentionally acknowledge power as present
and begin to share it in a way that invites multiple voices.
• I wonder what might happen
if we hold up our understanding of normal:
that all are loved, that diversity is worth celebrating
and defending if all are to have dignity.
• I wonder what might happen
if we harness power with intention
to nurture that vision of normal.

These wondering implications are exciting and … daunting. When the church challenges from the margins, we are enriched, but we also find that solidarity could mean danger.

The final question – for this blog then – is: (as we consider intercultural ministry) are we willing to let go of the way in which we have previously been involved with power? If so, the possibilities are awesome …

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2017-01-03T22:32:48+00:00 January 22nd, 2015|Tags: , , , , |

8 Comments

  1. Ha Na January 23, 2015 at 13:25 - Reply

    Hi Richard, could you explain further what you mean by the following messages:

    1) “For those who do not conform, the internalised message of brokenness and ‘otherness’ protects those who are ‘normal.'” – Interesting, and I want to check whether your message here is in a line of what I have been always thinking.

    2) Also what might the danger be like? “When the church challenges from the margins, we are enriched, but we also find that solidarity could mean danger.”

    I think if you can give some more supporting arguments on these two points, it would be very wonderful because they will certainly stir up even a few more points for further discussions.

    3) I highly welcome your idea of ‘power and intention.’

    4) I have a few more questions for helping shaping further conversations, but not for now! However, if I sum up very briefly though, it would be that we should incorporate the angle of ‘gender’ when we explore in the issues you have touched on your article and also the following question, “Who are you referring to when you repeat mentioning ‘we'”? What is your own context on which you think, articulate, reflect, challenge, and that make you make a voice?

    5) What disturbs me often is that when we engage with these types of dialogues, always the attention is given to the privileged (let’s say, the ‘white’ or those who have easier access to the ‘white privilege’). Even if the privileged or the White or those who have easier access to the privilege are criticized, challenged, or asked ‘apology’ or ‘forgiveness’, still the ‘attention’ is given to the privileged. It makes me wonder why the major discourses on races or racism, including my most recent experience of taking the course of ‘racial justice workshop of UCC’ seem to assume that the recipients of the message are the privileged. To help my argument, here, to be more understandable, let’s ask, who is ‘we’ who speak , and who is ‘we’ who are being challenged, when we refer to ‘we’ and use the subject ‘we’. Why, many ‘intercultural’ dialogues, sermons, gatherings, including Intercultural Conferences including Behold Conference, are always designed to serve the need of learning of the White? Many experiences I have had tell me that the major beneficiary is the White. Why cannot it be that the major beneficiary, the ‘targeted’ recipients, be the non-White participants. In any kind of dialogue, the White seem to want to always take the attention given to them, never want to be or experience ‘excluded’ when in many gatherings the non-Whites often experience exclusions or ‘being not invited’ and they kindly tend to be patient with that? For example, let’s imagine that a minister is giving the message about interculturalism one Sunday morning. The congregation is consisted of the White (70 percent) and the non-White (30 percent). (It is based on my real experience) Who is she talking to? To whom is the sermon directed to address the issue? To the White congregation. Why? Because she believes that becoming intercultural really asks us to engage with challenging them and changing their minds. Somehow it seems that she almost believes that intercultural journey starts with challenging the Whites. But the problem is that the non-Whites have not heard the message that is directly related to their lives and their need. What is their real need? The ’empowerment’ for them and to them. To give them the power. Then how can the power be given to them? Make them to lead, make sure their own need and agenda take the priority. However, they are patient, and often they feel that the situation is very ‘normal’, because they have grown up with having learnt White superiorism, or a sort of internalized racism. They tend to think the White is more important. They have always grown up that way, in the school in Canada or in their own home country. They can really kindly and patiently listen to the message that is not really intended for them and directed to them. This kind of discovery has always remained with me with wonder and disturbing questions, regardless of what kind of intercultural gathering I attended. Always the white gets the attention. WHY? The intention IS for the white or the privileged. WHY? In addition, the issue or agenda that ‘women’ or ‘radicalized women’ may have are rarely talked about, and their voice for their own need is rarely given the priority. WHY? BECAUSE, it is my assumption that the White believes that they have ‘almost’ overcome oppressing patriarchy and major significant sexism in Canada or in UCC. Yet when we talk about intercultural ministry, the majority of the participants are women, and patriarchalism or sexism is very much still major ongoing oppression and issue for ethnic minority women. However, the issue rarely achieves the prioritized attention, focus, and intention, because they are really in the margins even in this kind of dialogues and in gatherings. LOTS of things should be changed if a person like me would feel that so and so intercultural gathering/event/time has nurtured me, thinking that I have not given away my own need of learning, in replace of other’s need – mostly the white, male’s need.

    • Richard January 23, 2015 at 13:56 - Reply

      Hi Ha Na,

      Thanks so much for the engagement! I hope that the following
      will honour some of your challenges/questions and continue the conversation 🙂

      1) In this analysis, those who do not conform could very well be those who might challenge whatever structure of power in which they find themselves. The normalising aspect of power, therefore, nurtures an ‘internal’ check that attempts to subtly subvert any challenge. In a Western Christian context that language could mean seeing oneself as broken or inadequate.
      2) Standing in solidarity means that the danger that those with whom you stand becomes your own. When making this choice, it is important to ask what does danger look like? Overt force? Subtle mechanisms?
      3) Gender. Indeed that is one of the normalising components of power. In fat, the idea of the binary allows – in our context – to keep people apart and also to nurture internalisation of normalcy. Gender, I would offer (however) is not outside of this critique but is an example of it.
      4) Conversation with self rarely are outside of one’s context. Self-awareness, therefore, needs to inform any steps into the unknown.
      To borrow from spiritual direction, if we have not done our own inner work, how can we be aware that we actually connected to others, as opposed to the story of the isolated individual ego. Thoughts?

  2. Ha Na January 23, 2015 at 13:36 - Reply

    Would like to edit the very last sentence: “LOTS of things should be changed if a person like me would feel that so-and-so intercultural gathering/event/time has nurtured me; I have not given away my own need of the learning that empowers me. My own need is not replaced or marginalized or ignored, for the sake of other’s needs – mostly for the White and/or male’s needs and agendas (regardless of whatever they are).”

    • Richard January 23, 2015 at 13:59 - Reply

      I think we all have stuff to let go when talking about power. If mutuality can be realised, recognising we all might learn something by letting go of our assumptions (often grounded in normalising aspects of power) then opens possibilities. I believe this is where Paolo Freire would talk about systems of oppression that simply perpetuate themselves when there is not a collective awakening.

  3. kerri January 25, 2015 at 00:43 - Reply

    Curious, as always, of how different people, communities, would define the concept of power, and how various influencers alter our own definitions of power–as negative or positive; oppressive or empowering.
    For instance, on an individual level, there are some people who believe that we are ultimately in control of our own outcomes, and others who believe that our circumstances control our outcomes. (Clearly I’m an n=1 here, and have experienced very little in terms of “true” oppression in my life, so I tend to lean towards the former–though I’m sure others from very similar and very different walks of life to my own internalize the concept in either of the two ways.

    On a community level, I agree completely with the final statement. As we discussed, resistance to change can be a huge barrier to just about everything… including (especially?) meaningful engagement… since this is often a driver OF change. It’s about easing in/out of roles: we can’t expect to immediately surrender power of something which we’ve worked to build, so, how might we work to gradually collaborate with others to form a shared feeling of power, to increase our receptiveness to true inclusion–not just of people, but of ideas? And, who is wishing to share power/gain power, or, are the parties we are wishing to engage in such a collaboration simply not interested in change either–one, both, many?

    I think though, once again, this returns us to what was discussed on Thursday: Instead of assuming what people need, what we can do to help others, a forum needs to be created to allow groups who feel they have been marginalized to express what could help bring healing–in reality, communities may never know immediately what they need, but by beginning that process on a person-by-person level (…including understanding their own conceptualization of power), we may begin to form a better understanding of not only how best to express remorse for previous actions–individual or societal–but how to include those who have been hurt in determining, designing, if you will, how a community offers healing. So, part of letting go of power, also means, I suppose, accepting it in different ways that are not what we would deem as being characteristic for the role we are accepting them in–and perhaps ones that we feel unequipped for.

    • Richard January 25, 2015 at 09:55 - Reply

      Thanks for sharing this reflection kerri. And your observations completely resonate. The blog exploration of power was intended to begin as an analysis of power from a macro perspective, as opposed to an on-the ground micro and then (the end) bring it down to ‘so what?’ This might also be be framed as ‘practical theology.’

      I have been studying a lot of Michel Foucault (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault) for my own foray into further study and so this was my first attempt to translate his micro analysis of power into a faith-based context that both looks at the ‘big picture’ and the implications in our actual ministries. In essence, Foucault intentionally tried to articulate power independent of culture and argued that power always exists in a ‘neutral’ state and that it’s process of normalising becomes flavoured due to context.

      My own studies are an attempt to explore that the ‘neutrality’ of universality, however, does not mean ‘neutral’ in respect to people’s actual lives. And – if in our own context – we do not deconstruct the normalising that occurs in our actual lives, people will always be hurt. From here I have brought in Paolo Freire to unpack using an oppressor-oppressed lens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulo_Freire).

      I truly hope some of this makes sense!

      • kerri January 25, 2015 at 15:46 - Reply

        Absolutely! A lot to wrap my head around–but, I do see where you’re coming from! :]

        • Richard January 25, 2015 at 16:44 - Reply

          I’ve been immersed in this stuff for a full semester and my head still hurts. I find the implications both staggering and invigorating. I love paradox! 😉

Your reflections are most welcome!