Love and power

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People have a love-hate relationship with power. They love to have it, but hate to have it exercised over them. Teaching conflict resolution and leadership skills includes teaching people how to use power and how to work in the presence of power. This is particularly important when working cross-culturally, the norm in California and many other places.

At a recent training for a group of Christian mission leaders, the subject of power came up in an interesting way. Representatives of American nonprofit organizations have immense power in developing countries. They represent unfathomable resources to the people they serve.

These same representatives are usually uncomfortable with being treated like powerful people, since back home they are not very powerful. Now comes the problem: how can someone who wants to be not-powerful empower someone who is powerless? After all, what relief, development and mission workers set out to do is empower people to take care of themselves better.

“Empower” is the key word. Originally used in a legal or political sense of giving authority to act on another’s behalf, it includes the idea of sharing power. Power is not a zero sum game. There is an indefinite amount available. One gets power from other people. Citizens share their power by giving governments the authority to act on their behalf. One way government uses that authority is to protect citizens who become vulnerable. When governments respond to natural disasters they are doing so on behalf of all their citizens to benefit some of their citizens.

Similarly, when aid or mission workers go to an underdeveloped country they act on behalf of those who sent them. They are given power to use for the agreed purpose. If they try to hang on to the power, it shrivels up. The people they want to help realize that power is not flowing from the person, and it simply dies away. If they share it, it multiplies by combining with the power people had before to make even more power than there was in the first place.

As Tina Turner sings, “what’s love got to do with it?” The idea that love grows as you give it a way has been an American pop culture fixture for decades, sparked by the Malvina Reynolds song “Magic Penny” of the 1950s. Power is like that. A would-be despot has little power in the beginning. It must be gained by sharing what little there is with others interested in acquiring power. As power is shared it grows. When enough people give the despot authority to act on their behalf, power has been achieved.

Those who help others have power and love. Sharing one almost requires sharing the other. So how does one share power in a relief, development or missions context? It is widely acknowledged that oppressed people are never given power; they must take it from their oppressor. When the power is possessed by someone who wants to do good, can it be given, or must it be taken even then?

An example from the training session was a mission leader who was working with an indigenous missionary. As it turned out, the missionary was from a low-status tribe whose main claim to regional fame was “they will eat anything.” Worse yet, he married a woman from a universally despised group. The missionary could only reach people with little social status, since no one else respected him. The American mission leader did not realize all these things. When the American visited the missionary wanted to take him around like a visiting prince, introducing him to people and giving him the best of everything. The American resisted this treatment since he was there to serve, not be served.

What was actually happening was that the missionary was taking the American’s power by showing him off. Since the American had great social status, being associated with him raised the missionary’s status. No matter how the American protested being treated in princely fashion, the missionary persisted, knowing that he could speak to people while the American was present who would not otherwise be willing to meet. Now that he is aware of these dynamics, the American is ready to go and let himself be used, since that is how he can empower the missionary.

When we let others use our power, we empower them, and they in turn empower us. The tighter we hold on to power, the less we have. As St. Francis said, “it is in giving that we receive.”

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower is a member of the Fresno Pacific University School of Business and the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. He is the author of Conflict and Peacemaking Across Cultures.

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