Christianity and the Politics of Weakness

Over the last few years, American evangelicals have been making news by saying that they’re not all on the political right. Some are on the left–at least, as “left” as mainstream American politics ever gets, which isn’t very “left” from a Canadian point of view, let alone a European one, let alone a Latin American one!

But new books keep coming out–I saw an announcement for yet another just today–from evangelical authors telling us that true Christianity eschews both the right and the left, and instead withdraws from power politics entirely. Indeed, this is the “way of weakness, not power,” the “bottom-up” or “up from under” rather than “top-down” approach, and is attributed to Jesus himself “whose kingdom was not of this world,” and so on.

I’m finishing a large-ish book manuscript that takes on this viewpoint at length–as well as some others, such as the “let’s take it over for Jesus” model of cultural transformation (whether on the religious right or left). I won’t try to summarize that argument here.

What I’ll do instead is tell a story about a story.

I once was in the audience of an American evangelical college chapel service, listening to a very well-known evangelical scholar-cum-pundit speaking about his recent political conversion. He told us a story about how he and other likeminded activists had tried to confront the board of a major multinational corporation at the annual stockholders meeting. These activists had bought a bunch of stock in order to confront the board and force it to change the company’s labour practices in the Caribbean, where it dominated certain local economies.

The decisive vote came, and the Christian activists lost. Justice was defeated.

So they went back to the political drawing board, and they all apparently had the same conversion experience. The way of power politics was itself wrong. They were playing the wrong game!

So they sold all their shares except one. Their representative then showed up at the next meeting, in a position of obvious, even laughable, weakness, and put their case.

The board, now completely unthreatened, listened more carefully. The next day a vice-president called to invite them to discuss the matter further. And good changes occurred.

The moral of the story? Weakness is better than strength. In fact, the way of weakness just is the Christian way.

It’s a great story. Afterward, however, when the speaker went to lunch with some friends and interested others, someone at the table disturbed the bonhommie by asking a pretty simple question: “Why didn’t you line up 51% of the shares before the first meeting?”

The speaker looked stunned, as if that option hadn’t occurred to him.

So the questioner continued: “I don’t mean to gainsay what you said happened later. The approach of weakness might have been just the right thing in this situation. But your story really doesn’t speak against the general principle of trying to use power politics. It just speaks against using it badly. You don’t try to force a board to do something unless you’ve got the votes. But if you do have them, why not use them for good?”

The lunch broke up shortly thereafter.

I am confident that neither approach would have turned that major company into a slice of heaven on earth. Neither human power nor human weakness is going to usher in the Kingdom of God. God has to do that.

But in the meanwhile, it seems to me we should be doing all we can to make as much shalom as possible in the world. That’s what God called humanity to do in the first place–literally, the “first place” of Eden (Gen. 1 & 2).

So if weakness seems like the right approach, as it was generally for the early church, which had no political power to speak of, then yes, let’s learn from that example and follow it in analogous situations.

But power can also be the right approach, as it was in most of the Bible (which is to say, the Old Testament), when such power is to hand and can be used to promote justice and the flourishing of all–and especially the poor and needy.

Just be sure to line up the 51% first.

0 Responses to “Christianity and the Politics of Weakness”

  1. Brandon

    Excellent post Mr. Stackhouse. Mouw, years ago pointed out the ability of “using power over” for good in his book, “The Biblical Drama.”

    First, we don’t know everything that was taking place on the cross. If all we read is that Christ submitted to the “powers” (i.e. Pilate) then that is pretty much a narrow reading of his death.

    Secondly, are we to say that Christ did not use “power over” when he spoke against the winds and the boistrous seas? When he “casted out demons?”

    Part of the problem it seems is that we don’t quite have a full grasp on what is meant by, “the powers.” And though Mouw said this two to three decades ago? It still holds true today.

  2. Gordon Hackman

    Here’s the sentence that really stuck out for me: “Neither human power nor human weakness is going to usher in the Kingdom of God. God has to do that.”

    It’s a great reminder that even the ostensible giving up of power and control can really be a form of grasping after them.

  3. ericdarylmeyer

    If you were the chairman of the board, and I was a naive young activist lobbying for change in this post, I’d push to make your qualification on the shape of “using power for good” a bit stronger. Many versions of “shalom” that have been perpetrated in the name of “doing good with power” deserve nothing less than condemnation (which you acknowledge as “using power badly”). Isn’t there a sense in which the cross is the greatest revelation of God’s glory and power?

    The shape of God’s power on earth is remarkably kenotic – even in the Old Testament. The monarchy wasn’t God’s first choice for structuring his people – and it came with a slew of warnings against doing it “like the other nations.”

    Thanks for your thoughts, as always!

  4. Daniel Ginn

    Sometimes I think the real trick is wielding power over people in such a way that they don’t resent you for it. If Christians could do that, then they’d be doing very well.

    But sometimes God doesn’t even get that distinction.

    And then there are other times when I find my greatest comfort in God’s sovereignty, even (or especially) as it relates to changing my will through sanctification.

  5. faith

    It seems that the key issue is not whether or not we have power but whether we are being shaped by God into people who can be entrusted with power. Jesus was infinitely trustworthy, and he demonstrated his independence from the ability to wield power by giving it up on the cross.

    The thing is, most of us find it terribly dangerous to have power, so the position of powerlessness is rather safer. That doesn’t mean it’s ideal; it’s just that shalom has not come – we and our world are too easily exploited and subverted by power’s promises to accomplish God’s ends without God’s ways.

    I look forward to this book as well!

  6. Jon Coutts

    once again you’ve well articulated a tension that exists between approaches and challenged us to really trust God and really obey God. thanks. look forward to the book.

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    […] This is an argument that some make (you can check out critiques of this non-approach to politics by John Stackhouse and Slovoj Zizek) but I think it naive to attribute this passive sectarianism to Hauerwas. If any […]

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