I have been contemplating power lately. Power. Our last election was a shake-up in power, and much of the political debate during the election focused on what does or does not make our country powerful. Power. We have also experienced many protests lately, and in these protests, it seems that power confronts and resists power. Power. In addition to all of these expressions of power, Recently our president has dropped several bombs as a display of some type of power. I have been thinking about all of these expressions of power. I wonder how they are similar and how they are different and what makes power legitimate or illegitimate.
Picture courtesy of Steve Pavey
Political power is something I think a lot about, but I also think about personal power. Power. There are days when I feel really powerful personally. I feel integrated, focused, and full love and clarity. And then there are those days I am the exact opposite. I feel powerless. Power. Sometimes I am around a person who is so full of ideas, energy, and the ability to connect with other people that I feel power exuding from them. Other times I am around people whose power, for whatever reasons, feels shut off. I often wonder what makes a powerful person? What takes away our power? Are political and personal power connected?
Unless otherwise indicated, all pictures in this post are courtesy of Unsplash.
What is Personal Power?
If we are going to think about what makes a person powerful, we first need to consider who we are as human beings and what we do specifically. One way to consider this is to note that humans have this ability to step back from their world and ask, “What is going on here? How can things be different or better?” We are beings of praxis. Praxis just means that we can reflect on our world, name what we see (for instance, we can say, “This is bad”, “This is unjust”, “This is dangerous”), and then we can act on our naming of the world to transform it.
And we do transform our world and ourselves all the time. Squirrels, cats, and dogs are the way they have been for pretty much hundreds of years. But humans are radically different from the way we were even just a hundred years ago. We look at the world differently. We have different and greater capabilities. We have new inventions. Our societies are organized in a completely different way. Some of this is for the better; some of it is certainly for the worst.
But the point is, is that the world is never just given to us. We create the world we see around us through the ways that we have reflected on it; the ways we have named the various problems we see; and the ways we have addressed these problems to transform the world. The world we see now is the world we have created through our reflection and action. So the question is why do we even transform the world? Why don’t we just leave it the same? What is our end goal? Transformation for what?
We are always trying to make the world better, but we are not content with making the world better just a little bit—for instance, from taking the world from a one (on a scale of one to ten) to a two. We want to take it to a ten.
“[Men and women are] makers and dreamers of history and not simply [a casualty] of an a priori vision of the world.” ~Paulo Freire
What would a world that hits a “ten” look like? I have been teaching Paulo Freire to my ethics class, and I asked my students this question the other day. They said a world that hits a “ten”—an ideal world—would be a world free from violence, poverty, disease, and despair. I agree with them. I asked them why exactly it is that we want this kind of world so badly? We decided together that it is this type of world that fully supports all human capacities: our physical, intellectual, moral, artistic, social, spiritual, and creative capacities (to name a few). In other worlds, we transform the world in order to increase our power To Be in the world so that we can fully flourish.
The Power to Be
The power to fully flourish is the power To Be. This drive is, it seems, behind all of our thoughts and actions.
“Human existence is, in fact, a radical and profound tension between good and evil, between dignity and indignity, between decency and indecency, between the beauty and ugliness of the world. In other words…it is impossible to humanly exist without assuming the right and the duty to opt, to decide, to struggle, to be political.” ~Paulo Freire
Perhaps if we created such a world that fully supported our power To Be, God’s image in us would fully presence itself in the world. Perhaps if we built such a world, we would see human rationality and freedom and creatively fully presence themselves in the world. That would definitely be a powerful world. So that brings me back to one of my original questions: “What is personal power?”
Personal power is the power To Be. To Be our fully developed, unique selves. To develop fully our power to reflect on the world and transform it for greater beauty, justice, and fairness for ourselves and others. We cultivate our personal power when we recognize, affirm and practice who we are. At our core, we are creative, loving, and transforming beings. The more we express this, the more powerful we are. This is what true self-affirmation and self-love is.
“Everything real drives beyond itself. It is not satisfied with the form in which it finds itself. It urges towards a more embracing, ultimately to the all-embracing form. Everything wants to grow. It wants to increase its power of being.” ~Paul Tillich
Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander School, and agent of beautiful social change, said that he never accepted things in his life just as they were but always worked to transform his world for greater justice and love. He once commented in an interview that the most important values to him were creativity and love. Horton argues that we are made by a creative God, and so we are meant to be creative, too. We are never meant to be puppets or rote followers of some vision of the world handed over to us. We are meant to continually create and recreate the world for greater equality and dignity.
Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey
Too often we learn to play small. We learn to diminish ourselves by believing that we are nothing special, that we cannot change anything. We diminish ourselves by giving our praxis over to someone else to do our thinking and our acting for us. But we are really the only ones who can think, act, and live our life. What the world needs is not less of us but more of us embracing our life, reflecting, and acting intentionally to transform the world for everyone. If we did this, we would have a truly beautiful and powerful world. And this brings me to political power.
What is Political Power?
We often think that political power is the use of force to get what we want or to crush other people. This is mistaken. Force may accomplish things in the short run, but it diminishes our power eventually. True political power increases our communal power To Be. The other day I asked my students why we diminish our own power when we crush other people’s power. Here is what they said:
“When we crush other people’s power, we are acting from fear, insecurity, and hate. These attitudes only diminish our own ability to be human.”
“When we take away other people’s power, we are creating a world where some humans get power and some humans don’t. This means nobody really has power because your power can always be taken away from you.”
We can only be truly politically powerful when we support people’s ability to engage in praxis—when we support their power to reflect on, name, and transform the world for greater humanization. This can only happen through loving dialogue with all sorts of people. We each are each rulers of our own little corner of the world, and it is through loving dialogue we learn to transform our corner of the world to support everyone’s power To Be.
Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey
“Thinking correctly is…not an isolated act…but an act of communication. For this reason, there is no right thinking without right understanding, and this understanding, from a correct thinking point of view, is not something transferred but something that belongs essentially to the process of coparticipation.” ~Paulo Freire
Unfortunately, too often we deny people’s praxis and their power. We do not want to listen to peoples’ reflections and ideas. We do not want to let people transform the world according to their reflection on it. This is scary. It requires us to give up some of our control, and we often equate control with power. It requires us to allow people to make mistakes. It requires us to consider we might be wrong. It requires us to listen and to try to understand people who see the world very differently than we do. We do not like to do any of this.
Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey
We want to be in control. We want people to see things our way. We want people to get with the program, and the program is the particular way we, and people like us, view the world. So we spend a lot of time stereotyping and name calling. We spend a lot of time yelling and manipulating. We spend a lot of time forcing. We spend a lot of time bombing. We spend little time in loving dialogue because loving dialogue requires us to create an equal space for other people. But…it is only in this space that true power grows.
“Life is being in actuality and love is the moving power of life.” ~Paul Tillich
Creating an equal space and loving others does not require that we tolerate violence or abuse. Violence and abuse are ultimately the praxis of non-being and destroy the power To Be. Loving dialogue can only be conducted between people who desire to create a more humanizing world for everyone. Loving dialogue requires virtues of humility, empathy, compassion, courage, curiosity, forgiveness, tolerance, and communication, to name a few. It also requires us to hold out hope that everyone, even our enemies, can eventually join the common work of increasing our power To Be.
“Love, power, and justice are metaphysically speaking as old as being itself.” ~Paul Tillich
Not a Pipe Dream
Some people may say that the goal of loving political dialogue is naïve and a pipe dream. But in actuality, the politics of aggression are naïve and a pipe dream. The politics of aggression tell us that we can create a better, safer world by dominating and destroying other people, but these practices only create a more dangerous, less humane world that locks us into master and slave relationships in which some people get to exercise power and others do not.
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Master slave dynamics only perpetuate cycles of violence and aggression and destroy our power To Be. They eventually destroy us.
The Greatest of These
We can only be powerful individually and politically if we realize that human flourishing is the real goal, and it can only fully express itself when love and power are practiced together. I am writing this post during Holy Week. One of the greatest things that the story of the resurrection teaches us is that a greater power has come into the world to break the chains of violence, aggression, hate, and fear.
This street art was originally attributed to Banksy, but it turned out not to be by this artist. It is still an arresting piece of street art.
This power is present in our world and can transform all of us. We can always choose individually and politically to leave behind the politics of aggression which is driven by fear, violence, and hate. We can pursue the power To Be and learn to live together in equal relationships of love. That is true power. “Now these three remain: Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.”
 This is intended to be an observation, rather than any kind of judgment. All of us have days when our power feels shut off.
 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg. 45, 47, 53, and 87-86. .
 Pedagogy of Freedom, pg. 41
 Ibid, pg. 53
 Love, Power, and Justice, pg. 54
 The Highlander School trained and empowered civil rights leaders like Rosa Park and Stokley Charmichael, who went on to change the world.
 Pedagogy of Freedom, pg. 42
 Love, Power, and Justice, pg. 25
 Ibid, pg. 21
 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham, MD: 1998.
___________. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. New York, NY. 2006.
Tillich, Paul. Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press. New York: 1954,