Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thoughts on Power

May 11, 2008


Much will be made today of the power of the Holy Spirit. I suspect that in part it was the power of God the Holy Spirit that drew me to be a part of the charismatic movement thirty years ago. And it is, in part, the claims of power dressed up as certainty about God’s will that makes me suspicious of some who have been blessed with some kind of baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I have read recently Robert Kagan’s extended essay called The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf, 2008). Kagan is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ( and has written for the Washington Post. He takes on the dream articulated by Francis Fukuyama in The end of History and the Last Man that the end of the cold war ushered in an age of unprecedented international cooperation and the beginning of the end of the nation state grasping for power. Kagan takes a snapshot look at the world, sees America remaining the sole superpower while strong regional interests align according to their forms of government, and Iran, Russia, China, Japan and India become increasingly powerful. He sees their being no guaranteed virtue in the exercise of American hegemony but thinks it better than any obvious alternative. He thinks the pre-modern roots of the rise of fundamentalist Islam articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini and others as Anti Western and Anti Modern will fail with the spread of technology and necessary opening of borders. (He acknowledges that these same technologies can and will be used by terrorist groups but believes that the attractions of being aligned with power, materialism and so on will mean that the terrorists will lose their appeal in the end.) I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, but I do find myself aligning with his conclusions that say, in effect, that power is here to stay and must be used for good by those who have it. He writes

“There is strength in the liberal democratic idea and in the free market. In the long run, and all things being equal, they should prevail over alternative world-views, both because of their ability to deliver the material goods and, more important, because of their appeal to a most powerful aspect of human nature, the desire for personal autonomy, recognition, and freedom of thought and conscience.” (p.102f.) “The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it. The question is whether the world’s democracies will again rise to that challenge.” (p.105)

I am reminded of the conclusions of another Kagan, Donald this time, in On the Origins of War (Doubleday, 1995) In one example:

“The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that it is not enough for the state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power. The crisis came because the more powerful state also had a leader who failed to convince his opponent of his will to use its power for that purpose.” (p.548)

I discovered and was put powerfully in touch with some formative experiences of my own while engaging in some anti-racism training some years ago. My discovery then amounted to this: I do not need to have power of you, but I have a very great need and desire to ensure that you do not have power over me. This makes it somewhere between difficult and unlikely that I will ever voluntarily renounce the great benefits I receive by being an educated and otherwise privileged white male. I have no objection to anyone else’s advancement but will resist, with al that I am and all that I have, being controlled by some other power. I’m sure this is why I have such a strong antipathy to anything that smacks of manipulation or cant by those of my co-religionists who are so sure of themselves and what they believe is the will of God that they will seek a major realignment of power within Anglicanism, for example. I am dismayed that it has come to a matter of lawsuits over property, but am delighted that the leadership of the Episcopal Church is acting to preserve our identity and relationship with the wider communion even if the bullies and manipulators believe that they are doing a good thing. They must be resisted and have thought that they can take advantage of a rather flabby and undisciplined liberalism which has characterized our particular branch of Christ’s body for a while.

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