If there’s one word we all associate with God it’s the word “power”. Week by week, hymns and prayers and liturgies remind us that God is a God of power. One search engine suggests that there are over 20,000 hymns and worship songs containing the word “power”. Compare that with around 2700 with the word “compassion” and 3000 with “justice” !
As we approach Pentecost Sunday we read about the birthday of the church, and celebrate the manifestation of God’s power through the Spirit both on that day and in our own time. However, we are all too aware of abuses of power, both in the church and beyond, through which people have been deeply hurt and damaged. So I think it is important that we reflect on what we mean by “power” in relation to God, because our understanding of how God exercises power will affect how we exercise power too.
For some people the very connection between God and power is suspect. Towards the end of his life the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev wrote in his autobiography:
It has always puzzled me that man [sic] could invest power … and the exercise of power with a sacred or even divine significance.Nicolas Berdyaev, Dream & Reality: An Essay in Autobiography (Collier, 1962, p. 90)
Others, such as feminist theologian Sharon Welch, warn that absolute power (as is often attributed to God) is a potentially destructive trait:
It assumes that the ability to act regardless of the response of others is a good rather than a sign of alienation from others.Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Fortress Press, 1990), p. 111
Not everyone will agree with Berdyaev or Welch, but as we begin to think about our Pentecost preaching, maybe we should ask what this promised “power from on high” actually means. Does it mean domination or does it mean something rather different ?
Power can be understood in a number of ways. Some commentators suggest four ways: power over; power to; power with; power within.
“Power over” is how power is most commonly understood. It is the power of domination and control – and potentially of abuse. When Lord Acton spoke of how “absolute power corrupts absolutely” it was this form of power he was thinking of.
“Power to” is perhaps what the Hebrew Bible means when it speaks of the Spirit as the source of life, and the theological tradition when it speaks of God as “creator and sustainer”.
“Power with”, or “power alongside” is power which enables and empowers others. It might be described as “power for the good of”, and that would certainly be an apt description of the power manifested by the God of Jesus.
Finally, there is “power within”. This too is enabling and empowering, but its centre is located within us rather than outside us. Just as the Spirit is described in the New Testament as variously alongside us and within us, so too with these two forms of power – one is manifested alongside and one within us.
Power is when you have every justification to kill someone, and then you don’t.Oskar Schindler
We live in a time when power has become for many a toxic word, so associated is it with the abuses of “power over”. To seek to move beyond the language of “power over” when speaking of God is not necessarily to deny that God could exert power over God’s creatures, but it is to suggest that God might choose not to do so. In the same way, we too can choose not to exert power over others.
It may be, therefore, that Pentecost gives us an opportunity to begin to explore the meaning of God’s power for our world today and how that might offer us new models for our own exercise of power both in the church and beyond.
Revd Peter King is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.