The Uncommon Politic

(This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Common Politic. The entire article is available here.)

According to the political scientist Eiten Hersh, of Tufts University, “politics is for power.” In his book by the same name, Hersh, who self-identifies as a political liberal, complains that Americans have lost sight of this obvious truth. This is especially true of the left who, in recent years, has engaged in what he describes as “political hobbyism … emoting and arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens.”

Whether Hersh is right or not depends, it seems to me, on two things: (1) whether power is a means or a goal and (2) what type of power is being considered.

If in politics the use of power is seen as a means to an end and that end is the common good of a people, then the acquisition of power is not only a legitimate pursuit, but also a necessary one. However, power is dangerous even when it is legitimate. And it is dangerous, in part, because it is addictive.

The American Church, particularly its more conservative wing, has suffered from this addiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., conservative Christians began seeking power in both politics and the media. The Moral Majority flexed its muscle to oust liberals from Congress and “The Teletubbies” from the airwaves.

The power conservative Christians wielded grew. Politicians began courting them. For a decade or two, a presidential candidate needed to identify as a born again Christian if he were to have any hope of winning an election. I can recall George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot all answering the question, “Are you a born again Christian?” in the affirmative. From the content of their responses, I doubted whether any of them understood the question.

Conservative Christians’ power faded during the Clinton administration, then declined rapidly over the Obama years, and it frightened them. Like an addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms, they began looking for another fix. They found a supplier in Donald Trump, who promised them another round of power in exchange for their votes.

Mr. Trump followed through on his promise. Conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, were consulted. They were given influence over the selection of Supreme Court Justices and the setting of abortion limits. They were granted protections from government overreach into religious practices.

It felt good to have power again. And that’s the problem. The acquisition of power had become an end in itself for many conservative Christians, who needed power in order to feel secure. When that power was threatened, they responded with anger and even violence, which is what addicts do when their stash is pilfered.

When the acquisition and preservation of power becomes an end in itself, the results will be predictable—and ugly. But even when power is sought and preserved for the purpose of accomplishing just goals, the type of power that is in play is important. Social scientists have identified various kinds of power.

There is legitimate power. This is power that is conferred and exercised through proper and even legal means. Elected officials have such power. So do employers.

There is expert power. This is the kind of power an airplane pilot exercises. He flies the plane because he knows how and others do not. His knowledge enables him to choose where his passengers go—to exercise power over them.

There is the power of recompence. This kind of power exercises control through the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. The categories of reward and punishment include monetary (think pay raises and cuts), position (think promotions and demotions) and recognition (think prestige and shame).

There is referent power. Referent power is given to a leader by followers who respect her character and wisdom. The leader’s power comes from the admiration that followers have for her. Because they trust her, they follow her.

Each of these types of power can be appropriate, even the power of recompence. The teacher who gives a fifth grader an A or an F possesses this kind of power and the student can benefit from its wise use. The boss who fires (or promotes) an employee is exercising this kind of power and can do so for the good of both the employee and the company.

However, when the power of recompence becomes the chief form of power used in a system – whether a school, home, or government – something is seriously wrong. People cannot thrive under these circumstances. It seems to me that Mr. Trump, who achieved stardom with the words, “You’re Fired!” relied too much on this type of power. His administration – think of the extraordinary turnover it experienced – suffered from its overuse.

This brings us back to Eitan Hersh. He believes that politics is for power. I tentatively agree with him, as long as the various types of power are appropriately balanced and the purpose they serve is the common good. But even when this is so, the use of such power is addictive and potentially corrupting. And further, even when power is well used, it is destined to change hands sooner or later. The pendulum swings, gains are reversed, and a status quo is maintained.

The politic of power is the common politic, politics as generally understood. It is time for an uncommon politic, one that does not rely on the acquisition and preservation of power, one practiced by Christians in their relations with each other and those outside the church.

The uncommon politic does not seek to control others but to release them. It does not endlessly rearrange the political pieces on the board but plays a different game altogether. The uncommon politic is the politic of forgiveness.

It is uncommon. Today I read both that Democratic leaders are strategizing their revenge on Donald Trump and that Donald Trump is plotting revenge on both Democrats and those within his own party who failed to support him. This is where the unbalanced power of politics leads. And it doesn’t stop there.

Our nation is more deeply divided than it has been since the time of the Civil War generation. Hostility exists between racial, political, and religious groups. There is animosity between the sexes. Urban and rural dwellers mistrust and despise each other. The college educated have disdain for those without degrees and vice versa.

In many cases, these angry divisions are in reaction to real and egregious offences—sins. Witness the stomach-turning evils exposed by the Me Too movement or consider the unjust killings of black men. The politic of power has not been able to mend the divisions or heal the wounds. It has, in fact, widened the divisions and aggravated the wounds.

Into this setting, Christians can bring the uncommon politic of forgiveness. This involves both: (1) Confession and seeking forgiveness; and (2) releasing and offering forgiveness. Each is controversial. This is not the place to go into the issues involved, but consider the controversy each has generated. The call for reparations, for example, has evoked howls of protests from whites, who label it unjust and wrongheaded. The declaration of forgiveness toward white supremacist Dylan Roof by the members of Mother Emmanuel Church evoked similar protests from blacks who were outraged by the act.

I believe an underlying reason that people are loath to seek and grant forgiveness is that both actions are thought to bring about a loss of power. People see relationships (both personal and communal) in terms of a balance of power. Nothing unbalances the scales of power like forgiveness. People cling to unforgiveness in part because it gives them a feeling of power. People avoid seeking forgiveness because it threatens a loss of power. The cognitive substructure of these ideas is the belief that power must be retained or security will be lost.

Christians are well placed to challenge these ideas and the belief that underlies them because we know that we do not secure ourselves by our own power – whatever form it might take. Because it is God who makes us secure – the biblical support for this belief is overwhelming – we can dare to forgive and seek forgiveness.

The disciples of Jesus practice the politic of forgiveness. They are to forgive each other (Matthew 18:21-22), seek forgiveness from each other (Matthew 5:23-24), and forgive everyone else (Matthew 6:12-15). Forgiveness is one of the most recognizable marks of Jesus’s people.

(Read the entire article at The Common Politic.)

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