Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2020 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14
Today, I want to talk about power. Like the word ‘love,’ we use the word ‘power’ to mean several things, which makes any discussion about power challenging. I’m going to move through three understandings of power, and I hope you will stick with me because the third one is the one we are aiming for. Also, I’m going to use Star Wars to illustrate the three types of power. (I’ve only used one Star Wars reference this year, so I’m well within my limits.)
I learned about the first understanding of power in my political science classes in college. I vividly remember my Diplomacy professor saying that power is “the ability of Actor A to get Actor B to do something that Actor B does not want to do.” This power is “Power Over.” I have power over my children because I am stronger than they are. I have exercised this type of power when I’ve carried them to their rooms for time outs when they’ve been dead set against going. I do not like to exercise this power, but I do have it.
We see “Power Over” throughout Star Wars. Emperor Palpatine manipulates the Senate during the Clone Wars to amass total control over the galaxy. He then completely disbands the Senate during the original Star Wars movie. His chief enforcer Darth Vader uses the Force to kill people who fail him. The Death Star is called the “ultimate power in the universe” because of its ability to blow up planets. In the new trilogy of movies, the First Order reprises the Death Star with Starkiller Base and then with individual ships equipped with planet-destroying weapons. The intent is clear: “obey or be wiped out.” This is power over, and the real world has very real analogs to the fictional Star Wars universe.
The second type of power is so different from the first that it’s strange they share the word. This second type is better called “empowerment.” This is “I can do it” power, the power of agency. Teaching our children to read has been the most empowering element of their lives to date. Whole new worlds of imagination and reality and ideas and language are opening up to them simply because they can decipher little symbols on a page.
We see “Empowerment” in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches Luke to use a lightsaber or later when Luke teaches Rey about the Force. These mentors do not seek to control their students but to expand them into new realms of possibility. When Luke is training against the little floating remote, Obi-Wan gives him a helmet with an opaque face guard. “But with the blast shield down I can’t even see,” Luke whines. “How am I supposed to fight.” Obi-Wan urges him to try again, and when Luke succeeds, Obi-Wan says, “See, you can do it.” I can do it. Those are words of power, especially when shared with people who have been told over and over again that they cannot do it.
The thing is, too often the first type of power is used to squash the second. The last thing Power Over wants is empowered individuals. When that happens, empowered individuals blow up the Death Star (twice). So what does Power Over do? It either seduces the empowered into its camp – like the emperor trying to turn Luke to the Dark Side in The Return of the Jedi. Or it seeks to isolate the empowered from each other so they are incapable of supporting one another and they end up losing their power due to exhaustion or despair.
This isolation is the state of things at the beginning of the most recent movie, The Rise of Skywalker. Poe Dameron says, “We sent out a call for help at the Battle of Crait. Nobody came. Everyone’s so afraid. They’ve given up.”
Poe’s old flame, Zorii Bliss says, “Nah, I don’t believe you believe that… [The First Order] win[s] by making you think you’re alone.”
And this is where the third type of power comes into play. Not individual empowerment, not power over, but Power With. This type of power brings individuals together for mutual support in a common cause for the betterment of all. Power With shares responsibilities amongst the group, and leadership guides but does not dominate. At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, Poe looks at the vast multitude of First Order star destroyers arrayed against the small Resistance fleet, and he sinks into despair: “I thought we had a shot,” he says. “But there’s just too many of them.”
Then over the comm channel, Lando Calrissian says, “But there are more of us, Poe. There are more of us.”
Poe looks up and sees a thousands upon thousands of ships coming to the rescue. The First Order doesn’t win because the Resistance is not alone.
The challenge is creating a Power With dynamic. Power Over is easy: the strongest dominates or the one with the most resources or the one with historical advantages. Empowerment makes logical sense. Give individuals what they need to thrive and they will. But Power With is really hard because it asks us to check our egos at the door and be part of a team. Power With asks us to give up historical advantages in order to create room for more people to share power. This is, by the way, why white supremacy is such an intractable foe. White people like me often don’t even realize the advantages that have accrued to us, so how could we try to share them if we can’t name them?
In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul gives us the main step towards being able to foster Power With. He begins by listing some of the ways he could assert Power Over. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” Paul says. “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
But then Paul does a U-Turn. He rejects all of this, saying, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul then re-centers his identity fully within the suffering and the promise of Jesus. “Christ Jesus has made me his own,” Paul says. If Paul belongs to Christ, then Paul no longer belongs to himself. If we belong to Christ, then we no longer belong to ourselves. And thus we can let go of our egos. We can let go of our desire to dominate. We can let go of the need to grasp at our historical advantages. And we can embrace the life-giving nature of Power With types of relationships.
I am striving to be hyper aware these days of the types of power I wield. Just by standing here and talking to you, I am wielding power. I know that my gender and skin color and orientation and able-bodied-ness and marital status and levels of education and income grant me societal advantages that I fervently desire to be available to all people. I am trying to remember that whatever power society grants me is mine to cling to or reject. We reject this power by encouraging us all to amplify voices that haven’t been listened to before, to educate ourselves about the unjust structures of society, to interrogate ourselves about our places in those structures, to overwrite our programming, and then to work together with a diverse array of people to uproot those unjust structures like racism and sexism and so many more.
Because Christ Jesus has made me his own, I understand that fighting for our society is not a zero-sum game. If Christ Jesus makes you his own, too, then I am not suddenly kicked out into the cold. We are both in Christ. And Christ dwells in us. With the heart of Christ beating in us, we can learn to embrace the third kind of power, Power With. And we can take our places amongst a great multitude working for justice and peace on the earth.