Who’s Got the Power?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

What springs to your mind when you hear the word “power?” Maybe you think about which group has it and which group doesn’t, from a socio-political perspective. Perhaps you do a quick self-assessment, concluding that you don’t have as much power as you wish you did, or as you “should,” because of whatever position you are occupy. Maybe you are often aware that you don’t get the respect you feel you deserve. Your opinions and your actions don’t hold the kind of sway you think they should. You’d like to have more power, at least some power.

As a parent of young children and a teen, I am reminded of the power I don’t have all the time. 

“Please, stop doing whatever!”—ignored again and again.  

But I am learning! I am learning that there is a difference between power and control. It would be more accurate for me to say that as a parent what I don’t have much of is control. It isn’t often that I am actually able to redirect fights or bad behavior and get a situation or a child under control. On a rare occasion when I use the promise of monetary rewards, or the threat of withholding rewards or what I consider as privileges, I might get some control.

But whenever I do gain control in that way, it feels manipulative. And it is clear that I am teaching my children to manipulate each other and certainly me when they want control. 

I would much rather have power. I would much rather be an example of how to use power for good. I would much rather be a powerful influence as a person who does the right thing with power. I want them to know their power and to use it for good! Perhaps “Stop hitting your brother because I told you to” isn’t the right thing to say.   

We all have many forms of power accessible to us. And together we have immense power to change what is wrong into what is right.

Yet, most of us struggle with power. We deny it, or misuse it. Some of us abuse it; then we have to deal with shame. Yet, as Marianne Williamson wrote years ago, for so many of us “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Using our power well is not easy. It will draw us into deeper relationship with others. And power must be coupled with humility, because power is not the same as control. Power used well has the amazing ability to create win-win results. But it takes relationships built on foundations of trust, trust that allows the sharing of power. If we have power, then we ought to be using it to empower others. 

Georgia Gilmore found her power to give money and sustenance and safe space. She was empowered by Martin Luther King. We can use what power we have to help others find the gift of their own power. Power with, rather than power over, is the way forward.

Learning how to use power for good means moving beyond trying to control, which is fear based, and moving towards what is life-giving. This model of power requires relationship and the long-term goal perspective. 

I have heard, since the beginning of my time as a minister in this UU faith, that a UU minister’s only power is the power of persuasion. I can’t (and wouldn’t) threaten you with eternal damnation in order to control your behavior! Neither would I or can I promise the reward of the golden streets in heaven if you would just follow my commands. Together we give each other whatever “authority” each of us has, and what authority we have is together in covenant, in trust. 

The only authority I have is found in my appeals to you to exercise your power.  

In a 1939 essay, Guiding Principles of a Free Faith, the Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams identified the five smooth stones of liberal religion, which he saw as the basis for the power that this tiny faith movement of ours could wield in the world. He based the idea of the five smooth stones of liberal religion on the ancient Biblical story of David going into battle with the Philistine giant, Goliath. David, not a warrior, but rather a shepherd with the skills needed to protect his flock, had only a sling that he used to take down predators who might decimate his sheep. The story goes that pre-battle he chose five smooth stones out of a stream, and with those and his sling he went to face Goliath. The stones, and his good aim, enabled him to win the battle and save the day.   

James Luther Adams used the image of five smooth stones to describe how a liberal, reasonable faith could win over reasonable people.

  • The first stone represents the understanding of our liberal religion that revelation is continuous, “truth” is neither static nor absolute. New truth is always emerging, and everything is subject to critique and thus modification.
  • Second, relations among people should be based on consent and not coercion. Power with others is the basis for democracy, which, when practiced well, can be transformative.
  • Third, as a liberally religious people, we have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community, both within a congregation and in the wider world. Our church does not exist solely for the benefit of our members, but for the benefit of the world.
  • Fourth, good things don’t just happen; people make them happen.
  • Fifth, the resources available for change justify an ultimate optimism. This does not mean that the change that we desire on behalf of justice will be either easy or quick, but the resources, including the power of hope, exist. What we need is the courage to gather up our stones and use them wisely.

Yet, indicative of a “truth” that is never static, the five smooth stones that James Luther Adams proposed back in the late ‘30s has been re-imagined in the last twenty years or so as jagged rocks.

Perhaps David chose smooth stones to slay the giant, and perhaps James Luther Adams thought people of reason would easily convince other people of reason to see the light of this liberal faith, and it would be smooth going for UUs well into the future. 

That hasn’t been the case. Perhaps we are beginning to understand that our faith is more than reasonable and enlightening. It can have its rough edges, and it is both powerful and dangerous! The tools of our faith must be rooted not only in our tradition, but must also be contextual and specific to the time we are in. We can’t be so esoteric or agreeable and risk losing the radical edge we need to make the world be the place it must be.

The Five Jagged Rocks that give power to our UU faith come from the unity that makes us one, the behaviors that go with the principle that all souls are worthy, the understanding that courageous love transforms the world, and the yes that we must proclaim as we see that new truth continues to be revealed and as we undertake the actions that give life to those who have been outside the circle of power for far too long.

This is not a faith for the weak or the unimaginative. It is for those who know their power, who hope for the world that can be, and take action to make it so. That is the people we have always been, with whom we have always allied ourselves. That is the mission we have before us.

Let us continue to use the power we have for the greater good.

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