Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Peanuts, Power and Policy

Below is an essay I just sent off to Bethany Seminary for an essay contest: What Story Will a Peace Church Tell the World?

There's not much new content here from my other musings on power, but I thought I'd wrap it up in a fresh package and see what the Church of the Brethren thinks. :)

Peanuts, Power, and Policy for a Peace Church

While traveling with my wife and young children a few years ago, we reached that point in our journey where rising agitation from the back of the van needed to be swiftly quelled by a snack of some kind. My resourceful wife opened a jar of peanuts that she had ready for just this situation, and we each took a handful and passed the jar back. There was a short moment of relative peace, followed by sharp outcries of injustice and suffering. Our eldest daughter had dumped the entire jar into her lap, out of reach from her siblings (who were now sobbing and gnashing their teeth). We confronted said eldest child and demanded to know what in the world she was doing.

Without missing a beat, she replied “I just wanted the peanuts so I could share them with my brother and sister.” She then proceeded to give small handfuls of her enormous pile to each of her siblings.

History teaches us that it is common for people to gather all peanuts unto themselves, and that it can almost always be explained as simple greed or desire. It is trickier when peanut gathering is done in the name of providing for others. It is admirable to want to be God’s hands, but we run the risk of mistaking our own desires for God’s. Whether we gather peanuts for good or ill, one thing is certain: peanut distributors are the ones in charge. They will eat far better than others and will become all too acquainted with places of honor at banquet tables. To their eventual sorrow, they will discover that peanuts are loaded with hidden saturated fat, and that they will suffer from heart failure if they continue to eat more than their share of them.

Whether it be peanuts or armies, the fundamental problem we all must face when attempting to do good is the double-edged nature of power in this world. We need power to do good, yet power tends to corrupt even the best intentions. That corruption may not fully blossom into depravity, exploitation, or an invade-other-countries-for-the-glorious-benefit-of-God kind of arrogance. But even reconciling a comfortable life with all the suffering that exists in the world is a small corruption, a turning away from Shalom. We all have blind spots, and power without accountability often ends up being a greater opportunity for sin than for good. Whether we are children, kings, nations or peace churches, we should be wary of gathering power in too few places, and we should encourage social policies that ensure power is properly distributed among many.

- - - - - -

The natural course of the world is to collect power into mighty kingdoms that demand allegiance above even God, but which eventually and inevitably crumble as corruption eats at them from within. History affirms this sad reality century after century. But must that reality apply to the Church as well? At its worst, the Church has been a shadow of the State, seeking power and control over others to increase its influence. In post-Christendom times, these impulses have reduced the Church to blessing the violence of the State in exchange for whatever shreds of power the State decides to trickle down to it.

However, at its best, the Church is a counter-weight to the reality of power. It is a voice crying out from the sideline, urging the rich and powerful to share their wealth and privilege and calls them to account when their corruption becomes too enormous for others to bear. What makes the ancient books of Israel remain so unique and relevant for our time is not that God spoke to a tribe in the desert, but that one’s very loyalty to God is put to the test by one’s care and concern for the oppressed in society. The victimized share space in the same sacred text as the stately kings and priests, and to remain faithful to their calls for justice is no easier today than it ever was.

The source of the difficulty is that power presents us with a paradox: We can gain power to do good but also gain hidden corruptions along with it. Or we can avoid power altogether and lack much influence with which to do God’s work. Historic peace churches have struggled mightily with this paradox over the centuries. Choosing variously between engagement and withdrawal at different times, we keep circling around, hoping to find a faithful balance. We often find ourselves between the rock of faithfulness and the hard place of effectiveness.

Part of the problem is Jesus’ ambivalence towards power. He rejected political and ecclesiological power offered by Satan, and in so doing revealed that his kingdom was something quite different. But in the Parable of the Talents, he demanded that those with money and power use it to good benefit or risk losing faithfulness. Is he recognizing that power is something humans can get addicted to, yet is a necessary temptation to accomplish kingdom work?

The answer may lie in what Jesus was unmistakably clear about: advocating for the least among us. Instead of concentrating solely on individual salvation through forgiveness of sins, perhaps we should focus more on community salvation, through the practical results of children clothed, bellies fed, and power equalized. This is the story Jesus told, through his unwavering insistence to care for the poor and the suffering, through his message of an upside-down-kingdom, and through his proclamation of the year of Jubilee. If we view the arc of Jesus’ message as a call to distribute power to minimize human corruption, we are given not just a story but a guiding principle of social organization towards our work in the larger world.

Indeed, what progress has been made towards human dignity in the course of history has come through this basic but effective strategy. Democracy, the rule of law, and institutional checks and balances are all strategies to distribute power, and while they do not succeed in eliminating corruption, they do dampen its effects. We’ve also experienced (all too recently) the tragic effects of subverting those checks and balances by those in power. The church need not compete with secular energy in these areas - at its best it has been the conscience and forerunner of social causes like slavery, poverty, and civil rights, all of which righteously distribute power.

As a guiding principle, distribution of power is quite useful in unpacking the social issues of our time. Instead of asking whether a particular social policy is conservative vs liberal or secular vs religious, we need merely ask: Whom does it benefit? If the answer is that it will give more power and privilege to those who already have it, then we should be highly suspicious of whatever benefits it claims. If one of our jobs, as Christians, is to work towards increasing the power of those who don’t have it, then we need not be embarrassed to pursue social policy that attempts to achieve it. We may be fearful of being labeled unpatriotic or socialist, but we must claim our motivations as properly Christian - a natural result of following Jesus’ social ethic.

Here are some ideas for applying the principle of power distribution to a few current social problems:

Wealth: To rely on optional charity to distribute wealth is to rely on those with the peanuts to share them at their pleasure. Tax policy that distributes money also distributes power. Progressive tax policies need not be apologized for when the money is being used for social services and wealth redistribution strategies, be it education or basic welfare. It is when taxes are used to militarily control the resources of other countries that we should be concerned about what taxation is accomplishing.

Health Care: Current American allocation of health care resources goes to those with jobs at companies that provide health care benefits. This is just another way of distributing privileges only to those who already have some power. A universal health care system would ensure that the power of health is more evenly distributed.

Media Conglomeration: The media is an extremely powerful tool to shape social perception. When all the major media outlets are owned by a small number of global corporations, the voices of those without power are usually shut out. Social policy that prevents media monopolies or encourages alternative media outlets should be supported.

Policing: Corruption is common in police forces because the power of legally sanctioned violence is so strong. Without being accountable to a truly independent investigative body, police abuse is inevitable. Citizen reviews boards with real authority to sanction officers should be a check within our system of policing.

Voting. One of the many ways our democracy is broken is how lawmakers get elected, via large donations from moneyed interests. Public financing of elections would reduce the likelihood of representatives who are beholden to special interests. Alternatively, entirely changing the system to representational government or instant run-off voting would allow more than two parties to have practical access to office, which would help distribute power electorally.

The examples above are but a sample, and certainly open to argument as to whether they would actually achieve the goals of distributing power. But using distribution of power as a goal at least provides a proper framework for the discussion of social policy. For too long we have had to endure the loud complaints of the most privileged and their certainty that they still don’t have enough. They believe that the least among us deserve their poverty, and should be provided with nothing more than spare peanuts, and that only at the whim of those with power. If we hold to distribution of power as a worthy goal, we undercut selfishness as policy, and turn the discussion instead toward the direction of Jesus’ social ethic.

Is distribution of power really such an all-encompassing solution? Can’t people still commit terrible evils even when they have limited power in balance with others? Don’t high school movies teach us that geeks immediately start ignoring their friends when they gain the power of popularity?

Possibly - it is a very blunt tool, after all. It is not an ethic, but a strategy to reduce the likelihood of sin. In fact, sometimes, it is necessary to temporarily centralize power to address local injustice, such as civil rights. In this post-modern world, choosing a path isn’t usually a way to eliminate all problems, but a way to choose which set of problems we prefer to have.

Distributing power is like storing old newspapers, oily rags and matches in different places to avoid unnecessary fires. It is keeping bullets away from guns, and guns away from children, and even preventing guns from being in the house in the first place. It is a structural way to avoid problems and temptations. It does not stop those who want fires and gunshots in their lives, but it does limit their damage.

Unequal distribution of power harms everyone. Left unchecked, it eventually puts massive numbers of people under the yoke of injustice and oppression. But it also encourages those in power, who might behave better otherwise, to be in opposition to God’s will for themselves and for humanity. Resisting the temptations of power may start with peanuts, but if we are to be serious about reflecting God’s desire for us here on earth, it must end in practical, power-distributing social policy.


brownie said...

Excellent essay.

I thought maybe you would have utilized the "render onto Ceasar, that which is Ceasar's" idea in there somewhere, as it seems relevant to the topic (in some way I can't quite specify). But that's just a random thought, and a rather nitpicky one at that. Good job.


Amishlaw said...

Nice essay. I hope you win the prize. What is the prize? Free foot washing and wax job?

Dan S said...

I believe the contest winner gets two of the following:

1. Cash
2. Publication in a magazine
3. All current and future sins absolved