Power Analysis

March 26, 2013

I recently had a big fight with a family member.  It broke my heart that this loved one was so intent on shoving her policy and political positions down others’ throats. The attitude that was coming across just didn’t seem to convey the Biblical commands to love your neighbor and your enemy.

I literally asked whether it was more important for her to win or for people to be drawn to Jesus?  She preferred “Winning!”

This reminded of a quote from Shane Claiborne that I read recently on the Red Letter Christians website: “The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.”

That left me thinking that during this Holy Week it might be good to do some (albeit unusual) power analysis.  Let’s ask the question: When should we take on the gospel of death, sacrifice, and humility? And when should we take on the gospel of resurrection power?

It was during my sabbatical from politics that I found the above, helpful questions and new language to articulate some of the stirrings of my soul.  The resource that illuminated my thinking was Eric H.F. Law’s book, The Wolf Shall Dwell With the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community. 

Reading and reflecting on that book came about as a result of joining a “Life Group” at my church, partly in pursuit of some of my sabbatical goals. (Remember my piece about R&R?) A diverse group of new friends embarked on a study about how we as church folks might approach our ministries and relationships differently in cross-cultural settings than we tend to in monocultural settings.  As we examined Law’s concepts from our various perspectives informed by each’s unique racial/cultural, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. lens, we were challenged to think a lot about power.

The author suggests that those from the dominant culture need to be aware of our position on the power continuum, especially as we relate to people from minority populations. (I’ll put myself in the power group for a moment, as a light-skinned, 1/2 Anglo, 1/2 Latina.)  Similarly, men of any racial/ethnic group should be cognizant of the power they have over women in most societies.  And Western Christians need to understand their power. Especially in America.

The point is that we need to take on an attitude of humility—consistent with the cross—when we’re the ones in power.  And we need to know when our spot on the power continuum has shifted based on who else is in the room.  But, as Law points out, sometimes those who are actually in power self-identify as oppressed and spend a lot of energy putting on power—as conveyed in the resurrection.  That skews things.

Law’s analysis helped some things finally come into full view for me.  Upon moving to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 2007, my husband had commented about how there seemed to be churches on every block in our neighborhood. Christians seemed to be in charge of everything.  And Religious Right rhetoric was getting a lot of play.

While I agreed with his perspective on conservative Christian political discourse,  I had a hard time relating to his view of Christians as the dominators. I was raised in an Evangelical environment in which we construed ourselves as the underdog.

My husband also would go on and on about the domination and oppression that the Catholic Church had effectuated across the world and over the centuries.  That I was able to see. But I didn’t relate to it personally as my sense of identity did not include much of a connection with Catholicism.  (Weird for a Latina, yes, I know.)  But he kept insisting that we are the same Church and are all accountable for Christian cruelty toward others over the centuries.

Yikes.  I think he’s right.  I’m finally getting it.

Christianity doesn’t have a very good reputation, largely because of the way we use power.  And whether we internalize it or not, we have a lot of it. Despite the separation of church and state, the U.S. utilizes quite a bit of language and customs that reflect a Christianity-informed heritage.

And in recent decades, Christians have been particularly loud and proud in pushing very hard for policies that reflect a certain sense of morality.  When the Religious Right doesn’t win, family dinners, the airwaves, and many-a-Facebook feed are replete with language that reflects fear that Christians (or white people, or straight people) are losing control of America.

Is fighting for power really what the Church should be about?

I would argue NOT, at least not when we’re starting from a real or perceived position of dominance.  That was not the posture of the Messiah who rode into town on a baby donkey, as Pastor reminded us this Palm Sunday.  Or, if we’re going to fight for power, may we do it on behalf of the powerless, the poor, and the oppressed.  Law’s book says that those are the people who need to experience the gospel of resurrection power.

Speaking of advocating on behalf of the poor, I am captivated by the new pope.  It seems that many—non-Catholics, like me, and Catholics alike—are attracted by his relative simplicity of lifestyle and his humility.  And his prayer that the Church would be a poor Church.  Sure, he leads a huge, historic institution that has often taken up the gospel of power while calling its subjects to a gospel of the cross.  It’s an imperfect scenario, to say the least. But maybe, just maybe, this Pope Francis guy knows a little something about this Jesus who draws people not by force but by fascination.

As for me, I must admit that I’m still working on this stuff—knowing when and how to genuinely identify with the cross and when to identify with the power of the resurrection.

Will you join me as the Lenten season ends and Easter beckons? May we learn how to appropriately take up a whole gospel, putting on in the right moments the gospel of the cross and sharing with those who need it the gospel of resurrection power.


Me and My Big Mouth

March 19, 2013

joe-bidenA couple of days after St. Patrick’s Day, I am remembering the infamous St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast in Boston. I had the (good or bad?) luck of attending it while I was away at graduate school.

The Boston political scene reminded me quite a bit of Chicago’s.  Lots of Irish politicians, Italians, and other ethnics (including a Puerto Rican city councilman I got to meet).  Democrats all.  A great many who were full of hot air.  (Did you know that that’s how Chicago got its nick name, “Windy City,” by the way? It was born from a journalist’s reference to the boastful, big mouths of the city’s boosters and politicians, not the actual wind.)

Another big mouth I got to experience at the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast was that of then-Senator Joe Biden.  It was 2007, early in the presidential race, and Biden was one of the candidates making his rounds on the speaking circuit.  He treated that space as if it were an intimate audience of close friends.  I whinced as he said a number of things that I thought one shouldn’t say in public—or probably ever.  That whole breakfast was characterized by “good natured” political ribbing and ethnic slurs and other jokes that would be considered inappropriate by many, mind you.  Nonetheless, it was my up-close view of the Joe Biden who is known for speaking before he thinks.

On that note, let me offer this personal confession and a collective challenge.  Sometimes I have that problem, too.  It’s probably one that many of us need to work on in one way or another.

I remember a few occasions that are telling.  (Interestingly, these examples of what not to do are NOT from the year when I was on sabbatical from politics.  Maybe my tongue was a little more tame when I was under less stress?)

Just a few weeks ago at work, I shared an incident with a colleague.  It was a true story.  It exemplified a challenge we were facing as we tackled a project meant to improve our systems in our workplace.  Maybe I thought it would be useful.  But in hindsight I realized that I probably shouldn’t have shared that much detail.  I should have kept my frustration to myself.

A few years ago at a speaking engagement, in a graduate school sociology class on gentrification, the professor of the class called me the “Queen of Tell it Like it Is.” She meant that in a good way.  But I’ve had to reflect on that and consider whether I’d like the consequences if some of what I shared got back to certain people.

In another case, the pastor had nudged me to say something pastoral as I concluded a presentation to my then-fellow congregants about the history and politics of our church’s neighborhood.  I said something prophetic instead of pastoral.  ‘Cause that’s what God seems to have given me—a prophetic voice.  I challenged the congregation to think about—in light of the information I had just shared with them—whether we were really being relevant to the target population our church literature suggested we were aiming for.  Were we really carrying out social justice through community development in our neighborhood?  Or just paying it lip service? I pissed some people off.

Like many of our personal traits, the same characteristic can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on how we apply it.

Despite my own failings in this arena, I’m a true believer in the idea that not everything that comes to one’s mind is something one should say.  We all need to do some filtering. Or consider our approach.  Some prophetic challenges might merit being offered, but when, where, and how we do it might make a difference whether one’s words truly can be heard and acted on appropriately.

(And, too often, we Christians misuse teachings about speaking the truth in love. Telling the truth becomes an excuse to spew judgment or hate or gossip.  But more on that later.)

For now, let me leave us all with some ancient words of wisdom about taming our tongues:

  • A knife-wound heals, but a tongue wound festers.”  ~ Turkish Proverb
  • The tongue is, at the same time, the best part of man and his worst; with good government, none is more useful, and without it,  none is more mischievous~ Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher
  • Give your tongue more holiday than your hands or eyes. ~ Rabbi Ben Azai, a compiler of the Talmud
  • The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright:  but the mouth of  fools poureth out foolishness. ~ The Bible, Proverbs 15:2
  • The tongue should not be suffered to outrun the mind. ~ Chilo of Sparta, Greek politician, one of the Seven Sages

Words to live by.


March 13, 2013

Ricochet RabbitRicochet Rabbit.  Do you remember that Hanna-Barbera cartoon character?  I used to refer to one of my bosses by that name, as I watched her bounce from one corner of the office to another.  Bing, bing, bing!

Funny thing is, I recognize that all-over-the-place, unrealistic pace and pattern in myself from time to time.  Too often, actually. Including lately.

It was common when I was running a small non-profit organization, where I fell into work-a-holism.  That was part of what led me to leave my job and go to grad school out of town.  I needed a bit of a break from my unreasonably paced reality.  Later, as I put myself on a sabbatical from politics, I was figuring out that doing all that campaign volunteer work while working a full-time job sends me into that kind of frenzy, too.

Why do I keep doing that to myself?

OK, so part of it is because I’m a Maximizer Achiever.  Deadly combination.  Let me explain.  Have you ever taken the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment?  It identifies what Gallup calls your top five “Signature Themes.” The point is that we all have things we do well or characteristics that tend to come naturally.  Gallup suggests that we focus on understanding and using those key traits rather than spending lots of time trying to improve areas where we are weak.  My challenge is that having both “Maximizer” and “Achiever” among my signature themes means that I always need to be accomplishing something, and I need to make the most of every situation.  If I don’t keep myself in check and find ways to manage those tendencies appropriately, I become Ricochet Rabbit.

Religion isn’t one of the R’s I had planned to bring into this particular installment. It was supposed to be a simple, secular post about getting some R&R.  But then I went to church this Sunday.  And Pastor preached about the 7 Deadly Sins.  With a twist.

“Some of us need a little more sloth in our lives,” he said. While some of us need to fight against a propensity toward laziness, many of us probably face an opposite challenge.  We need to slow down.

I’m not going to do justice to the various authors that Pastor referred to.  I’m sure there was some Barbara Brown Taylor in there.  And some Walter Wink, I think. The sermon’s most compelling concept for me was the Uber Sloth. Busyness is the Uber Sloth’s thing. This character may look like it’s doing lots of good stuff.  But it’s not really being productive.


My chicken-scratch sermon notes culminate in what is probably a paraphrase of somebody’s great quote: “Test the idea that you are worth more than you can produce.  You are still precious in God’s sight.” (Let me know if you know who I’m plagiarizing, so I can give them proper credit.)

Now for personal application and accountability.  Even when I’m trying to rest and relax and slow down, the Maximizer Achiever in me needs to feel like I’m accomplishing something and making the most of an opportunity.  So, as I test the idea that I am worth more than I can produce and work on being a little more slothful—and maybe even a little more productive in the long-run—I have to make an R&R to-do list.  This helps me make my signature themes work for me, as I get the satisfaction of checking things off my list.  And I’m going to write more about the items and ask you to check in with me to make sure I invest in plenty of:

  • Reading
  • Reflection
  • Recreation
  • Relationships

R&R.  It really was a theme this weekend.

After church I went to a memorial service for a colleague in social justice activism and philanthropy. She reminded me a lot of myself.  As I took in the beautiful pictures, music, and tributes, I was forced to think about what I hope people would say about me after I pass on.  I was struck by the beautiful friendships that clearly nurtured my colleague on good and bad days.  We were left with poignant words from a family member: “Busyness cannot be a way of life.  In the end, relationships are what matter most.”

What will R&R stand for in your life?

A number of people have pushed back against the idea that I would swear off politics.  One Facebook friend responded to an early blog post with this quote from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

And, honestly, I even think these things myself sometimes. Such statements feed my own anxiety about not doing more.  My anxiety about not playing particular roles in politics. I regularly feel drawn to make a difference in that arena because I can.  Or at least I think I can.  And should.

But recent conversations and social media statements have reminded me again and again. Sometimes you’re meant to be in a certain place at a certain time, even if it’s not where you or others think you’re supposed to be.

Doing what God has for me to do at this time does not equal doing nothing.

In mentioning last month’s Jewish Festival of Purim, another Facebook friend’s recent post reminded me of the phrase: “For such a time as this.” Purim celebrates Queen Esther’s role in ensuring that the Jewish people across the Persian empire were spared from an order to annihilate them.  The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament explain how Queen Esther, an undercover Jew who, through an unusual opportunity, is chosen as queen by King Ahasuerus, is at the right place at the right time.  She takes a big risk in revealing her ethnicity and bringing to the king her concern about the threat to her people.  But she finds favor in the king’s eyes, and the Jewish people are saved.  The Book of Esther suggests that she was in that place and space for a reason.  In chapter 4, verse 14, the question is asked, “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

When I’m sitting at my desk at work, where I make recommendations for grant funding to non-profit organizations, I often think to myself, “For such a time as this.”  God has  given me a great job in philanthropy at a time when both the non-profit and government sectors are such difficult, unstable environments.  (I used to work in the former and have often aspired to the latter.)  While having the steady income and relatively low-stress work environment that wasn’t at all guaranteed during my non-profit career, I get to help direct funding toward needy agencies and communities. And I often have energy left at the end of the day or work week to go above and beyond the call of duty.  So I help develop the capacity of young leaders and less-sophisticated groups that might not otherwise position themselves well for future funding.  Rather than doing nothing, I’m doing something.

To be honest, my self-righteous self also identifies at times with Genesis’ Joseph.  (Remember the musical “Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat”?)  This Biblical character’s brothers resent him (maybe with good reason).  They sell him into slavery, which takes him to Egypt.  Through various ups and downs and ups, Joseph rises to the position of administrator of great stockpiles of food which become vital during a time of great famine in the land.  Joseph’s traitor brothers have to come to Egypt to beg him for provisions to feed their families.  Joseph doesn’t rub it in their faces. He sends them home with what they came for.

My professional position sometimes calls me to make grant recommendations to organizations whose main characters have tried to throw me under the bus over the years.  When I get full of myself and think vindictive thoughts, I try to remind myself of how—like Esther and Joseph—God has put me in this place and space for a reason.  I dig deep—or rather tap into God’s grace—and graciously facilitate funding even to those I may feel have done me wrong.

So as I (often impatiently) honor the roles God would have me play today, I strive to do the following:

  • Notice how well God has taken care of me while making me wait for what I think are other elements of my calling;
  • Allow God to work on my character flaws along the way;
  • Live in confidence that God will put me in the right place in politics at the right time, if that’s where I’m supposed to be.

I’m thankful that my political friends, colleagues, and even some rivals think that the world is a better place when I’m engaged with politics.  But it’s more important that I allow myself to live into God’s grace and accept the possibility that God may have me positioned in a different way for such a time as this.

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