Peter Baker is director of the American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (ASP), a semester-long opportunity for faithful college students to connect to the institutions and leaders who are influencing issues in public policy.
It’s a curious thing. The handful of times I’ve been pulled over in the 15 years I’ve been driving, I’ve had many thoughts cross my mind. Not once, however, did I ever think to myself, “Should I stop, or should I just keep going?”
No, those flashing lights aren’t so much a request as an order. And I obey every time. Why? Yes, I have a healthy respect for authority, a deep appreciation of what rule-of-law means to our society, and gratitude for the risks and sacrifices that come with law enforcement.
But, if I’m really honest, I also find the order to pull over quite compelling, because—to put it bluntly—the officer has a gun and I don’t. If I resist the directive to pull over, there’s a good chance I find myself in a holding cell and soon after standing before a judge. So I comply.
For average citizens like us, most of our encounters with government officials or law enforcement involve an element of coercion. Elected officials and government agents are regularly defining or interpreting the rules of the game that we have to play by as neighbors, business owners, drivers, campers, hunters and taxpayers. We face financial penalties and potential loss of freedoms when we don’t comply.
So it’s not uncommon for us to think about “state power” as coercive power.
I’m not here to dispute that view of power, but it would be unfortunate if that was the only way we were able to view power. Scripture lays out a broader understanding of what power is and how it works. Understanding the breadth of how scripture understands power can expand our understanding of what good citizenship and good government look like.
To help support this view, I’d like to enlist the help of Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today and author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. As the subtitle affirms, Crouch encourages us to view power as a gift. Here are a few brief points for us to consider:
Power is creational, and was given by God before sin and the Fall.
In what is sometimes referred to as “the creation mandate,” God commands humanity to, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28; see 29-30). We are called to rule over, care for and cultivate the world around us. The scriptures continually paint the picture that we are to exercise this power as stewards, operating out of a responsibility to the one who gave us these gifts.
Power is the ability to make something of the world, both “the stuff we make from the raw material of nature, but also the meaning we make” (PG, p. 17). This “stuff” we make—both material and meaning—comprises what we commonly refer to as culture. But power is the ability to participate in culture making, “in that stuff-making, sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do” (PG, p. 17). We are empowered when our access or capacity to act increases. We are disempowered when someone or something limits our access or capacity to participate in culture making.
Power, like the rest of God’s good creation, is corrupted and misdirected by sin.
The fact that we live in a fallen world does not destroy God’s original intentions for the practice of power, just as sin does not negate the fact that each of us bears God’s image. But sin interferes with our ability to reflect God’s glory, and it also interferes with the right use of power in God’s creation. We are meant to use power to build order, but we are prone to using it to disorder. Rather than beautify, sinful uses of power disfigure. Rather than include and honor, sin marginalizes and dehumanizes. Rather than image bearing, it idolizes. Rather than create, it destroys. We encounter these realities regularly.
Power, and society’s institutions most commonly associated with its abuses, remain located with us—within God’s redemptive plans for his creation.
This is most plainly explained in Paul’s writings to the church in Colossae:
“He is the image of God, the invisible one,
The firstborn of all creation.
For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on the earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot—
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—
All things were created both through him and for him.”
We learn that what we often refer to as “the powers and principalities” of this world are created for Christ and, by extension, for our welfare. The incarnation affirms the inherent value of God’s creation. While you and I—God’s image bearers—may occupy center stage in God’s salvation plan, our salvation is wrapped up in the redemption of the rest of creation, including the powers and principalities. This biblical truth inspired the 19th century Dutch statesman, Abraham Kuyper, to utter the now famous statement, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
Questions for Reflection
What does this mean for you? I wish there were a few easy, universal answers, but my sneaking suspicion is that there can’t be: We all have different relationships to power at different times. We are citizens, elected officials, government workers, police officers, protesters, soldiers, students, teachers and more.
I think a good place to start, though, is with prayer, reflection and prayer about your reflection. Take some time this week to prayerfully answer the following questions and then spend a little more time talking with God about your answers:
Do we think of exercising power in the world as an act of stewardship?
How do we protect a sense that such work is good, that power and politics can be exercised faithfully?
In what ways are being a citizen or working in government culture-making activities, both “stuff making and “sense making,” as Crouch calls it?