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Power and Common Good: Squaring the SmithsPower and Common Good: Squaring the Smiths

Power and Common Good: Squaring the Smiths

Over on the Slow Church blog, Christopher Smith objects to Jamie's arguments (admitting his Anabaptist political theology predisposes him not to vote) by describing how active civil society engagement can accomplish great things and that the slow, local approach that Jamie critiques as inadequate may, with God's blessing, achieve great things while avoiding the culture war narrative, with its inherent temptations and dangers.

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Topics: Culture, Leadership, Elites, Parenting, Institutions
Power and Common Good: Squaring the Smiths August 23, 2013  |  By Ray Pennings
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Wednesday's blog Knitting While Detroit Burns? by Jamie Smith has started some useful conversations. The road for faithful Christian public engagement has two ditches and Jamie warned that in reaction to the triumphalism of a previous generation, today's evangelicals may be retreating to personal over organizational action and not adequately investing in the important roles of government.

Over on the Slow Church blog, Christopher Smith objects to Jamie's arguments (admitting his Anabaptist political theology predisposes him not to vote) by describing how active civil society engagement can accomplish great things and that the slow, local approach that Jamie critiques as inadequate may, with God's blessing, achieve great things while avoiding the culture war narrative, with its inherent temptations and dangers.

There are differing presuppositions employed by the Smiths that will prevent their arguments from being totally squared. But the differences between the Smiths expressed in their respective blogs in part reflect different uses of the term power.

There are at least four ways to exercise power: coercion, expertise, relationship and office. Perhaps the differences can be illustrated with an admittedly hokey illustration.

What might give you the power to wave a car to the side of the highway?

If coercion is the power method you employ, you might put up a road block, pull out a weapon, or (to use positive coercion techniques) wave a sign promising a million dollars to the driver if he would pull over. To utilize the power tool of expertise, get a mechanic to describe the dangers of continuing. Whether the explanation is true or not, the driver may pull over out of deference to the mechanic's expertise. The relationship power tool is perhaps the most common one—find someone who has a relationship with the driver and ask him to pull over as a favour. The utilization of the office power tool requires an officer. They usually wear blue uniforms and drive cars that have red cherries on top. Most drivers obey their instruction to pull over.

Each of these tools, individually and in combination, are ways that power is exercised. As those who have held any position of responsibility knows, an over-reliance on official power never works effectively. The father who only can say, "Listen to me because I am your father," never providing any rationale for certain behaviours, will struggle to raise well-behaved children.

Christopher Smith uses power in a very personal way, focusing on the personal motives of those who would seek positions of authority. This is how he can favourably present Daniel as an example of one who was influential but never did so by seeking the seat of power. Jamie Smith, on the other hand, considers Daniel's influence exercised over people who clearly did not like him (hence the attempt to repurpose him as lion food) as the exercise of official power and the tool of government.

Christopher Smith rightly distinguishes how power can be used creatively or as an instrument of oppression, but that involves the "how" of power rather than the "what." I would suggest that the what of power inevitably means social organization.

Jamie Smith's plea for paying attention to the institutions that can make a difference in places like Detroit—not simply relying on individual actions—is an appeal to the structures of power. The unwritten rules for behaviour, developed over time in every community, outlive the influence of any individual leader. Reading these blogs brought to mind a comment made this week by National Post columnist George Jonas in the context of political scandal:

"Good countries don't require remarkable leaders to function. Show me a country that muddles through with a middling skipper at the helm, and I'll show you a country that has healthy institutions and no underlying malaise."

Power is a term that can be resented, especially by those who perceive themselves as lacking power. Yet, its etymology suggests potential, energy (power supply), and capacity. Both in our personal motives and relationships as well as in our official responsibilities, the challenges of public life require an abundance of power—rightly conceived and exercised—if we are to be the influence for good that both Smiths desire.

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