power is always at play

For better or for worse, power is always at play.

An undergraduate mentor of mine enlightened me with these words several years ago. Although it may be weird to describe life in terms of power and there may be some confirmation bias at work, I continue to see this proven true time and time again.

I’m still grieving from the tragic deaths in recent news, and I keep on seeing varying power dynamics at play among civilians, protestors, news reporters, terrorists, police officers, elected leaders, etc. It just seems increasingly crucial to me that we recognize accurately how power is working.

About a week ago, I wrote about starting with myself as an individual. In short, I wanted to handle my own personal errors before I began to handle anything else.

Well, the more I reflected about myself as an individual, the more I realized how I’m more than just an individual. Admittedly, I am an individual unit, but I am also a part of larger units, and I can’t really understand myself without understanding these larger entities. And it seems to me that a part of me doing better is intimately connected to the groups, institutions, and systems of which I am a part doing better.

Here’s where the power comes in again.

I believe that we all have a measure of power within us that manifests from our minds and hearts through our actions. Usually, we think and/or feel, and then we decide what we will do with our abilities based on those thoughts and/or feelings. What I’m seeing more and more is that people, even with the best intentions, (mis)use their power to gain resources, opportunities, relationships, etc. for themselves and for what they consider theirs.

This is especially true for us in the United States. The individual founders of this country were so FOR themselves that they used their power AGAINST other people. That might seem unpatriotic to say, but we know it’s the truth. And over time, this has happened so much here that individual people have had enough power over others to create systems of privilege that advantage some people over others.

The combination of these observations, along with others, helped me understand how oppression exists because this kind of privilege exists. Someone’s oppression is a byproduct of someone else’s privilege and advantage.

I’ve seen this most clearly as a Black man in the United States.

The intersection of my race and gender is quite complex. Of course, it’s not divorced from a number of other qualities that make me ME, but allow me to focus on these two.

As a Black man, I have recognized that I am able to use my power to do things more freely than many women of color. Some of this is just me, but a lot of this is because I am a male part of a system that assigns power, privilege, and status to men over women. Interestingly enough, it has been women, mostly Black women, who have shown me how I too can be oppressive, even without intending to be oppressive. And the more I acknowledge all of this, the more I steward my power adaptively and thoughtfully.

As a Black man, I’ve also been taught to defer to and accommodate White people. Perhaps, some learn this explicitly out of survival, but I learned about this power dynamic more implicitly, sometimes in the most trivial of contexts, from people of all racial groups. It was never directly articulated but was definitely communicated.

These accommodations can be as simple as reducing my volume so White people aren’t disturbed or keeping my candid opinions to myself so White people don’t feel bad.

The insidious, almost invisible rule that I’ve been taught is this: I should always keep White people comfortable, safe, and in control, even at the expense of my comfort, safety, and power. And if I do not comply with this rule, my comfort, safety, and power will likely be subverted systemically until I comply.

There are countless examples of the consequences of non-compliance– the most extreme examples lead to someone dying, usually a person of color.

Right now, I feel challenged by the notion that I could die.

I could die because I break the rules of the system. I’m not talking about being profiled or discriminated against, though that could lead to my untimely demise. Rather, I’m talking about following Jesus Christ.

Jesus used His power in order to change the system for the better. Jesus refused to comply with the invisible rules of the system and relinquished his power, even to the point of death, so that people could finally escape their brokenness and the brokenness of these systems. He courageously held accountable those who misused their power, confronted those who were privileged, and faithfully protected those who were oppressed. His devotion to love, truth, and righteous use of power made people so uncomfortable that the authorities of the time used their power within the system of the time to kill him.

He was FOR everyone, and I think we, who follow Jesus, should practice being FOR more people rather than being AGAINST them.

I really want to use my power to change the system for the better. I’m all for loving people, being FOR people, and accommodating others thoughtfully so much so that it leads to the creation of systems where people mutually and beneficially exchange power in love through community and reciprocity.

As wonderful as that sounds, it’s scary thinking that I could end up dying so that these redeemed systems manifest more fully in our world, especially since that’s what Jesus did.

Maybe this is how something is REALLY worth dying for.

Taken together, I have no plans for dying in order to change the world, but I’m hopeful that I’m being prepared for something greater than I am. And I pray that, as opportunities to change the system for the better come, I’ll be ready to use my power.

Love Love Love,

Jesse

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