Ronald Arms: A Gentle, Skillful Power

November 12, 1995
Seekers Church
Ronald Arms 

A Gentle, Skillful Power

Luke 20:27-38

Once upon a time, in a very big city, there was a man who lived alone in his apartment. When he got home from his day of work, thinking of all the violent and dangerous people he had been close to that day he felt like a survivor of war. The most frightening minutes of all were those spent alone in the hallway unlocking the four locks on his door. This took only one or two minutes, though it always seemed much longer. The main lock was especially costly and had quite a special key. He often suspected this was where some killer would shoot him–as he fumbled with his keys at the door trying to open the last lock. Once inside, he re-fastened the four locks, then pushed home the two bolts, and finally attached the chain. Safe inside, he made his supper and then watched television. Whether he watched news or movies, it was always the same–war, murder, rape and robbery. He kept the lights low and the heavy curtains drawn. It was a dark apartment.

One night there was a knocking at the door. No one was expected. He never had unexpected visitors. He turned off the television and the lights and stood in terror on the other side of the door. He could see the shadow of someone standing in the hallway.

The knocking came again. He could hardly breathe. Then there was the sound of paper being pushed under the door, and steps away. He waited a few minutes and then turned on the light. On the floor was an envelope.

Let’s leave this story here and turn to our text. The Sadducees are questioning the authority of Jesus. They try to trick him. In the Law of Moses it says that if a man’s married brother dies childless, the man must marry the widow. If this repeats itself seven times, whose wife will the widow be at resurrection? The Sadducees knew what the law of levirate marriage commanded in the present world would create an inevitable violation of other laws in the world to come. Since Israel did not accept the marriage of one woman to several men at the same time, she must be either the wife of the first brother or of a later one. If one of the later husbands kept the woman, he would be violating the law that defines intercourse with the living brother’s wife as incest (Lev. 18.16). On the other hand, if the first husband took her back, this would violate the law forbidding the remarriage of a couple after the woman had been married to another man (Deut. 24.1-4). His opponents tried to trap Jesus into contradicting Israel’s highest authority.

Jesus responds in an instructive way. He recognizes this is a power struggle. He receives the energy of the question and works with it creatively. Levirate marriage provided for the orderly transfer of property. A wife, after all, was little more than that then. Jesus offers an answer that refuses to treat people as property. In so doing, he suggests there are gentle and skillful ways to use power that do not abuse others.

Repeatedly during his life Jesus had to deal with power. It was a continuing problem for him. Jesus understood power is also real. The challenge is how to deal with evil without becoming evil in the process. In this story and throughout his life he tries to train his followers in the gentle and skillful use of power so that they can do even greater things.

We have chosen fire as our image for God this season. It is a destructive force. Several Sundays ago some feared the flames from the candles the community lit might get out of control. Celebration Circle even had a fire extinguisher handy just in case. In spite of these fears, we seek to rekindle our flame because this destructive force also warms, heats, cooks and gives light. There is energy and creativity in flames. Their dance suggests power. So in spite, or perhaps even because, of its danger we choose this symbol trusting we can learn to moderate, channel and direct the energy of the Sacred in ways that are constructive.

To do so we must create organizations we believe in. We must find positive ways to be political. We must learn how to use power in ways that does not alienate others. Traditionally power is a police force term. It scares the pants off of us. It is what makes people comply with the rules. It controls undesirable behavior. It seeks to protect, to provide safety. Most of us grow up with an experience of power that has some of these dimensions.

To create better organizations we need to use power gently and skillfully. To do this we must learn three things: 1) power is always a problem; 2) power is neither bad nor good, it simply is; and 3) people need training in handling power. While I come to this subject with personal need, it is a topic important for many. My need may be greater than my wisdom; but perhaps in working together with this text our learning can exceed both.

Power is always a problem

Tears ran down my face as I listened to Roy preach two Sundays ago. Before the service Michael and Jessica did not want to come upstairs for the beginning of worship. We had a battle of wills. They came up reluctantly. Even though I was not abusive, and they complied, I felt defeated. I sat at the secretary’s desk trying to compose myself while worship started. Once in the service, Roy’s litany of abuse sent me deep within myself. I have not known the degree of abuse he described, but how to use power gently, skillfully so that it does not threaten or scare others is one of my issues.

Nearly a year ago I co-led a course on decision making in our School of Christian Living with Sonya Dyer. Teaching is a scary proposition for me, even more so when seven or eight of the community’s core members signed up to take the course. I received many responses from the experience, among them that I had a hidden agenda, engaged in top down teaching and manipulated others. Obviously I scared and alienated some people.

I suspect many of us are here because at some point in our life we experienced the abuse of power, perhaps in subtle forms, but often painfully as well. For some of us this includes experiences at home, for others at church and for all of us in society at large. Most of us know what it is like to be wounded and weak. Church of the Savior, as most Protestant congregations, is in part an attempt to respond creatively to the abuse of power.

Jesus obviously experienced power as a problem. Today’s text is a minor example. At the heart of our faith is an instrument of torture. The cross may speak to us of resurrection, but we dare not forget it was a death penalty. Rome did not reward rebels and rejects with lifetime prison sentences and rehabilitation efforts. They nailed them to trees and hung them to die. Part of what is attractive about Jesus is his ability to transform torture into treasure. Somehow this Galilean took abuse and managed to pray, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." His best miracle was not turning water into wine, but enmity into love.

It is risky to talk about these things as a white middle class male. Many abusers, many oppressors are white, middle class males. We live and worship in one of the most abusive countries in the history of the world. I am abusive with others in my life at times. I’m not proud of all the choices I’ve made. While I can attribute some of my mistakes to ignorance, I also know that a violent, angry, oppressor lives within me. When I read about experiments that document how people torture others because they are given orders to do so, I cringe. Not just because that is wrong. But because I know I am capable of the same given the right set of circumstances. Indeed, I don’t even need orders from others. I can be mean, ugly and nasty for no reason at all sometimes. I must acknowledge and embrace the abuser I at times am, while I discover and practice how not to be abusive.

It is interesting that today’s text mentions marriage. As the news too often reminds us, this is still a place of abuse for some. The reasons are different from those Jesus knew, but the realities are much the same. In spite of the fact we no longer expect our brothers to marry our childless widows, many people married to each other lack the skills necessary to remain friends. Julie will tell you she often has to remind me we are on the same team, not opponents. Even though I consider my second marriage a blessing, I’m amazed at how complicated it is to use power gently and skillfully in this context.

I want to suggest that power is a problem for Seekers as well. Not only are we engaged in a struggle about this building, but also we are not always happy about the way we treat each other. The ways in which we practice power are often not obvious to outsiders and strangers. More than one newcomer has run up against sharp and strong opposition. We often use power behind closed doors or in private. Some of us are so power hungry or power clumsy that we scare others at times. In our concern to redress power inequities we sometimes victimize the victimizers. The story of Jesus and the Sadducees takes us into familiar territory. Perhaps for that reason we can learn from it.

Power is

For far too long we have had a single view of power: it is bad and it demands a winner and a loser. For too long our view of power has been that it crucifies. We must be strong enough to make sure others are the losers. Now that the Cold War is over perhaps we can work with our idolatry of winning, of killing others, of being superior, of being abusive.
Imagine a beach scene with me. Ocean waves, powerful and majestic, incessantly break along the coastline. What did it take to create this awesome splendor? Power–interference patterns between land, wind, and water. Who lost in this conflict? The wind? The water? The land? Who won? Nature doesn’t see conflict as negative or positive. Nature uses conflict as a primary motivator for change.

Imagine floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Quiet water gives way to exhilarating rapids. Hidden canyons with shade trees and wildflowers. Clear springs of drinkable water. Imagine solitude and silence that can be found in few places. How was this amazing vista formed? Eon and eons of water flowing, continually wearing away the rock, carrying it to the sea, a conflict that continues to this day.

It may be important for us to broaden our understanding of power. There are decisions to make, feelings to share, and fears to work with. Our challenge is to work with the superior and aggressive parts of ourselves so that we can find better ways of using power. If we are to get beyond being abusive and being abused we need to work with this force in creative ways.

The first step is to stop seeing everything as a contest that must have a winner and a loser. Not long ago I participated in a workshop in Colorado. The trainer selected two volunteers of comparable size and strength. Each volunteer was to think of five goals or material possessions they would like to have but not express them aloud. The rules were as follows: The time limit of the match is thirty seconds. Each time one person brings his opponent’s arm to the table he will achieve one of his goals. Immediately the contestants are to bring their arms back to starting position and the match will commence again.

Both persons viewed the event as the usual arm wrestling contest. They strained and struggled to defeat each other, thinking this is the only way to win and thus achieve their goals. In the thirty seconds, there were usually one or two wins at most. Often there were none, just a great deal of strain and struggle.

Instead of using the adversarial "you or me" approach, this same contest is dramatically different when people work together. Within a few seconds the two participants, without struggle, going back and forth–first one partner’s arm down, then the other’s–put each other’s arm down ten times. They accept that power is; they view it as a gift of energy. Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right. To use power gently and skillfully we must acknowledge and appreciate differences, finding ways to use them that are beneficial to each person.

Power is not a contest. It just is. We choose whether to make it a contest, a game in which there are winners and loser. We are so patterned in our lives to think of conflict as contest that life becomes a big scoreboard. Winning has become very important for most of us. Everybody loves a winner. Our victories are ways of shopping for love. Even those of us who aren’t very competitive avoid losing. We tend to treat life like a big score sheet. Our need to win often takes precedence over resolving the conflict. It’s as if we need 10,000 points to get to heaven. So, we have to work really hard to be right and to win. After all, wouldn’t it be a catastrophe if we got to heaven’s gate with only 9,999 points?

People need training

This understanding of power is not simple, yet it is a skill we can practice. You probably have heard the story of two people who each wanted a single orange. Being fair-minded people, they finally divide the orange in half. The first person, sort of happy that he has half an orange, goes to his house, peels the orange, throws away the peel and eats the fruit. The second person, sort of happy that he has half an orange, goes to his house, peels the orange, throws away the fruit and uses the peel to bake a cake. Often times in life we are so intent on doing the "fair" thing that we don’t look at what we are really going for. We fail to see the possibility that there is enough for each to have everything he or she needs–the possibility that we can do more with less.

The best description of this process I know is William Ury’s Getting Past No. He gives five steps people need to practice. The first step is not to control the other person’s behavior. Control your own. Instead of getting mad or getting even, focus on getting what you want. Second, step to their side. Listen, acknowledge and agree with whatever you can. Third, reframe. Rather than trying to teach the other side, let the problem teach you both. Fourth, help others save face and make the outcome as much of a victory for both of you as possible. Finally use power to educate. Use power to bring people to their senses, not to their knees. This appeals to me because I am so inadequate at it.

When one sees conflicts as dances of energy, accepts them and blends with them, options and opportunities for successful resolution emerge simply and elegantly. Booker T. Washington, the great black educator who founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the 1880s, was once walking past the mansion of a very wealthy plantation owner. The white mistress of the household, not knowing him by sight, yelled out at him to chop some firewood. Professor Washington calmly threw off his coat, seized the nearby axe, cut a pile of wood and proceeded to carry it to the kitchen as requested. He smiled pleasantly at the plantation owner and went on his way. After he had gone one of the servant girls told the mistress, "That was Professor Washington." The following day, the embarrassed mistress went to Washington’s office to apologize. "It’s entirely alright, Madam," Washington responded, "I like to work and I’m delighted to do favors for my friends." In that moment Professor Washington created a true friend.

Sheldon Kopp has written a book about the paradoxes of personal power entitled Rock, Paper, Scissors. He ends it this way,

"My wish is only that my children might understand that personal power doesn’t come from trying to control external events and other people. A person cannot do what cannot be done. Life is not a matter to be managed. We have little influence over the outcome. Our only impact lies in how we live it. We didn’t ask for the responsibility of taking charge of ourselves, but it’s the only power to which we are entitled. And, in the end, no matter how well we have prepared, the moment belongs to God.

"From my position as patriarch, I suppose I could try enlightening our sons, their wives, and even our innocent grandchildren. I could take them aside separately, and instruct each one:

"At times your life will get out of control. There will be undeserved troubles, disappointments, illnesses and injuries. If it’s not one thing, it’s another! Some suffering cannot be helped. Complain all you like about how helpless you feel! That won’t work either.

"No matter how hard you try to live right, sometimes God will grant you a mess so unmanageable that it will seem impossible to endure. It can’t be helped. No matter how helpless you feel, it’s no use arguing with Him. For that matter, there’s no point in blaming anyone else. Even if it wasn’t you who made the mess, you’re the one who has to clean it up.

"Knowing my family, I can only expect that each of them would patiently hear me out. And then, with a cynical raise of an eyebrow and an ironic shrug of the shoulders, each would answer: You’re telling me!"

Can Seekers learn to use power gently and skillfully? Are there ways we can help each other acknowledge the places in our life where power is a problem? Are we willing to name our differences and work with them in ways that allow us transform enemies into friends? Can we pick up the pieces when one of us is abusive and turn torture into treasure? Are we willing to risk some hurt so that each of us might practice positive politics? Will we chance some fear or pain that others may practice how to use power in ways that don’t scare or alienate us?


Return now with me to our opening story. Remember the man with the door with four locks. He feared someone might kill him before he could open all of them. Once inside his apartment war, murder, rape and robbery continued to haunt him. And then came the unexpected knock. He could hardly breathe. Then there was the sound of paper being pushed under the door, and steps walking away. He waited a few minutes and then turned on the light. On the floor was an envelope, and in the envelope there was an unsigned Valentine card.

Too often we experience the darkness as anxiety, fear, loneliness and locked doors. We find ourselves all too ready to believe the worst of others and easily forget their redeeming qualities. On the other side of our locked door, there is someone standing in the light. Occasionally he delivers Valentine cards.

Power is always a problem. Power is. We can practice the gentle and skillful use of power. This practice may help us unlock our hearts, open our doors and rekindle the flame of our faith and commitment. One of God’s gifts to us is encouragement. This is simply the gift of courage, courage to open our hearts and perhaps our door as well, courage to gently and skillfully be powerful even in dangerous times and places.

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