Something Rene August often says is “You can’t confront the powers that you cannot see, and you cannot see the powers that you are benefiting from.” In a society that is still a long way from equal, those powers take on many different shapes and forms. However, one thing is constant; when unacknowledged, power most often has the effect of marginalising those without it.
But that never has to be the end of the story. This is one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the person of Jesus. In many ways Jesus was a marginalised person in his time. He was a Jew in the reign of the Roman empire. He was a Nazarene when ‘nothing good comes from Nazareth’. He was the son of a poor carpenter. Yet simultaneously Jesus was male in a highly patriarchal society. He was a compelling speaker and teacher. And we cannot forget that he was also the Son of God.
Yet in every encounter that Jesus finds himself in, it seems that he intentionally makes an assessment of the power dynamics present, and then takes steps to balance out the power in order for an authentic interaction to take place. At times, this looks like humbling the powerful, and at others, like creating platforms for those on the margins.
My Dad recently invited me to relook at the story of the woman at the well, highlighting some of the movements of power within this fascinating interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. As a male Jew, Jesus comes into this interaction with the balance of power weighing heavily in his favour, but throughout the story we see the many steps that he takes to even this out. Firstly, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the woman by expressing his need for water. In this particular instance, Jesus becomes the powerless one as he has a need for water but no means of accessing it, while the woman becomes powerful because she has the means to access water and now finds herself in the position where she gets to decide whether Jesus can have some or not.
Following this, Jesus then draws the woman in to deeper conversation through a mysterious comment about living water, showing that he is actually interested in authentic interaction, and this is not simply about him getting what he needs from her. A third way that Jesus seeks to disrupt the uneven power dynamics is through his recognition and subsequent shattering of the woman’s shame regarding her relationship status. Recognising that shame carries huge power to keep people feeling small and silenced, Jesus simply comes out with his knowledge of her situation, in so doing showing her that it does not make him see her as any less worthy of being invited into an intimate encounter with him that would go on to change her life and that of her community. There is so much more to that story, and I encourage you to explore it further with some people who perhaps don’t share your position in society, whatever that may be.
Jesus shows us time and time again that the position in which we find ourselves in society does not need to be the end of our story. When we become aware of power, we open up the possibility of challenging it. As power is very difficult to see when you are benefiting from it, most often the way that we become aware of it is by listening to those without it. Men, you may not realise some of the ways that women feel marginalised in the church and in society if you do not listen to their experiences. White people, you may not realise the ways in which racism remains present in society if you do not listen to people of colour. People with financial security, you will never understand the realities faced by those without if you do not listen to their stories. This is part of the work that we are called into as Jesus followers.
The powers that deify some and dehumanize others, remove us all from what we were created to be; beloved children of God, made in the image of the Great Creator, and placed into family. My prayer is that we would begin to become aware of the powers at play in every encounter we see or participate in, and like Jesus, have the wisdom and the bravery to challenge them where necessary.
By Thandi Gamedze