The Church and Power

In September last year, The Warehouse hosted Mzwandile Nkutha of the Anabaptist Network of South Africa, and Stuart Murray of the Anabaptist Network in the UK for an evening centred around power and theology. The ideas and discussions that emerged from this evening have given me much to reflect on in the months since. These are some of those reflections…

A critical understanding of history is essential if we are to correctly read the present. As the church, this is no different. So many of the ways in which the church functions in the world today relate to historical circumstances and shifts. We are powerless to reimagine different ways of being as long as we are unaware of our histories and the roots of our various traditions.

Perhaps the most important historical turning point of the church was Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. What had begun as a radical and subversive movement on the margins of society, now became the religion of the powerful, enforced with power from the centre.

Something Stuart said has stuck with me and given me endless food for thought; ‘The church is at its best when it is the prophetic minority’.

The church in Jesus’ time was the prophetic minority. This God-Man from Nazareth — healing people on the Sabbath, touching people considered unclean, critiquing the powerful — and his rag-tag band of followers made up of sex-workers, fishermen and tax collectors, crowds of the sick looking for healing, the possessed looking for freedom and the curious looking for some truth. A community on the margins finding purpose, value and friendship, and in so doing, presenting a threat to the powers that are fully aware of what might happen when those told they are worthless begin to find worth.

The church of Acts was a prophetic minority. A community on the margins that was welcoming to all. A community convinced that the gospel should look like selflessly caring for one another so that everyone has what they need, and in so doing, presenting a threat to the powers that are fully aware of their dependence on the desperation of those in need.

A prophetic minority.

However, the church has a long history of being the non-prophetic majority, comfortable in its position of power, desperately in need of critique itself. For this position of un-critiqued power is perhaps the most dangerous position of all.

It can result in things like the doctrine of discovery, with which colonisation is justified because land is deemed unoccupied for the ‘discoverer’ has deemed indigenous people as less than human and in need of ‘development’.

It can result in missionaries that completely dismiss the spirituality of those they are trying to ‘convert’, and use force, manipulation and coercion to make them reject who they are and their communities, and turn them into cookie cutter versions of themselves- although never quite becoming fully human in their eyes.

It can result in a church where we speak about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and use our power to spin narratives about certain people groups making them out to be unworthy of love and care unless they turn from their ways and join us- in which case they must be indoctrinated fully into our ways before we will give them a voice.

As the church today so often we find ourselves in the position of the powerful majority. Yet because we have not recognised our position and critiqued it, we continue to persecute and marginalise while claiming that we are the persecuted and marginalised. Our un-critiqued power is harmful to the world.

‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ Philippians 2:5-8

Jesus recognised his power, and he emptied himself of it, becoming a servant. What will it look like for us as the church to become aware of the power that we carry in society, and then to empty ourselves of it and become servants? What will it look like to once again take up the mandate of the prophetic minority?

We are at our best when we are the prophetic minority, operating in the kind of love that puts the needs of others before our own. From this place we can critique power because we have found our value outside of it and it has no hold on us. We can call out the religious when they do the things that look good on paper while ‘neglecting justice and the love of God’ (Luke 11:35). We can call out the temple when it becomes a centre for profitmaking. We can call out those in power who exploit the vulnerable and profit off of others’ loss.

And we can call ourselves followers of Jesus- the Jesus of the people.

(First published in the Anabaptist Network in South Africa’s newsletter which can be accessed here)

By Thandi Gamedze

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