• Helen

Power - hard or soft?

Three things happened this week that made me think about power - soft power and hard power.

  1. Mike wrote a brilliant (in my unbiased opinion!) open letter comparing the power of poetry and the power of policy in the life of the church. It was published on a site where criticisms from armchair critics are two a penny on the matter of church policy. Numbers of comments can rise to three figures within hours of an article’s publication on this site. After 4 days, Mike’s article has received 5 comments! The softer spiritual power wielded by the insights of poetry, it seems, is of little interest to readers concerned with ‘hard’ church politics.

  2. I was offered a formal position in our local church which would give me the ‘hard’ power to organise and construct worship - an activity which I love and have enjoyed doing for many years. But the position would also give me a weighty responsibility. I have enough weighty responsibilities already. Wishing I could find a way to help which would allow me to give the time I really want to give but not overburden me, I turned down the offer. With a sad heart, I mused on how the church might organise itself based on the ‘soft’ power of people’s willingness to do what they can rather than according to ‘hard’ corporate top-down structures which lay heavy burdens on sometimes too-willing shoulders.

  3. I had a conversation about Brexit in the sauna - where my fellow bathers and I regularly put the world to rights. ‘The problem with Brexiteers,’ said my conversation partner, ‘is that they want to return to the world where the British Empire coloured the world pink. They don’t realise that all we have now is ‘soft’ power. And they could move the country on much further by using that.’

I must be honest and admit that I am a ‘political junky’. I am fascinated by the exercise of ‘hard’ power in the world and in the church. I scrutinise the personalities, and the twists and turns of national and international politics. The tension between the ‘front stories’ told in official press releases and the ‘back stories’ uncovered by good investigative reporting and informed commentary make intriguing viewing and reading. What is really going on? Trying to see who really does have their hands on the levers of power, seeking to identify real moral leadership and to discern the ‘signs of the times’ is an absorbing activity.

But, as a Christian, I become more and more convinced that ‘hard’ power is not the primary way in which God works - either in the world or in the church. Many of us would like to believe that God sits ‘above’ the world like a puppeteer, pulling one arm here and kicking another backside there so that ‘the will of God’ is seen to be dramatically done. There may be some of that. But, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I can find little evidence of an attempt to structure a kingdom based on little more than the ‘soft power’ of loving trust, of friendship and mutuality. And when Peter and the other disciples tried to persuade Jesus to play by the rules of ‘powers that be’, they got very short shrift. ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ In the days of the early church, the people who were exercising formal, more brutal or more financially based power were not among the believers. And if, like Simon Magus, they tried to be, they were told ‘your heart is not right before God’(Acts 8.21).

Except at election time, most of us have very little access to the levers of hard power in the wider world. Then, and whenever else we can, we should use our power wisely to promote justice. But all of us can exercise the ‘soft’ power of loving acceptance of ourselves and others - in our families, in our workplaces and in the wider world. And when we do, who knows what the outcomes might be?

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