From the Power of Control to the Power of Love

The greatest disparity that I perceive between what is currently happening in the political realm in America and my beliefs as a person committed to the Christian faith is conflicting views as to the meaning and exercise of “power.”

It appears to me that the view of power that pervades the political realm is that power means “control.” To cite but one example, I believe that the refusal of Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, to vote for an independent commission to investigate the events of January 6 is primarily motivated by fear that the results of such an investigation will weaken their quest to regain seats in Congress in 2022. The underlying premise is that regaining these seats will help Republicans to regain “control” of legislative outcomes.

Citing this example is not to suggest that only Republicans equate “power” with “control.” It appears to me that the primary motivation of many, but not all, politicians on both sides of the political aisle is to get elected and then re-elected and they will do whatever needs to be done to maintain their positions of control.

Such a view of power as “being in control” is completely antithetical to my understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith. I start with the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as recorded in Matthew 4:l1-11.

… the devil took him [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you Satan! for it is written ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (vs. 8-11).

Jesus rejected an amazing offer to be in “control.” And he went on to live a life characterized by love for others; teaching all those who aspire to be his followers to love others, even our enemies (John 15:12; Matthew 5:43).

At first glance the example of Jesus appears to be the epitome of “powerlessness.” Where did this focus on loving others get Jesus? His enemies crucified him.

But another perspective is that in rejecting the exercise of “power as control,” Jesus inaugurated a movement that has given countless examples of love for others for centuries. To be sure, those who claim to follow Jesus have, as finite and fallible humans, all too often engaged in unloving activities, including those Christians in the present American political realm who have tried to gain power, in the form of control. But, despite these flaws in living out the call of Jesus for his followers to love others, the ideal is clear: Our claims to be followers of Jesus must be lived out by our loving others. This call to love others points us toward a new kind of power, the “power of love.”

But the unanswered question then looms: How do you give expression to the “power of love” in the current American political realm? Those who are readers of my website know my answer: You create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with you on any contentious public policy issue to express that disagreement; followed by respectful conversation about your disagreements toward the goal of finding common ground. That is my answer because providing such a safe and welcoming space is a deep expression of love (You don’t love someone who you have silenced).

How well have Republicans and Democrats exemplified this “respectful conversation” ideal? My response distinguishes between deliberations of small groups of members of Congress and deliberations within the full House or Senate.

It appears that small groups of politicians have been able to create safe and welcoming spaces for having respectful conversations about important public policy matters, with the potential for  encouraging results. One example is that ten republicans and ten Democrats have agreed on the framework for a potential bipartisan bill regarding infrastructure. Although they may not use this word, these politicians were “loving” each other when they provided the safe and welcoming space for respectful conversation that enabled them to uncover some common ground.

But what will come of the results of this small group conversation when a bill reflecting their respectful conversation comes to Congress for voting? As of this writing two infrastructure bills are being considered:  a bipartisan bill that focuses on “hard infrastructure” (e.g., roads, bridges, broadband); and a bill on infrastructure that provides “soft infrastructure” (e.g., addressing climate change and providing child care) that could pass in the Senate with only Democratic votes by means of the Reconciliation process. It is not presently clear whether these two bills can be passed “in tandem” or whether they need to be voted on in sequence (with hard infrastructure coming first).

But assuming that a bipartisan bill on hard infrastructure comes to Congress for consideration,  the huge problem is what happens to such a bill in a larger legislative body. This problem is not new. For example, in 2013 a bipartisan “gang of eight” proposed a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that died in the House, which bore witness to the fact that in small groups, in contrast to large groups, it is possible to build a level of mutual trust and understanding that is a prerequisite for uncovering some common ground.

In other words, I believe that bills proposed by small bipartisan groups of politicians typically die when they come to the House or Senate because the procedures used in these larger legislative bodies do not measure up to the ideal of creating safe and welcoming spaces for having respectful conversations about bills proposed by the smaller groups of conversationalists. Such bills proposed by these smaller bodies regarding infrastructure (and voting rights and police reform) face huge obstacles when they come to the Senate in light of Mitch McConnell’s assertion that he will be “100% focused on stopping Biden’s administration.” And the way that McConnell has chosen to implement his focus is to not talk about disagreements. As one pundit has put it, “If Mitch McConnell doesn’t like it, then we [Republicans] won’t talk about it.” A refusal to talk about disagreements effectively silences those who disagree with you, which is a terrible thing to do. And the likelihood that such refusal by Republicans to even talk about disagreements will continue is predictable in light of the egregious recent death in the Senate of legislation that only proposed that Republicans and Democrats debate (talk about) potential voting rights legislation.

So, the voices guided by defining power in terms of “control” work against my hope for respectful conversations about disagreements. What to do? As I hint at in a previous Musing (Politeness is Not Enough …), steps must be taken to refine procedures in the House and Senate that will create safe and welcoming spaces for such respectful conversations. At a minimum, steps must be taken to restore the practice of filibustering to conform to its original intent to provide an adequate ”voice” to the minority, in sharp contrast to its present use of stifling conversation (possibly moving back to what has been called a “talking filibuster”).

Because of Mitch McConnell’s commitment to obstructionism that precludes creating safe and welcoming spaces for respectful conversations about proposed public policy bills, I propose that Democrats, in conversation with Republicans, need to take steps to refine the procedures of the House and Senate that will enable Republicans and Democrats to talk to one another, fostering the ideal for respectful conversations that I have proposed,  as a deep expression of love. If they are able to do so, that achievement will testify to the “power of love.”

I can almost hear the loud moans of disbelief on the part of some, or many readers regarding my proposal that the procedures of the House and Senate need to be changed to facilitate respectful conversations; “Harold, you are living in an unreal la-la land; politics will always be about the “power of control,’ not the ‘power of love” that you embrace because of your Christian faith.”

I have two responses to such understandable criticism.

First, I advocate for political procedures that emphasize the “power of love,” in sharp contrast to the “power of control,” not because I believe my advocacy will be successful. My advocacy is based on my commitment to “doing the right thing” in light of my understanding that the “power of love” is central to my Christian faith commitment. I dare to plant this tiny seed of redemption, leaving the issue of success, or not, in God’s hands (Matthew13: 31-32).

Secondly, for those who criticize me for trying to impose my Christian beliefs on a pluralistic American culture, I dare to suggest that the focus that I place on the “power of love” is not unique to those who aspire to be followers of Jesus. I believe that all human beings, whatever their religious or secular world view commitments, are meant to love others rather than control others, I would welcome a culture-wide conversation on whether this is a central aspect of our shared humanity.

2 replies
  1. Carlo
    Carlo says:

    Politics is about control over power structures, so even if pacifists somehow gained a monopoly on power, they would find themselves holding a nuclear-tipped, imperial police state run amok by the tail, and what could they do then? Internal and external threats are real. Chaos would come. The only exit to less obsession with control is through pain, loss, and mass destruction — ideally on a planetary scale so there are no winners. Then it would become easy to renounce power and control — things one no longer has or can hope to take. This is always how it goes with empires. The species has certainly cooperated with Providence by crushing the carrying capacity of the planet and making the biosphere veer toward a near future where very few people may be able to survive. Maybe they will be forced to cooperate.

    Reply
  2. Rein Vanderhill
    Rein Vanderhill says:

    Christ’s example of un-conditional love is counter intuitive to human thinking and behavior of self preservation and control. It is rare person that willingly puts themselves in a vulnerable position in a relationship with another. When it is done, those individuals are confident and comfortable to have their thoughts and ideas questioned and challenged and are not afraid of change. But this is particularly rare in individuals institutional power and control over the material wellbeing of others. “Power corrupts’ applies here.
    It is unlikely that those who seek power in politics would ever succeed in getting elected if they present vulnerability and are open to changing their mind. Even in the institutions of some Christian churches there is a hierarchy of power and control that overwhelms Christ like love of another.

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