Posted by: rogermitchell | April 20, 2010

Constituent power!

I am increasingly convinced that the best way to understand the function of the ecclesia in the world is as a manifestation of constituent power as distinct from constituted power. This takes us into a controversial but very important topic which may seem unduly theoretical to some visitors to this blog but is worth trying to get your head round. In simple terms constituent power is whatever power anyone can muster for themselves without creating a structured  organisational base. Constituted power refers to those structured forms of power to which constituent power is generally subject and in a democracy is seen as permissioning.  I am not here demonising all such forms of constituted power, but am making the point that human freedom in Christ  is free from ultimate subjection to constituted power. The discussion of how these forms of power operate and whether it is ever really possible to exercise constituent power free from all constituted control has been strongly influenced over recent years by the concept of the state of exception. This idea refers to the power to suspend constituted rules and boundaries and demand absolute obedience in circumstances such as a state of emergency. This applies in the limited context of family, school, hospital or business and to the wider context of city, nation or global community. The person or persons who have the capacity to wield such power are fundamentally in charge, they hold sovereign power.  This power, it may be argued, trumps constituent power and is the reason that ultimate freedom is unobtainable.

In much traditional theology it has generally been held that God is the final source of constituted power and the one who ultimately holds the power of the exception. In the kenotic theology that I am developing and regard as true to the originary gospel testimony [alongside others who take parallel or differing views], the cross reveals God as surrendering the power of the exception with two extraordinary consequences substantiated by the resurrection. The first is that ultimate power is demonstrated as self-giving love, and the second is that this power of the exception is made available by the Holy Spirit to the whole human race. I argue that this means that the power of the exception is equivalent to taking up the cross and dying daily. From this perspective the ecclesia are those people who having received the gift of God’s laid down life, regard the way of the cross as prior to and having precedence before all other forms of power. While they see the practical usefulness of limited forms of constituted power for the service and protection of the gift of creation and gifted humanity within it, the default to which all of these give place, is the life laid down in love.  So while we the ecclesia live our lives in a world of constituted power, our purpose and calling is to make decisions and take actions that flow from, and are oriented to, a continual kenosis which Jesus uniquely disclosed. It follows that the greatest emergencies that we are empowered by constituted power to confront will be the moments in which we pour it out in the constituent power of the cross.

I have deliberately not clarified all this with illustrations beyond the ultimate true myth of the cross. This is because I wanted to keep the main points simple and clear so that a serious discussion can ensue. Practical illustrations will hopefully follow in the comments that come and my own responses to them. Let’s shake the trees with this one!



  1. Roger: I like it. However, I think we need to separate leadership (frequently needful in many circumstances at least for a time) from power. Or perhaps this is the same thing as your division between constituent and constituted power. I’m kind of thinking out loud here. If, as a person I can have enough authority in a given situation to lead that is entirely different from having something that is institutionalized and justifies my position of power despite any real leadership abilities or the circumstances that require it. Certainly constituent power is constantly tested. If you cannot provide the needed leadership, someone else will step in. So perhaps this explanation actually deals with the issue of leadership/followership which is generally necessary for any kind of human endeavors involving more than two people while relieving us of the problems of institutionalizing such power. However, as I am reading some fabulous Italian history today I also can’t help thinking of the power struggles in the 13th-16th centuries as various actors sought to have power in north Italy. Perhaps the problem there is that they also sought to obtain constituted power. Lots to think about as we learn to discern what we are truly seeing in the world around us. c.

  2. Roger: this looks like an example of constituent power around the issue of climate change vs. the constituted power of big countries. c.

  3. Hmmm. I have ongoing questions about this language (surprise, surprise, i hear you cry!).

    How does constituent power not become constituted if it wins? Surely kenosis deconstructs the very ideas of constituted and constituent power? Aren’t you really saying that God plays by different rules in which all power (constituent or constituted) which is selfish is to be refused? Beyond that, access to either power brings responsibility to empty it by dealing kenotically with it? Otherwise this is just fancy language for the morality of small guy versus big guy (which is too simplistic, non?).

    • I don’t see why constituent power necessarily becomes constituted power. What is meant by winning in this context? If it means is that constituted power can never overcome constituent power, can never win, never become absolute, never determine the domination of the powerful then what’s the theoretical problem. Let’s keep worrying at this one please because it is basic to kenosis as I see it so far. I’m up for changing ground, but let’s tease out the semantic issues first in case we both agree but are misunderstanding one another’s use of words. And please other people join in on this! I am currently about to read Antonio Negri on Insurgencies where he digs deep on this, so hopefully it will help.

      • The question is really about the nature of power. The (Negri-esque) approach above basically views a good (constituent) power and a bad (constituted) power. I see no inherent distinction as power is always a violation of another person/thing in some way. What we are left with is a question of justice: when people oppress, do the oppressed have a moral justification or obligation to seek liberation. The Marxist approach of Negri says yes and devises the distinction of the 2 types of power you’re discussing to provide a moral framework. I would address the question of justice differently, based on your theology of kenosis.

        If all power is inherently violating, the kenotic God can have no part in it, except that he will continually empty himself of it. Making it a gift is so against the order of power that it transforms it into a force for love and life. The resurrection demonstrates this.

        The question of justice (what do we do about injustice?) is then framed in terms of responsibility (to whom much is given much is required) and what we choose to do with the power that we have. No-one has special ‘good’ power status. But then, unlike Negri, we have no need of it because of our faith in the resurrection. The giving of our lives in love will bring down the powers.

        [Having said all that, I do get how you can superimpose your theology onto Hardt and Negri’s thinking for the purposes of your thesis but I am massively sceptical of approaches which fail to critique power for what it is inherently – not just its more obvious manifestations. that’s my beef with Marxism of all varieties. But you have a thesis to complete and I suspect you can make this get you to where you want to go.]

  4. Stephen: I really like your analysis. But that leaves me with a struggle with both you and Roger. I study evolutionary biology and psychology. It is clear, that in order to get things done that require doing – at a basic hunter/gatherer level something like organizing a hunting party – someone has to lead and others have to follow, at least for a time. That means the group has given power to an individual (in some manner, for some time) and has agreed to follow his/her leadership. Leadership can be manifested in a number of ways but it is still necessary in order for humans – social critters that we are – to achieve things. As we are a grouping/social animal it is somewhat inevitable that this kind of leadership/followership occurs. So are we to be more like bees or bears, the question I had for my students in courses on the environment. Depending upon their context and sociality bees and bears exhibit different levels and types of leadership and followership.

    Which leads me to some of what has been missing in this whole discussion – that of context. Human beings exhibit different behaviours based on their contexts. Different leadership styles appear based on density and scale of living arrangements and abundance of natural resources. Ever practical me – I want to know how all of what is being proposed works on the ground because otherwise it is just abstract theorizing and not worth much to a practical person like me. Someone has to clean the toilets and someone has to organize sanitation, water supply, and sustainable food production as just a few of the basic tasks in a human community. Governance at its root is problem solving. If the current governance fails to solve problems then they get booted out in an election or by revolution, or they implode on their own. But that still leaves problems to solve. How do we do that as human beings?

  5. Thank you Stephen, thank you Cheryl, for taking this subject up. As I have said I believe it to be very important and one way of getting to the heart of the issues of the gospel in relation to life and the universe! I hope others will also join in. As I see it there are two issues in particular that we need to tease out, the one being the nature of power and the other the manner of its use. Power IS and it is impossible to DO without it. In order to keep the discussion alive I will take the further thoughts that I want to develop at this point into a new blog post over the course of today or tomorrow

  6. Roger: one more thought on power – what it is and how it is used. I was thinking last night about the strong lobbies of political power around power generation that at this point prevent the world from moving forward in response to climate change – specifically the folks selling fossil fuels and I would also include the folks selling nuclear power (which they somehow rebranded and sold as being ‘green’).

    It struck me that power attracts power. So that got me thinking about what power is. Power, in terms of energy is the ability to do work. Historically the ability to control that energy has been crucial to having power over others. It began with slavery (the control of others’ labour which was the only power available other than fire) and now extends through to fossil fuels, nuclear power, electrical generation etc. There is something there that needs to be thought about as I think it is important.

    It also made me think about power in the future – and how does one do that within a matrix of kenarchy. One possible means, if we intend to keep the lights on and the internet running, is to decentralize power production through solar, wind and geothermal. Take the control and power away from the powerful (full of power) and give it to everyone. It is difficult for anyone to control the sun or the wind but they can control some of the means of production for harvesting that power.

    Who ever controls the energy/power for modern life controls modern life and has power over it. Lots of folks like to see the Internet as the maker of a democratic future – but whoever controls the power switch controls the Internet and can pull the switch at any time to limit democratic reform and communication.

    That’s what was flowing through my mind last night. And indeed, I think, as ever in practical terms, it is something to think on a bit more.

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