Posted by: rogermitchell | April 28, 2010

more on power

Thank you Stephen, thank you Cheryl, for taking up the subject of power. 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! Come on the rest of you surf and clickers! We need more light here. 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. So a few points follow on both issues:

1. Power either as capacity or exercise is involved in every action as far as I can understand it. These expressions in the original New Testament Greek are exousia and dunamis. I don’t see how it necessarily disadvantages or detracts from the power of others by its use.  It is neither necessarily good or bad as I regard it. It can empower or disempower those on the receiving end or in its path. But I am uneasy about describing it as essentially neutral. It is hard to envisage experiencing power neutrally because power actively does things.

2. It is with respect to the use of power to do things that I have found the terms constituent power and constituted power helpful. I don’t see it as constituent power good, constituted power bad. Either can be used for good or bad ends. I agree that a limited expression of constituted power is often necessary for getting things done. My problem is with generalised or universal expressions of such power within structures, organisations, governments or nations. Then they can trump constituent power and rob us of our freedom. This is why I talk in the previous post about constituent power preceding constituted power or constituted power giving way to constituent power through the cross as the power of the exception.

more anon …



  1. I was thinking about how God really changed me by experiencing his power over the years before I looked at this blog so I thought this might help.

    When I look back it was when I first met you and Sue and you prophesied over me and something amazing happened in me. I received a fullness of the Spirit which I could experience at any time and taught me how to pray, prophecy and see things in a new way.

    I then started having amazing experiences of his Fire from the North. But never really experienced it much in local church. After moving back home I really dried up for a while but two summer ago 4 of us really experience what I call Fire from the North for most of the summer but again it didn’t happen much in organised church meetings. At the end of the season two of them move to Glasgow and one is in New Zealand at the moment and I have moved as well.

    But the Fire an power is still here when I am open so what’s going on. My view at the moment is that God is doing amazing things all the time and we need to get aligned. His power is to fulfil his will so it seems like he connects you with people for a season and he will burn off sin, reignite passion, bring renewed vision and then send you out to fulfil the destiny in him. There is no room for control or insecurity cause God’s always got something bigger in mind.

    I love the bit in Samuel were Saul meets the prophets and starts to prophecy. It help me to make sense of what God was doing in me but I had missed this verse till to day. 1 Sam 10 v 6 The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you with power and you will prophecy with them:and you will be changed into a different person.

  2. Thank you so much Cecil for making this connection quite without awkwardness. For this is my whole point in raising these, to some, seemingly theoretical questions about the nature and operation of power. As Jesus said “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” For those of us who have experienced this, particularly as a result of three generations of moves of the Spirit climaxing in a variety of overwhelming baptisms and sensations of the fullness of power, the crunch question is what is the nature of this power and what is it for? The typical approach of the church over the years has been to try and appropriate it for its own growth, success and multiplication, in other words to increase its own constituted power. The emphasis has often been on intense experiences of the presence of God in meetings and dramatic signs and wonders and healings that affirm particular churches and ministries. However if the power of the Holy Spirit is primarily the constituent power of the life laid down given to each of us so that we can pour out whatever gifts we have, carpentry, hospitality, medicine, cleaning, music, design or whatever to serve and release others to grow up into the same loving lifestyle wherever they are positioned in the world then its a whole different ball game! When people get healed, delivered from demons, meet the living Christ in that context then they become part of the living body of Christ, not a constituted power base dominating and directing one another’s lives. Rather their lives laid down constantly contribute to the inevitable deconstruction of such power bases whether religious or secular because they are exceptions to the rule!

  3. It is amazing how the Holy Spirit has got the church to the place were many of us are whole enough to be called out into pouring our lives out were we are living and working without needing to be so attached to a constituted power structure. The freedom of being instead of attending is amazing. How can God realise his Kingdom without a box is a wonder. Maybe we don’t need to know what it looks like and just be and do it. At the thought of this I now feel very insecure and want to find a new box to hide in!!!!

  4. Rog,

    Can we perhaps draw a distinction between the ‘power’ of physics that is at work in us being able to exist and move (and which is equally at work in such things as electricity) and the ‘power’ of philosophy which is about our ability to control the world around us? Otherwise, I for one am going to get massively confused!

    The former is obviously nothing to do with right and wrong. The latter is much more problematic and certainly not morally neutral. Controlling the world around us alters other people and things as a result of our will and that is what brings morality into play. Is it defensible that I get others to do what I want them to do by using social apparatuses of control like persuasive argument or violence? Is it defensible that we get to increase our power by destroying the natural world or marginalising minorities or those with little power?

    What we tend to want is some codified way of addressing these questions. The traditional route is to establish moral absolutes: “thou shalt not kill”, for example. But these do not really help us address the more insidious forms of dominance which we might call ‘abuses’ of power. The Enlightenment prompts a desire for ideas of rights or of law-like logic to weigh the relative power of one versus another. All of these appeals to universalism are themselves a(n) (ab)use of power that favours the status quo, which makes them unsatisfactory (or, at best, provisional) for me.

    This language of constituent/constituted seems to be doing something similar by defining a boundary. On the one (constituent) side, no-one’s control over their environment is too egregious (mostly because it is not the centre of political gravity) and this ‘power’ is full of potential. On the other (constituted) side, social control is structuralised and apparently harder to displace, although it is relying on momentum. This boundary is as problematic for me as the idea of rights because it serves a mainly descriptive function without really engaging with the morality of power itself. I’m not really sure what usefulness it has then, other than the use to which Negri put it which was to provide a kind of framework in which ‘Empire’ appears strong but can be overcome and the ‘Multitude’ appears weak but could achieve liberation if it would but realise its potential. Sounds good, but again, isn’t this just complicated language for the obvious claim that ‘the little guy has the potential to achieve liberation from the big guy’ rather than a serious theory of power?

    To come back to theology then – where I still believe you have a better theory of power than this language permits, I’m not sure you’re saying that the ecclesia will achieve liberation from the abusive powers through its own power (constituent or otherwise). Surely, you’re saying that the ecclesia will manifest the (kenotic) ‘power’ of God (a wholly ‘other’ – paradoxical – power) in the world which will, taken to its conclusion, nullify all abuses of power everywhere?

    And so to bed. 🙂

    • Thanks Stephen, I tend to wait with bated breath for your responses precisely because they help me identify what for me are ontological issues – the nature of existence itself including God’s (for those who are unsure about the word). So your comments raise several big issues for me. The first is that I don’t find the distinction you make between physics and philosophy helpful in distinguishing between different kinds of power. I’m not sure that there really is such a distinction. It’s all still power. I’m happier with categorising natural forms of power and the human use of such forms. I grant that this adds the potential of human physiological, linguistic, mental, cultural and sexual power, but it does not make an ontological distinction between natural and human power. It follows that I challenge the idea that natural forms of power have nothing to do with right and wrong. When lightening strikes a child in a field or an earthquake kills scores of thousands I call that wrong. But I can explain it in terms of the fall where humanity in partnership with the devil agreed an ontological shift in direct contradiction to God and dislocated themselves from the creation and in so doing from the properly purposeful use of power. Which brings me to your crucial parting bedtime statement about the power of God being a wholly other paradoxical power. This is something I just don’t get. In the light of the creation story and then the incarnational story there is no longer anything so wholly other or paradoxical about God as I see it. Glorious, extraordinary, heart-melting yes. But making and remaking us in his image by the power of kenotic love. It is from this perspective that I find the terms constituent and constituted power helpful. I am using constituted power to refer to those temporary or conditional uses of power that help us to get things done like naming types of animals so we can refer to them and relate to them appropriately or forming a nation like Israel and giving them the ten commandments for the recovery of fallen human beings. But then using constituent power to refer to the outflow of kenotic love itself that it is the purpose of the constituted and necessarily limited, bounded forms of power to restore us to. The very fact that constituted power requires someone to have the power to suspend it, the power of the exception, to give it its authority demonstrates its temporality and conditionality. The way that God makes this the cross, the life laid down, affirms the precedence of constituent power, his unstoppable mercy and love, a creative stream of power that as his redeemed creatures we can all share.

      • Interesting stuff and difficult to know where to take it without extended commentary but I’ll try to be brief.

        (1) The difference between ‘natural’ and ‘human/social’ power

        I really don’t follow this “it’s all still power” argument. There is a massive difference between (i) the energy (‘natural power’) released in the molecules of the muscles I use when I speak and (ii) the (human/social) ‘power’ of my will as I determine what it is that I am going to say and why and which then controls the energy in my being and potentially gets others to do what I want. The second cannot happen without the first, for sure, but they are not of the same order. So I’m intrigued by your lightning and earthquake examples. That I might consider them wrong in the sense of being unfair to human life does not necessarily make them immoral. Tragic, affronting, terrible, yes. But morally wrong? What of questions of will or of culpability? How would you deal with the parallel issue of my unintentional killing of millions of bacteria, viruses, insects etc. by my raw movements and bodily functions? These things are only the same as what I called the power that philosophy deals with if both raw energy and will (to power) are present. I see no requirement for (raw energy) power to be purposeful and I need a much better justification for deciding when it’s wrong.

        [Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the ongoing tragedy of the creation for me is symptomatic of the autoimmunity that has entered it]

        (2) The difference between ‘human/social’ power and ‘God’s/kenotic’ power

        Of course God’s power is ‘other’ to the power that proliferates in this world. I do not mean transcendent because I think that’s misleading. Neither do I mean they are fundamentally separate ontological categories. Things within this world are wholly ‘other’ to one another. The gift is wholly other to the robbery. The robbery is not wholly other to the murder. Again, I’m drawing the same necessary distinction between physical composition and identity. Identity requires physical energy etc., but it is not determined by it. So God’s power is wholly other to the power ‘of the world’. In the same way, the ecclesia is becoming wholly other to society (in substance of identity/will etc. and not in terms of energy/social structure etc.). It’s not a first order ontological division but a modification of orientation. This otherness of the incarnate Jesus is what means we must change. Otherness is all about the potential for sameness! [or alterity deconstructs into intersubjectivity, to be more arcane] Interestingly, probably all attempts to make the ‘church’ or God separate from the world have made us/him more like it. This is not otherness.

        I’m enjoying teasing out the issues also, particularly insofar as our apparent difference is all about the sameness. 🙂

  5. Thanks. This helps me understand better where you are coming from. But I still don’t see the power of nature and human power as of a totally different different order or think moral categories apply to one not the other. I regard natural power and human power as outflows of God’s power. I don’t see any real problem in applying moral judgments to any manifestation of power if it seems relevant and helpful to do so.
    On the subject of ‘wholly otherness’ it helps to know that you don’t mean that in a transcendent or ontological sense. But I confess I can’t see in that case how helpful it is as a description of God’s power or as a means of discriminating between different uses of power. Robbery is generally bad and the opposite to a gift, but not always as in the case with the probably mythical Robin Hood.
    Given what you rightly identify as our apparent disagreement being all about sameness I’m wondering whether what we are encountering in each other here is different categories of thought/ ways of thinking. I have always had a problem with systematic theoretical thought because it comes across to me as presenting a disempowering mathesis. This definitely originates from my working class background which I am partly grateful for. But the education system generally felt that it had been deliberately invented for our disadvantage. So my approach to knowledge has always been primarily personal and intuitive. Hence my liking for constituent power and my suspicion and rejection of constituted power if it takes precedence. Basically I perceive systematic knowledge as the universal application of constituted power. I know that you are not using it in that way but it might explain my difficulty with some of the categories you use and yours with some of mine!

    • Well, I’ve never been positioned as a systematic thinker before! My raîson d’être is the upsetting of the centre ground. Actually, I think I go further on this question of power/knowledge. With Foucault, I say that all claims to truth are claims to power. So, whether mathesis, systematisation, logic or personal/intuitive, it’s all about a will to truth/power. But obviously happy to live with the difference in terms of how we view knowledge (epistemology) – I just thought there was a glimmer of common ground on that also.

      One important correction: my hurried examples in relation to ‘otherness’ were probably not the most helpful. Otherness is absolutely, categorically not about right/wrong or good/bad. It’s simply about difference and it is one of the most living and full of potential theoretical concepts out there right now in my view. But, it’s perhaps best not to confuse things further.

  6. I am feeling way out of my depth in this conversation and don’t understand some of the big words but the I thought maybe I shouldn’t feel dis empower cause the nature of God’s power has really challenged how I have lived my life.

    Its true when you said that the power of the Spirit tended to be seen in the big meeting to build up that ministry but I have found that his power has been turning up a key moments in my live in regards to my business and has caused real change in me so that I can do what I am called to do. Right at the start I knew I was meant to but couldn’t. A friend in a prayer meeting prophecies that there is a yoke over my live and breaks it off and within two weeks I’m resigning from my job and starting the journey.

    It’s this last year thou that has blown my mind to his nature. Everything in the natural says give up but the Spirit is saying there is a way, follow me. There has been so many strange coincidences that I am thinking God can’t be this good. Do you remember I asked you what seeing 111 meant. We’ll for a while I have felt God saying your moving from wilderness into the promise land. On the start of my eight year in business I felt lead to read Deuteronomy. In Deut 1v 3 it says that on the first day of the eleventh month (111) Moses told the people they were moving out.

    So I have been it the wilderness. I then started to see something. The Jews were enslaved by the Pharaoh how had ultimate power. Moses comes along with a different source of power and frees the people. The problem is that there minds can’t grasp how they can take the promise land, so it’s into the wilderness. In the Wilderness God shows them his power which must of really shifted their thinking until the next generation are ready to go in.

    My back ground is from crofting and there is still a real slavery mindset that says you don’t do anything out of the box unless someone in authority says it’s ok. This season God has blown all that way by his power working through my life and business. I wonder what is going to happen to the Pharaohs over the nations as more and more people start walking in more of the fullness of God’s power in the everyday lives.

  7. Cecil – I think you hit the heart of it all. Thanks. I enjoy the theoretical discussions but, perhaps because I am female, maybe, I really love where it meets the ground and becomes manifested in our lives. Don’t take that as a slam boys. As a woman I have more estrogen in my brain and am more socialized for the ‘on the ground’ real life stuff of every day lives in community. So for me it is all about how things get walked out. And the power God has released into all of our lives should not only mark our lives but give grace to the lives of those around us.

    I have an interesting situation right now. I’ve been living in an apartment here in Italy without a clear understanding of ownership etc. Its been a deal but that may be coming to an end. That requires a step forward into a new place, searching it out, dealing with tenant issues in another language, faith for the finances of this venture etc. But God has given me great peace in it all. The next place will be good. he can obviously afford it, and I have asked that it come easily. And that is the wonderful thing about His power as directed toward us in love.

    What excites me is the mandate for us to direct that love outwards and see the power of it in the lives of others and on the creation we have so damaged.

    I don’t know all the answers to how power should be constituted, maintained, given up or not. I do respect your work Roger, tremendously, but when it comes to the everyday, people will need to trust and walk forward as in the end it is all about relationships. The real key is how to do that critically so that we don’t somehow end up, often unintentionally, locked in and supporting those institutionalized boxes.

    Lots to learn about all of this but today is May 1, a celebration of the power of labour in Europe and I am off to enjoy lunch at a friend’s home.

    P.S. keep thinking on it all Roger et al. It helps us trust God with a critical eye on our own behaviour.

    P.S2: I blogged on Martin Scott’s blog recently about relational economics and I think, more and more, that much of what we are talking about comes down to this – how we as humans interact daily in terms of resource sharing. Politics and governance is just one form of managing that.

  8. I love these contributions Cecil and Cheryl. And, as much as I am trying (laboriously at times!) to provoke Roger intellectually, it’s because of my belief in the absolute glory of the coming way of God!

    I do hesitate slightly, though, when I detect desires to resolve the questions of what to do or wonderings of what the answer to the big questions might be. If the questions are the cry of the creation seeking to be resurrected or of the Spirit within in us, the answer can only be God himself. So none of us will ever be able to say we’ve arrived at an answer. The answer *is* the coming of God. So, as a friend of mine puts it, questions are much more important than answers! Let’s keep asking them with our minds but, much more importantly, with what we do. Let’s ask questions of poverty, of environmental abuse etc. by engaging with them head on.

    Now, how shall we put kenosis into practice?

    My favourite Marx quote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

  9. What are the chances that will read this in a day or so and say to myself… next time, stand back and think and post slower will you!

    Like Stephen I am unsure about, or at least cannot share, Roger’s ease with the idea that physical energy, although created, sits categorically with social and personal power. After all, any ethical issues that attach to physical energy are largly to do with social and environmental applications, rather than the power itself.

    Neither do I think that we can build a stable model for this understanding while dealing only with a single term. There can be little advance, surely, in understanding power without a proportionate advance in the understanding of freedom. Interestingly it is freedom not power that receives one of those incredibly rare accolades in scripture that it is described as an absolute good. (For freedom Christ has set you free)

    Incidentally, gave a little cheer when Stephen mentioned Foucault, after all, someone had to! But what, I wonder, especially in the social constructivist sense, of Ellul? Any thoughts? I’ve read neither deeply enough to be sure, but deeply enough to know when things resonate resoundingly.

    I’m fascinated still, after years of being fascinated by it, by the process of power in the creation narrative. Physical creation is a matter, clearly of power, not of effort, as it subsists in the speech of God.

    When it comes to the Adam, the process changes, God uses his hands, and has a model in mind and finally gives life from his breath (with a kiss?). But at this point we are given to understand, God does what is entirely unnecessary. He designates the trees, gives one the potential to sustain and eternally extend the perfection of creation, and the other the potential to despoil it. God effectively creates the possibility of failure. This strikes me as the first and greatest kenotic act. By this means God refuses control of the Adam. Without this act there can be no love.

    Critically, though, this act is the first and I would guess defining moment where God demonstrates his intention in terms of relational power. Which brings me to Cheryl’s many interesting points.

    Cheryl raised the question of leadership and power. Stephen made the bold claim that all power violates. But the distinction between something like constituent and constiuted power has to be applied. Interrelational power, or group dynamics are endlessly complex. But is the exercise of leadership (another term that demands to be better described) the exercise of power over, or is it, in Tom Wright’s distinction, power within the group. Or, as another option, is the exercise of leadership the result of the exception of those who consent to be led. Interesing how we do this so naturally in unofficial circumstances (someone describes an idea and we all go for it because it excites us and we catch its energy and through this make exception) and how unnatural it becomes when it is associated with office. So the power is vested, usually in an undefined sort of way, in the status of the person.

    When I look back across the language of power in the new (old) churches the pattern is very telling. In the early days it was a much more modest dialect where leaders acknowledged their role because they were mandated by the discernment of the body. How quickly this changed and how thoroughly the upward direction of the mandate was swapped for a downward one. Almost as if we were saying, ‘You voted me in. But now I am here it is begause God has called me and given this office”.

    As we revise our appreciation of power, inevitably, we will find other little shifts emerging in consequence. The common missunderstanding of meekness for example, so often seen as weakness, is transformed if meekness becomes the refusal to exercise power over.

    All this is pretty basic (it is Saturday after all) but I think we are likely to get a better result if the contextual language is included, so, power, control, authority, freedom, submission and so on.

    Any thoughts?

    Just in time to save this becoming a postscript. I just heard that Tom Wright is resigning as Bishop of Durham to take a chair at St Andrews. So is this an exception in play or just pressure of work? The next volume on Paul, he now says, needs a lot more work. Or perhaps he is just acknowledging the need to respond fully to Campbell’s magisterial Deliverance of God!!

    • Chris, I fear your really interesting contribution may be being met by a little fatigue enduced by my soporific efforts! Not familiar with Ellul so will have to do some reading.

      I’m mostly interested now in Roger’s response to your thoughts…

  10. WOW there’s a lot here now! It may be that there is still life in this string and I don’t want to stop it, so keep it going all you clickers and surfers with specific responses to key issues. In the meantime I want to take up Cheryl’s seminal statement “in the end it is all about relationships” and with that in mind I’m making a new post.

  11. Just a tiny addition. (Thanks for the comment Stephen). But having started a little reminiscence over the language of power over the last forty years or so. I remembered the way in which, whenever it was preached, the story of the appointment of the judges in Israel was always told. The idea that, until their appointment, ‘each man had done what was right in his own eyes’ was always always used as a negative, as if it described some sort of anarchy. (Which, technically it did). But I never understood that. Thinking instead, how fabulous! Everyone did what was right, as well as they understood! Isn’t that great!

    • I like the Judges point. Gareth Richards first suggested the positive reading to me, comic that he is! And for sure the judges that the Holy Spirit anointed were pretty much comical figures themselves, albeit quite dark comedy most of them! I think there definitely is something positive in the point, and in aspects of anarchy for that matter. But as the comments about the central importance of relationship indicate, what was needed and being prepared for was the kenotic Christ figure who would point the way towards a pure hearted ‘doing what’s right in your own eyes’. I guess this is what I’m trying to configure in terms of kenarchy.

      • The use of “prepared” here is interesting and reflects thought that is pretty commonplace. Underlying this whole discussion is the massive question of whether God is “in control”. Thoughts/perspectives or too much power talk for now?

  12. Sorry, my use of prepared was careless in this context and I was aware of it but was in between other things! I do think that the Old Testament story was preparing for the coming Christ but in a collaborative partnership with God in the course of the progressive revelation of himself that Jesus consummated. However my hermeneutic knowingly reads that back into the story and I make no claim that it is would necessarily have been possible to read it forward. The question of whether God is ‘in control’ takes us back to my understanding of the power of the exception and how the cross trumps controlling power with kenotic power. This makes the phrase God ‘in control’ an unhelpful one. God’s love simply pours through everything.

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