Friday, July 3, 2020

Power Over...Power With

There have been some rather stark and divergent responses on the part of police in recent days. In some places, you have seen police chiefs joining crowds of justice seekers as they presented their concerns at police stations and city halls. In others. police were kneeling as the throngs approached. In these instances, there were no face shields, no padded vests, no billy clubs, no tear gas. The police stood ready to hear, negotiate and support whatever changes were necessary to improve their community. It's called sharing "power with" the community, rather than exercising "power over" the community.

The other "power over" responses of police we have seen are always presented as more exciting and I guess "newsworthy." We've seen them day after day. Lines of militarized police, sometimes flanked by national guard, meeting the crowds with equipment that makes them virtually unrecognizable as human beings, with the rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and paintball guns. It's what the President calls "domination."

This distinction between "power over" and "power with" seems especially critical in our time. There are so many areas of our life where we can see this conflict in approach at work.

We see it in the home, where one party has to exercise power and control "over" all the others. As the pandemic has spread, so has domestic violence. When the world seems out of control, some seek even more control over the little world they inhabit.

Looking back on my childhood, I'm aware of how sharing was built into everyday life. I grew up wearing and sharing hand-me-down clothes and passing them on to my younger brother. Whatever toys and play things we had were shared, or should a fight break out, shelved. We all sat down to eat together as a family, sharing a common meal. We shared our home with my grandmother. I shared a bedroom with my brother. There was a household system in place where you learned to exercise "power with" others. If families today are broken, perhaps it's because we now have a closet full of clothes, a phone, a car, a bedroom, and a bank account for every child in the family. Where do we learn to share, to exercise "power with?"
     Power sharing is not always learned in our educational systems! There was a time when I tried to do "course contracting" with my college students. I happen to believe that everyone learns best in a system where there is little coercion, whether from a grade or an ideology. Someone once suggested educational institutions should be run like a public library. If you check out the book and don't read it, that's your loss. No one is going to test you on it. Maybe you will want to discuss it in a book club, but that will just help you in your understanding, not earn you a grade.

Course contracting didn't work very well. Students would contract for an A, recognizing the criteria and what they would need to do to earn it, then signing the contract. Consistently, because all of their other classes were grade centered and more demanding at any given time, my students would put off and/or neglect their contract. It was hard to compete in a "power over" system with a "power with" grading plan.

      It can be difficult to find power sharing in our economy. I have a young friend who has been quite specific about the kind of business model he prefers. It's one with as little hierarchy as possible, where decisions are made on the basis of consensus with those who work there. His belief, and mine, is that when you have a diverse group of people operating with a common purpose, the result of your work will be optimal. Shared power produces! There are entrepreneurs these days working on a "power with" model, but too few and far between.

Perhaps the most obvious and most destructive to the body politic is the "power over" in government. Most people in the federal government will likely admit that our two-party system is not working very well. Blame is the name of the game. One tires of hearing how the "other" party is making it impossible to do the people's business. Who would you nominate, from either party, as the most successful in Congress at reaching across the aisle? It's an understatement to say that antipathy to sharing power is not healthy in a democracy.

I'm aware there are many who have a conception of God as a domineering and sometimes violent parent. He is not beyond striking you dead for an unforgivable sin. If ever there was a "power over." for them, God is it! To those folks I'd like to suggest the definition in 1 John of God as love. See love at work in the natural world around you. See love at work in your family and larger community. See love at work in your church. See love at work in the stories in the Gospels. It's all about being "with," not "over." Get with it!


Carl Kline

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