“Empowering”

By Bishop Paul C. Hewett

“Empowering” — for years I have had grave misgivings about this word, and this concept, which crept into our social and political and even theological discourse during the past generation. I decided to never use the word. Never.

Instead it became necessary to search out all biblical uses of the word “power.” All power belongs to God, and when He shares His power with us, perhaps thought of as one of His energies, He does so in the context of our growth in virtue and character formation. What good is power in the hands of someone who will abuse it? God can only share His power with us as we grow in our capacity for humility, gentleness and love.

Then, biblically, it becomes clear that power is not something we get, to fill a void, or for social engineering, or to get a job done. Power is the sanction to serve. It is seen in our Lord, who took up a towel at the Last Supper to wash the apostles’ feet. Our Lord will show, in His Passion and Death, that the essence of glory is self-giving love. Many an Orthodox icon of the Cross has an inscription on it, “The King of Glory.” Jesus’ glory, and His power, is pre-eminently shown forth in His self emptying, His kenosis, His blood-shedding for us.

The emphasis in social engineering circles, on empowering women and minorities, allows us to fall into the bottomless pit of gnosticism. For the gnostic, power is the ultimate moral absolute. One must be striving to break the glass ceiling, to get power. For the Jew and the Christian, love is the ultimate moral absolute. As John Zizioulas would say, love is the ultimate ontological category. Our goal as Christians is not to get something, like fulfillment, or power, but to grow in our capacity to love God, and our neighbor-in-God. And to enlarge that capacity, God very often uses hardship and suffering.

Just before the day of Pentecost, Jesus tells His apostles that “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto me…” (Acts 1: 8) Power here comes from the Holy Ghost, for the purpose of witnessing to Jesus, and His Death and Resurrection. St. Paul, writing to Timothy, says “Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1: 6-7) The purpose of this bestowal is “the testimony of our Lord,” that “the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified.” (2 Thessalonians 3: 1) Power is for the spread of the Gospel, in our hearts, and in the world. To “have power” is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. “The issue here is not how much of the Holy Spirit we have, but how much of us the Holy Spirit has.”

When St. Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthians, he cites several times a theme of God’s strength and power shown through our weakness and brokenness. St. Paul is ministering among the Corinthians “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6: 10) He is in this way setting forth the Paschal Mystery of new and indestructible life, wrought on the Cross with Jesus’ death. This is the mystery of the ultimate, cosmic victory of life-in-Christ, won by ultimate, cosmic sacrifice. St. Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians in chapter 11 of his “weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?..if I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities…that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (11: 27-28; 12: 9)

The Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity begins, “O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity…” An anointing of power, with which the Father is eager to equip us, through the Son, in the Spirit, is for the same purpose: showing mercy and pity in our life together in the Church, and in our ministrations to the world. This is a power not to engineer a better society, according to a secular blueprint, but a dynamic that works in mysterious ways, through self-giving love, to change a stubborn world for Christ. Theories of power involving races, classes or sexes, to “empower” victims, can, without Christ, do little more than create new forms of hell on earth.

In this light one could propose Mother Teresa of Calcutta as the “most powerful” woman of the 20th century. And in the second half of the 19th century, we could nominate the obscure Carmelite nun, whose autobiography is the best selling book of all times, next to the Bible, St. Therese of Lisieux. Therese, who wrote of “The Little Way” to holiness, exalting simplicity and hiddenness and little things done for the love of God, is read and taken to heart by hundreds of millions. Her contemporary in Germany, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote about “The Will to Power” and the Superman, is by comparison scarcely read or cared about by anyone. Holiness is the ultimately most exciting and amazing thing there is, and power is an illusion which falls like sand through our fingers.

We think of the tiresome quests for power in the world all around us, power which is supposedly going to be used to better our lot in some way. There are countless schemes to re-engineer society or to plan for some utopia. People think that if only they could “get power” or be empowered, that they would be on their way to “progress.” But in the 4th Century the great Cappadocean Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, said it all: “a single drop of Blood remakes the universe.”

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