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Putting our personal power to work collectively

The Rev. Deborah Lee, who directs the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, is the guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Deborah Lee

LOUISVILLE — During last week’s edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” which can be heard here, the Rev. Deborah Lee did a quick primer on our different kinds of power before delivering the clincher: we owe it to the God who put us here for a reason to use our personal and collective power to help change things for people living on the margins, beyond our borders and inside our prisons.

Lee, a United Church of Christ pastor, is the executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, which Lee said is for people of many faiths and no faiths “working together for the dignity and full inclusion of immigrants and people impacted by incarceration.”

Lee spoke to podcast hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe, editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Simon Doong, a mission specialist in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. She comes in during the 27th minute.

The guest question posed to Lee by Doong and Catoe: “As Christians, how should we understand ‘power’ and ‘security?’ There is the human understanding of power through might, force, and domination, but aren’t we called to something different as people of faith? Additionally, how are we to recognize the power that the church currently holds while reconciling the historic ways that power has been used for good but also for bad?”

“Broadening our understanding of power can be really useful,” Lee told the hosts. There are traditional kinds of power: state power, the institutional church’s power and positional power, which our boss has over us by dint of the boss’ position.

But “there are other kinds of power which often aren’t recognized in society,” she said, including moral power. “For those of us coming from a spiritual grounding, there is a transcendent power that we are seeking to connect to, and there’s a transcendent spiritual power that is also at play.”

There’s collaborative power, “the power [of a team] to come together in our own brilliance to make something that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” Lee said. There’s also cultural power, which is used in communicating ideas through such venues as advertisements and “powerful social memes.”

“Then there’s the power of nonviolence, a counter power to violence that’s transformative,” Lee said.

There’s power that comes “from being connected to our ancestors. How do we harness that power? Power to what end and power in what way? I think those are important questions,” Lee said.

Catoe asked if the church “is to rely on its institutional power, or has that caused more harm than good?”

“I definitely think the church in general has lost institutional power,” Lee answered. “I think it’s also lost its spiritual authority because of harm that’s been caused, because of contradictions around the value of human beings and equality and equity. I’m generalizing here — I’m not talking about just the Presbyterians,” she assured listeners. “I’m talking about Christianity. … We no longer have that moral authority, and there are other voices.”

One reason the church has given up some of that moral authority is that it hasn’t, for the most part, “admitted and truly paid amends for the way that its institutional power has been part of … institutional racism, institutional sexism and institutional homophobia. We haven’t done that in a way that would give us back that moral authority.”

“A lot of the church’s institutional power, I think, has been ill-gotten because of colonialism,” Lee said, “by the way Christianity came to this continent and the way Christianity was spread in other parts of the world, often arm-in-arm with land-grabbing and colonialization and militarization and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. … As the Christian church, we’ve done little more than write statements of apology, but not really paid reparations.”

For people of faith, there’s another kind of power, according to Lee: doing less on our own and doing more “by being in alliance with people who have moral authority — the people who are the most impacted by what is happening.” According to Lee, Christians ought to be asking themselves this question: Where can we add power by bringing our networks and our solidarity and our alliances to what is already being done?

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

In answer to Doong’s question about the relationship between power and security, Lee said that the people “who have wielded the power have generally made life more insecure for people. We all want security. We all want a sense of safety, which includes having our basic needs covered, having the ability to make meaning in our lives and having autonomy and self-determination around our decisions.”

But when power has been used in service to such ends as being greedy and exploiting the environment, “it has created all kinds of insecurity and justified a whole ‘security industry,’ which doesn’t make us safe,” Lee said. “For Christians, thinking about questions of power and security comes back to the story of Jesus. How did Jesus bring salvation? It wasn’t through taking over the government, taking power in the institutional power way. It was really from the underside.”

“If we look at the story of Jesus, the strength that came from vulnerability and humility and sacrifice and standing for principle and the willingness to put one’s life on the line — there’s power and strength to that story,” Lee said.

Jesus, she said, “spent time with the ones he thought were closest to God — people outside the city gates, people on the margins,” Lee said. “That’s actually where hope lies, and that’s where salvation lies — by being proximate to those who are the most impacted and suffering.”

“You and I and others can stand in our own authenticity, the way God is calling us to be, by living our best selves or whatever you want to call it,” Lee said. “I think that’s a sense of personal power, and sometimes we are afraid of that. We have been taught to be afraid of our personal power. We have been taught not to speak up, or it’s not our place. We can all start by cultivating our sense of personal power, knowing who we are and where we stand, knowing what our context is, and by being more knowledgeable about our personal and collective history.”

“How can I use my power in a loving way? When we have to lovingly confront somebody over something that was said, we are using our power,” Lee said. “We have the power on the local level to make these things happen,” including insisting on local investments in parks, mental health responders and expanded health care.

“Those are things,” Lee said, “that actually help people feel more secure.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop each Thursday. Find them here.

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