2018 MODEM Conference Report: Power and Powerlessness
Conference report from David Sims and Sue Miller
The theme of our 2018 Conference was ‘Transforming communities: power and powerlessness’. Our speakers were Nigel Rooms and Anna Ruddick, with poetry from Lucy Berry. Both Nigel and Anna addressed the theme of power and change in the church and community, and addressed this from the perspectives of mission and of community development, respectively. Thinking in community development has progressed over recent years, with asset based approaches coming to the fore rather than deficit models. People are seen in terms of what they already have and can offer, rather than as people who lack things and for whom we should do things to make them ‘more like us’. This way of thinking has very obvious implications for Christian Churches too.
The prevailing anxiety in the hierarchies of churches focuses on deficits, on the lack of food for the many rather than on the boy with his loaves and fish. We have every reason as Christians for thinking that such asset based views are consistent with how we should have been thinking all along! Nigel Rooms started from talking about the difficulty that many Christians have in forming a sentence with God as the subject and an active verb; what is God doing? ‘Part of this is the cultural captivity of the church in modernity…the way in which we’ve given in to the private/public split that modernity created for us, and how hard it is to break out of that privatization of the church,’ he said. He talked about the profoundly humbling and disabling experience of learning Kiswahili while working with the Church in Tanzania, and learning that the first rule of becoming engaged with others was that ‘they won’t change, you have to’. If we want to be involved with others, whether in mission or in community development, we have to understand that this will change us as much as it will change them, and that the change will not happen in straight, neatly controlled lines.
Anna Ruddick said that among the conclusions she had reached over time is that one of the gifts of the urban and perhaps particularly the marginalized might offer to the wider church and society is the sense and experience, a revelation, of God’s love for us in all our mess and vulnerability, in our powerlessness. Owning and accepting our own brokenness is part of our attentiveness to power, as is owning our own privilege. We are all both victim and oppressor. We think of communities and mission as being about people’s needs, while forgetting that we all have both gifts and needs:
‘So if you believe that non-Christians are lost sinners and Christians are found saints, you might then assume that the neighbour you’ve just started to get to know really needs your help, your support, and your advice. You might offer that to them, and when they don’t seem interested, or even grateful, you might assume that in their lostness they’re just blind to the good news. However, if your meaning system speaks of the image of God in every person whether they know it or not, if it speaks of original goodness and the work of the spirit in the world, you might approach that person seeking to learn something of God from them rather than to offer your advice.’
Anna’s research showed that missional encounters changed Christians as much as the persons they set out to change, to their great surprise. As both speakers said, we need to acknowledge the personhood of all parties to an encounter.
This has implications. We need, for example, to be at least as alive to original goodness as to original sin. As Nigel noted, people are energised by noticing what they are good at; darkness can then safely emerge later.
There was discussion about how putting on a persona could be damaging to all parties in a missional encounter, and could prevent the emergence of personhood.
‘The more I am me’, one participant said, ‘the more people come to Christ, the better relationships they have’. What if your expectations for people you reach out to were rather more like your expectations of God being at work in your life, and what if you were honest about how that really is, rather than packaging it into a neat before-and-after story? How about being authentic in mission? And integrating the darkness? At this point we noted that the conversation we were having was in sharp contrast with the anxiety that we had talked about in the church earlier. We had read Philippians 2 at the beginning of the day, which was about giving away power and control, and thus being able to relate authentically. Everybody has personhood; everybody makes a dent in the world. Power as control over ourselves or others, or power as invulnerability, are dangerous for mission and for community development, as we fail to accept our own brokenness. And of course, it prevents us from knowing and loving our suffering God. We need to stop needing to be needed – after all, God doesn’t.
As a counterpoint to these ideas, and to give expression through a completely different mode of thinking and talking, Lucy read a number of her poems, including ‘For no-one shall see me and live’, reproduced here. (For more of Lucy’s poems go to https://www.lucyberry.com.)
Our 2019 Conference will build on these ideas, and explore them further.
“I will put you in a cleft in the rock,
and I will cover you with my hand
until I have passed by;
then I will take away my hand,
and you shall see my back;
but my face shall not be seen”.
And after He passed by
although the others followed,
we continued to hide, here,
in the safety of this rock
content and proud to say we glimpsed
the back of the Ancient of Days
as He passed by;
for no-one shall see his face and live.
And although there has been
little room for us here
we stayed here,
cramped but protected,
for God-knows how many years
living and dying
in this narrow, eternal twilight,
age upon age.
Until, one day,
we heard a man’s voice calling down
our stony valley;
a bright strong young voice:
I am God,
come out and stretch!
Come out and meet me.
“No, Almighty!” we said.
“What harm have we done you, hiding here,
that you call us out to look at you and die?
We cannot look at the Ancient of Days;
You are not safe!
We are happy that we once saw your back.
Please pass us by”.
And that young sweet joyful voice called:
How long my children will you hide here?
I am the Ancient of Days.
I am a Vine.
I am a Gate,
I am a Door,
I am a Man with a smiling face
I Am that I Am
I Am Not Safe.
But you will not die if you look into my eyes.
You will die if you don’t.
And we heard him walking
for many days outside
back and forth waiting, waiting.
But still we hid…
until after many, many days and nights
we heard his steps receding.
And timidly we came to the mouth
of this stony valley which has been our home so long;
and carefully we peeped out….
and we saw his back!
©Lucy Berry 23/10/14