By Deborah Hancox
A while ago, I heard about a well-meaning group from another land who visited a rural community in South Africa. They saw that the women were taking their laundry down to the river and would sit there for considerable lengths of time doing their washing. The visiting group quickly hatched and executed a plan to erect a water tower, and lay water pipes to the village houses to enable the women to do their washing in their own homes.
A while later, members of the group returned to find the water tower and associated piping in disrepair and the women once again doing their washing at the river. Surprised and somewhat annoyed, they asked a local woman what had happened. “Well, it’s like this…” she said. “We started using the piped water to do our washing in our own homes, but the women became lonely and frustrated. You see, when we go to the river together, and while doing our washing, we talk about our problems, our families, anything we are struggling with. So we decided to continue the practice of doing our washing together as this is a time when we listen to each other, and offer support.”
Now, for a moment, let’s not have the conversation about the need for easy access to safe water, and the need for rural women to have time apart from lengthy domestic chores. Let us think about the foreign group who arrived and quickly analysed the situation through their world view and experience and then applied their financial, educational and social skills to implementing their solution to the perceived problem. I know I have been guilty of this on several occasions – seeing a situation where I understand someone to be in need and then rushing to be part of implementing a solution that I think is the right one.
In seeking to act justly and be merciful – in our efforts to help those without provision and protection – power is always present, explicitly or implicitly. For good, or for bad. Power is never neutral! We may define power as “an ability to achieve a wanted end in a social context, with or without the consent of others”. In the story I have shared, we see a type of power sometimes referred to as “power over”. Power over involves taking power from someone else, and then using it to enforce a particular outcome, usually preventing others from gaining or using their own power. We may do this with evil, selfish intent, or with the best intent in the world.
As Christ-followers, we have access to God-given power. Shortly before his ascension to heaven, Jesus said: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We need to become aware of the power we have and how we use it and let it witness to the way Jesus used power whilst on earth. We have many clues as to his use of power, easily found by reading the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. Here are a few brief examples; I hope it inspires you to find more!
- Power to protect the vulnerable (Matthew 18: 6-9; 19:13-15; John 8:2-11).
- Power to heal and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23 – 24).
- Power to instruct and teach (Matthew 5:1&2 ff.).
- Power to “speak truth to power” (Matthew 23).
- Power to resist the devil, using the power of God’s word. (Matthew 4:1-11).
For people like the group who erected the water tower, for people like me who have the habit of trying to solve problems in our own strength and from our own resources – how should we be using our power to be a blessing to those without provision and protection? I would suggest it is far more about ‘running on empty’. Being willing to listen, learn, be transformed and to serve the true best interests of others, rather than our own interests or our perception of what people need.
The most significant use of power by Jesus – Son of God in human form – was in fact giving up his power. This passage from Philippians 2 is a wonderful example of Spirit-led power at work:
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Let us be continually emptying ourselves of much of the power that comes from the circumstances of our birth and from our political history in South Africa, seeking rather to be filled with the power of Holy Spirit, becoming imitators of Christ as we seek to live social justice.