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Home » Theology & Philosophy » Blessed are the Powerful

Blessed are the Powerful

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Delivered at the inaugural convocation of the Boston Theological Institute in 1968

The Institute is a consortium of nine seminaries and theological schools: Andover Newton Theological School, Boston College, Boston University School of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and Saint John’s Seminary.


We live in a time when almost everyone is acutely conscious of the struggle for power that is going on, in the international theater and also on the home front. Indeed, over wide stretches of the earth revolutionary forces are at work in various ways. Some places, to be sure, remain in a happy state of innocence, but this happiness may soon pass. Our situation today is fraught with danger, readily evident in the appearance of the “confrontation politics” that rejects normal political methods. One of our sages, a seasoned commentator on the political scene, noting the importunate demands for reform, questions whether popular democracy as we know and cherish it is capable of bringing about the changes required in a technological age. There are many paradoxes in the situation.

Ordinarily, the churches and theological seminaries are not expected to concern themselves with struggles for power. What is the world coming to, the pious will ask, if churches and seminaries turn aside from their true vocation to join in the struggles of power politics? It is therefore significant, it is even a sign of audacity, that the opening convocation of the Boston Theological Institute focuses attention on the problem of power.

The word is highly ambiguous, for power can take a great variety of forms. In some circles, power has a very bad reputation. Everyone is familiar with Lord Acton’s maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton apparently aims to be somewhat ambiguous: Power tends to corrupt. Henry Adams is more blunt when he says, “Power is poison.” A contemporary American political analyst who aims to reflect a theological perspective says that “man is born a slave, but everywhere he wants to be a master.” Somewhat similar was the view of Jacob Burckhardt, the eminent Swiss historian who formulated a basic axiom of his philosophy of history in these words: “Power is not a stability but a lust, and ipso facto insatiable; therefore, unhappy in itself and doomed to make others unhappy.” Looking back at the period of the Reformation and the Protestant-Catholic struggle, Burckhardt concludes that the confession that became dominant in any region of Europe was the one that possessed the strongest battalions. This view reminds me of a definition I heard recently at a church conference on black power: “Power is not something to be shared. It is something you have to take away from others.”

Yet “power” has not always been defined as simply synonymous with coercion or corruption. In the history of religion and thus also of Christianity, it is a venerable concept. God is addressed as the Lord Almighty. In its extended version, the Lord’s Prayer concludes with the words, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory.” And the Gospel is said to be the power of God for salvation.


Obviously, if one is to speak of power, everything depends on how one defines it. Generically, power is ability, capacity, to get things done, and as such is essential to any person or society and also to God. On the human scene it may be the ability to dominate, to communicate, to manipulate, to play the piano; or it may be the capacity simply to go on existing. Plato said the first quality of anything is that it has power. Reality is power. One of the most familiar definitions asserts that power is the ability to exercise influence. Max Weber spoke of power as the ability to issue a command that must be obeyed, and he added that it might take the indirect form of manipulation. He overlooked Plato’s definition of the passive dimension of power: the capacity to be influenced. Plato hints that an essential difference among people is that between their susceptibility to good or evil influence.

But if power as such is evil, then impotence could appear to be divine. Yet God, we are told, is perfect in power. Kierkegaard would say that this perfection of God’s power is to be seen in his giving the human being the power to turn against him; for communion with God is not possible if no alternative exists. Here we approach the paradox contained in the dialectic between divine and human power. Human freedom is a gift from God. From a religious perspective, both God and the human being would be impotent but for this grace of freedom.

Much more than this must be said, however, if we are to consider the nature of God’s power and the human response. A familiar way of stating the fundamental insight of biblical faith is to say that it is the faith that informs a historical religion which views the human being as a historical, social creature, and that it aims to be confident in the ultimately reliable power. Thus it is a faith that defines and fulfills the destiny of the person as an individual and in community. In a rudimentary fashion, this faith is expressed in Exodus: God is a dynamic power that liberates from slavery—has brought a people out of Egypt and guided it across the Red Sea and the wilderness. “With thy hand thou hast redeemed; thou hast guided them in thy power.” This power makes a covenant of faithfulness with a people (and eventually also with individuals); it requires of them that they pursue righteousness and mercy. Because this power is based on affection as much as on law, unfaithfulness is more than violation of law; it is betrayal of affection and trust.

The Old Testament prophets see unfaithfulness not only in idolatry but also in the separation that breeds injustice and destroys community. Sin begins in the human heart and finds social expression in class separation, in neglect of the poor, in the pursuit of vengeance instead of mercy. The sins specified by the prophets turn out to be the sort of thing that appears in today’s newspaper, especially in the black press. Indeed, one historian has said that the Old Testament prophets anticipate the modern free press.

The Old Testament conception of the most reliable power, the divine community-forming power, is remarkable. It contains the element of command and at the same time the idea that we are free to respond or not to respond; and it envisions a power that becomes manifest in a community that struggles for righteousness, for justice and mercy. Much of this concept is summed up in Micah’s words: “I am full of power in the Holy Spirit, full of judgment and might to declare unto Jacob his transgression, and to Israel its sin.”

This conception of the power attributed to God served not only as a standard for and a criterion of all other powers; it also became the basis of hope for the future—so much so that it was projected into the future in the form of an expected Messiah. To be sure, there were nationalist as well as universal ingredients in the idea of the Messiah.


It is, of course, not easy to characterize precisely the changes that come with the advent of Jesus and of Christianity. In principle, the nationalist element is eliminated and the messianic kingdom is viewed as already breaking in and also as to come later with power. A new eon is already here in actuality, yet the historical process is brought under radical eschatological judgment and tension. The intermediary powers in the world which make for separation and strife and idolatry among people are viewed as demonic. To himself and to his followers, Jesus is the spearhead of the divine power, breaking into history and pointing beyond history, bringing healing to men and women, calling them into a new covenant of righteousness—a covenant that in the outcome formed a new universal community.

We can agree that this new kingdom movement was not a social reform movement. But a look at the character of the new community they thought was demanded shows us what the early Christians believed to be the truly authentic, the truly ultimate reliable power. In this community economic status, social rank, racial origin, were all subordinated to a broader, transcending, and transforming power. At the same time, the individual was brought into more intimate relationship both with God and with the other members of the fellowship. The direct response to the Holy Spirit gave rise to new problems of organization, for this responsiveness brought into existence a charismatic community under charismatic leadership. Yet it is not possible to interpret the ethic of the new community under any single rubric—for example, under the rubric of spirit to the exclusion of law, or of otherworldliness to the exclusion of this-worldly concerns, or of consistent eschatology to the exclusion of concern and responsibility for the present. Nor can that community be interpreted as being either politically conservative or apolitical. Time was required for it to explore the implications of its confrontation with the dynamics, the power of the kingdom. Actually, the fact that the data regarding this community can be laid hold of in a variety of ways lends it perennial freshness. The many pertinent perspectives reflect the richness of motifs that become available here, and explain why early Christianity is seen as one of the great innovative moments in history, bringing forth treasures new and old.

Especially striking is the fact that here is a community independent of the state, a community freeing itself from idolatrous intermediary powers, promoting and exemplifying a heightened sense of responsibility, not only to and for itself but also to and for the individual—witness its concern to care for the weak and the elderly, slaves and widows. Some early Christian parishes even undertook to provide vocational education for orphans; others formed credit unions. What we see here, then, is a dispersion of power in the sense of dispersion of opportunity to assume responsibility.

Not the least of the latent functions of these new communities was to give and undergo training in the skills of organization and reconciliation. In short, it is not enough to say that a new spirit, a new ethos, here came to birth. That spirit, that ethos found practical and indeed institutional expression precisely among people who previously had been denied opportunities to participate. The new sense of hope cannot be understood merely in terms of eschatological expectation; it was engendered and sustained by the common experience of freedom in Christ, which took shape in new expressions of community. In other words, the hope stimulated and was supported by social participation.

In that day, however, the possibility of political participation was practically nil for the Christian or for anyone—a fact that probably explains in part the largely apolitical character of the early Christian ethos and the Pauline admonition to be subject to the governing authorities. How different it is with us. In a democratic society Christians participate in government—at least in the sense that, as citizens, they have the opportunity and the responsibility to share in shaping the nation’s policy.

It is therefore understandable that the ecumenical discussion, and specifically the Zagorsk Consultation held in preparation for the recent World Council Assembly in Uppsala, has turned attention to a redefinition of power and of Christian responsibility with respect to power. Quite properly, Zagorsk recognized a variety of methods of dealing with Scripture and of “doing” social ethics; at the same time, it was able to agree on a definition of power—one more or less familiar to us from other, sociological sources—as “conscious and active participation in the decision-making processes of society” which make for justice and “for more meaning for human life in society.” The Zagorsk statement applies this criterion not only to the domestic situation in the Western countries, but also to those regions of the world that, in relation to the West, “have not.” It even articulates a theory of revolution to justify the effort to change the locus of power in certain countries, to the end of enabling “participation of the masses in the making of decisions.” Thus it asserts that Christians “can be free both to accept and to criticize the revolutionary trends in the world.”

In the main, however, the Zagorsk statement is a summons to the Christian to shoulder responsibility for promoting justice. It calls for “participation of the masses in the making of decisions.” Who are the masses? They are not only the anonymous, readily replaceable man and woman of the labor market. They are also those who do not participate in the decision-making processes that affect the community. They are especially the blacks upon whom impotence has been imposed; the alienated people who have not been permitted to have their say in public and institutional undertakings that affect their own way of life.


In face of the alienated, of the marginal men and women and children, power must be newly defined: as a creative, innovative relationship between those who have the freedom to participate in making social decisions and those who do not have that freedom. Obviously, the Christian cannot be content with philanthropy, for philanthropy may be a means of keeping others powerless; nor can one be content with simple majority rule. Conventional philanthropy and majority rule can be a means of still further alienating the marginal people, and thus increasing their self-hatred and resentment. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the deeper the sense of alienation the greater the sense of hopelessness, and the more likely the resort to violence. In this context, the people with power engender the violence. One theological tradition has called this process the wrath of God, the strange work of God’s love. The Old Testament calls it hardening of the heart.

The Boston Theological Institute comes into being at a time in our nation’s history when resentment is growing not only among the powerless but also among the powerful. On the part of the latter, the resentment is a reaction to the demands and the chaotic apocalyptic of the powerless—a reaction that cannot or will not distinguish between the melodrama and the genuine drama of protest. Thus resentment on both sides is every day splitting the nation further apart and is showing itself to be a distinctly dangerous and destructive force. We must recognize that the polarization, the opening to the right, which is appearing among us is supported by large numbers of church people. And the consequence is less and less rationality and mutual understanding, more and more appeal to spurious notions of “law and order.” It is precisely these “law and order” people who are demonstrating the weakness of their strength, the sterility of their power.

Commenting on the student revolt in Europe today, the Tübingen New Testament scholar Ernst Käseman recently asserted that the rebels are revealing “what is rotten among us.” “When they kicked up a row,” Käseman said, “people thought only of the police club. These people did not shriek when they became aware of the millions who are perishing, but they have suddenly found their voice again, and they sing the old song of ‘authority and order,’ and one now faces new citizen terrors.”

The question now before us is whether our churches and theological schools can summon the power to bring about conversations between the powerful and the powerless, to moderate polarization and to encourage self-determination on the part of the alienated. Perhaps the best contribution to society theological schools could make would be for them to demonstrate to the community, and especially to the churches, their capacity to respond to student demand. The challenge facing these schools is typical of what is going on all around us, and creative response to it requires something more than change of procedures: it requires profound changes in theological education. For theological education is not on a pedestal outside, it is part and parcel of our society.


At this juncture, it is highly important that we recall that progress in the authentic use of power has been marked by the inclusion of the marginal people in the systems of power. In the early modern period, the middle class and then the working class were the marginal men and women, and successively they were allowed to acquire power. Unfortunately, the labor movement, like the previous middle-class movement, gradually took on the spirit of exclusion. But just as language is constantly enriched and enlivened from below, so society can be constantly enriched and enlivened by the marginal people with their highly creative potential. Let us hearken to the Exodus theme as expressed in the black spiritual, “Way down in Egypt land… Let my people go.”

The authenticity of power, however, is determined not alone by the freedom of all individuals and all groups to participate in the making of social decisions, but also by the quality and purpose of their participation. The authenticity of power is determined by the ends it serves and the means it uses. The truly powerful are those who serve large purposes and can accomplish them. This kind of fulfillment requires “power with,” not “power over”; it requires love.

The tensions that surround us today can be a source of strength; they provide the occasion for the renewing, community-forming power of God to work. Among women and men this power becomes manifest as they grope for new solutions. Authentic power is a gift to human being, issuing from response to the divine power. To them who have the power to hear, the saving Word of reconciliation will be given. From them who have not this power, even what they have will be taken away. Authentic power is neither poison nor insatiable lust, neither coercion nor corruption born of pride. It is the power that can exhibit the imagination of bold invention, that can respond to the ultimate power that shapes new communion with God and new community among men and women.

It is in this sense that we venture to make a beatitude: Blessed are the powerful. Blessed are the powerful who acknowledge that their power is a gift that imposes ever new responsibilities and offers ever new, though costing joys. Blessed are the powerful who acknowledge that authentic power is the capacity to respond to the covenant, the capacity to secure the performance of binding obligations.


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