Power Games: The Cross, 48 Laws and The Justification of Power

 "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." -Romans 8:28

I've been reflecting a lot lately on how one navigates the complicated world of political intrigue, personal relationships, power dynamics and the way of Christ. In the world of the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, we are all playing a power game in life whether we know it or not and the smart people merely play it well.

What follows from this idea that we are all playing a giant power game? At work and in our quest to accumulate resources, prestige, and security in this world we shouldn't be bothered by the "petty feelings of others," we should intimidate others, use flattery when it suits us, wear many faces, and manipulate, manipulate, manipulate! Basically, this book adopts a Nietzche worldview assuming that in the quest for power one must go "beyond good and evil." The will to power is fundamental to human existence and in this book it is all encompassing of the person. 

In my initial estimation, I thought this book offered some insights, but in order for it to work one would have to be 1) a sociopath 2) a brilliant sociopath and 3) the most brilliant sociopath. However, in the end, I reject his view of the world entirely. Yes, many of us are susceptible to the will for power and yes there may be a dark side. Yet, so much more is hardwired into us that is not easily reduced to mere power games and allows the functional of us to have meaningful and transformative relationships. Forgetting this is at the least a tactical error and at worst separates one from joining in the life of God. Also, a word of caution, the author seems to have cycled through at least 80 jobs (not surprising in the least) before catching a great book deal. Perhaps, the book that is more his style is The Art of Seduction than a book on climbing the ladder to power.

My brief advice: Better to choose another leadership or strategy book to read unless you want to understand a large swath of people who think they are both brutal and brilliant if not bordering on emotionally damaged.

With all of the above in mind, most of us are not sociopaths and yet, power games are a reality that creates stress in a variety of social environments whether at work, church, home or other gatherings. And we are all faced with little choices whether it is to join into gossiping, speaking in unflattering ways about others, forming tight clicks, using position or privilege to get rid of someone or wedge them out of a job we want, failing to see the value in others, wearing different masks to fit in, lying, manipulating...etc. Or on the other side, we often fail to recognize good deeds God has prepared for us in advance such as giving of our time, providing a kind word, welcoming a new person, esteeming the gifts of others, or putting talented people in positions of influence who may have otherwise not been considered (race? gender? personality?).

Can we recognize that we may have sinned against God "by what we have done, and by what we have left undone"? Do we even know what we have missed out on?

Some of us navigate a tightrope in the game of power because of our ethnicity, gender or, other signifiers. On the one hand, passivity may mean lack of survival and on the other, playing the game seems to be the destruction of what matters to our fundamental identity as believers and the opposite of what Jesus modeled for us when he emptied himself and took on flesh. It seems in this complicated world many even find it to be a moral imperative that I as a feminist more than demand equal treatment. Supposedly, I ought to go out of my way to demean and snuff out the so-called privileged other. But God is not a God who sees privilege, but fellow brothers and sisters. This does not mean I deny concrete problems happening around me and recognize when the cards are stacked against me or another person, but it does mean that I must not, in turn, reduce others to systems, group identities or other negative or positive signifiers.

There is also the reality that at times people can be cruel out of insecurity and as Christians we walk a tight rope balancing survival in some instances (sometimes better to not survive!) and not sinning ourselves! Does a lie made up about me warrant a lie made up about him or her? Does an ever so subtle manipulation or sabotage directed at me warrant me trying to take the person in turn down a peg to ensure my place? I think not.

My basic thoughts are that if we must play the game of power, we must re-conceptualize power.

God is our life blood, our present, and future. He colors the way I see myself and evil in the world so that a transfiguration takes place. The reality of a crucified Christ brings the color of the resurrection into the now so that circumstances are not always as they seem. A woman being brutalized and exploited in public as a lesson for those who would challenge the masculine authority of a mighty empire is also a representative of the eternal God who gave his life for our salvation. She is not a victim but a warrior (CF. Perpetua and Blandina). Even Eve in her failure, and in her the people of Ephesus, can be "pregnant" with Christ's salvation (1 Tim 2:15-3:1a) despite being given over to false teaching.

I also believe that a person who loses in the so-called game of power because they could not respond in kind is beautiful in the sight of God and it is comforting to know that he is the one who sees us in the wilderness just as he saw the slave Hagar. And all the better when we can successfully "play the game" in such a way as to avoid harming others.

I believe our defiance against the powers that be great and small is simply in being who we are in Christ and letting our actions be shaped from it. I know people have found me offensive when I speak my mind, preach or teach theology, not because of content (though no one is perfect) but because of my God-given female body. I have found myself at concrete and implicit disadvantages because of it. Resistance is in being who I am and not being ashamed of it and knowing that God chooses the little ones to do great things with. Power finds those who will not be bent to their will or molded into their form offensive by virtue of their existence and so my thought is that even if I will be snuffed out, I might as well make it difficult for them! Besides, this entire lifetime is just the beginning of a larger story. 

Then there is the dark side to seeing one's self through the lens of God. It is not uncommon to find individuals and empires claiming divine authority (taking the Lord's name in vain) for doing evil. They rationalize that their success is God-approved or God-ordained. We are winning/doing well/succeeding/making lots of money because God is for us. They appeal to God in order to rationalize their choices (usually in the form of fragmentary ideas or texts placed into a framework of power). Where the Bible often asks "How long O Lord?" and "Why do the wicked prosper?" they see behind their system, institution, and success in life the might of God's Sovereignty so that they can do no wrong. You must simply adapt yourself to their godly will.

And yet God's Shekinah glory is ever present with us (even if not yet realized) making our interactions with others visible to God and taking place in holy space. How can we not live out our calling as representatives (image bearers) of God in Christ? We can delight not in that God has given us worldly power but that he uses the little ones, us. The ones who could not fail in their mission were those who were alone and cast off with no hope.

Many of us also know that things do not always work out for the good for those who love God at least not in the sense of how those in power perceive it. Those who love God get killed, their sense of self-twisted, their children die, they lose jobs, they get publicly humiliated and yet in another sense, everything does turn out for their good because they love God and he is their life now and in the future. We worship a powerful figure, a crucified Christ, one who rose on the third day and promises our resurrection as well.

At the end of my day, I know very well that I am small and haven't grown to where God wants me in my character. But I have hope because God is patient, infinitely loving and full of contagious joy and so I find it helpful to pray with others:

Most merciful God,

We confess that we have sinned against you

In thought, word, and deed, by what we have done,

And by what we have left undone,.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

Have mercy on us and forgive us;

That we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,

To the glory of your Name. Amen.