Magazine article Tikkun

Mary Elizabeth Moore

Magazine article Tikkun

Mary Elizabeth Moore

Article excerpt

Mary Elizabeth Moore is Professor of Religion and Education, and Director of Women in Theology and Ministry at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. She is the author of Teaching as a Sacramental Act.

Let's talk straight about power and spirituality in the public sphere. In what ways do we exercise power--knowingly or unknowingly--in the public sphere, and how is that power shaped by our own spiritual traditions and practices? What are the values and dysfunctions of our power, both within our communities and in the larger social arena?

I would like to address three issues: how we engage with power, how Spiritual Progressives might increase our contribution, and how we might practice transformative politics. As a prelude, let me say what I mean by power, namely, the ability to influence persons or situations, whether by persuasion, coercion, collaboration, or other means. This is a subject about which we are often naive, conflicted, or idealistic, and I do not pretend to be exempt from these problems. On the other hand, I am convinced that avoiding power and hiding our power behind pessimism are not real options. Our public world is in confusing disarray and in the frightening grip of religious and spiritual distortions that seem to some well-intentioned people to be the only options. Let's begin then with how people engage with power.

Engaging with Power: Problems and Possibilities

At the outset, we need to acknowledge that power is already present in our world, and we exercise power, whether or not we are aware of it. U.S. consumption of cars, clothes, and other goods creates a U.S.-dominated nexus of power across the world, affecting the ways in which people live their daily lives--the extent of their food, shelter, and access to self-determination. Further, most of us engage with power in different ways in different situations, sometimes violating our own deepest spiritual values, whether in business dealings or in closing our ears and mouths when someone close to us misuses power. In order to be more self-conscious about power, I invite you now to explore four ways in which people "do power."

AVOIDANCE OF POWER. Religious and spiritual communities that reject strict orthodoxy often avoid issues of power, in part because: we are not all alike; we do not see strict boundaries between true and untrue; and we stand against dominating powers. We often have an aversion to consolidated power; thus, we leave space for others to usurp our voices.

COMPETITION FOR POWER. We also undercut ourselves by competing for power--competing for control within and between our organizations, even pitting one progressive issue against another. Further, consider how we compete for power in more subtle and damaging ways. How often do we argue our case by contrasting ourselves with another group--them and us? Indeed, much of the progressive movement has been trying to articulate its place in the world in oppostion to the "rightist" movement, whether in religion or politics. Even the framing of this conference and many of the best books on our present situation divide the world into two camps and claim to choose the better of the two, or at least to reject the worst. Such arguments reveal competition for power. In honesty, these dualistic arguments can be as motivating in politics as they are on the sports field, but they are self-defeating in the long run.

ABUSE OF POWER. This leads to reflection on a third way of engaging with power, namely the abuse of power. Critiquing the abuse of power is something that many progressives do well. We, and an increasing number of other people in this country, recognize the abuse of religious values to justify violence and to squeeze values discussions into a limited range of sexual mores, pitting homosexuality against heterosexuality and abortion against the protection of life. We too often fail to name the most pressing ethical issues in public life: the morality of war, increased poverty, increased numbers of children in poverty, and limited healthcare accessibility, to name a few. …

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