Power from Community

Last Sunday, fresh off a plane returning from India, I talked about Gandhi. I talked about the way this great man used power to enable his supposedly powerless people to find their own power - the power they had all along but had been unable to recognise and to use. And when they found and focused their power, they were finally able to secure their right to freedom and self-determination as a people.


I especially wanted to point out that Gandhi - a man we recall as elderly, loin-clothed, fasting, peaceful.... Gandhi was a true master in the use of power. Using this kind of power is not about calling in drone strikes or sending troops or kettling protesters, but about enabling change to happen with whatever tools you have at your disposal. The true masters of power are those who are able to find and use power where the rest of us see only powerlessness.


Today, we continue our focus on power.


As I rode along in that plane from Delhi to London, I might also have thought about David Whyte's evocative words - words he wrote with the Boeing 777 jet in mind!:

the way

the intangible air

passed at speed

round a shaped wing


holds our weight.

The invisible, intangible power of air brought to bear on tons of metal, cargo, and human bodies so that we can soar above the clouds.


Power that comes from the visible and the invisible working together.


When speaking of power, it can be useful to identify three different categories:  "Power over", "power to", and "power with."


Power over is the power that others have to make us do what they want. The powerful can be teachers, parents, police, government officials, lawmakers, or a stranger with a weapon. They can exercise their power for good reasons or for bad. Whatever the reason, we - who have power applied to us - have no participation in that power and generally no recourse but to do what is commanded by those with the power. Sometimes power over is needed. It rarely feels good to be in the position having to submit when someone exercises "power over".

The second kind of power is called "power to". This is our ability to do something we want. We have the power to walk out of a sermon if we want to. We have the power to choose whether or not to come here. We have the power - through our financial means - to get on a bus or the underground and ride here. 


Because we are in a society that protects free speech, we have the power to make our opinions known. We have the power to choose the kind of work we will do. We have much "power to", but that power is limited to what we can do on our own.


And finally, there is "power with." 


I'd like to quote the words of a woman I admire in large part because the ultra-conservative commentator Glenn Beck called her an "enemy of the people." She is New York political scientist and sociologist Frances Fox Piven. Her words: "I propose that there is another kind of power based not on resources, things, or attributes, but rooted in the social and cooperative relations in which people are enmeshed by virtue of group life."


This power that emerges from our cooperation and our group life is "power with."


"Power with"  is power that comes from the work we do together and the joining of our individual efforts. "power with"  is when 10 of us can move something that one of us cannot, when a flock of birds can free themselves when individually they are doomed, when thousands of people can design and build a jet aircraft whilst any individual among them can barely jump 50 centimetres off the ground. Power with is the way photons in a laser - all moving together in concert - can accomplish more than the photons coming from a torch or a light bulb, all of whom are - as we said in the 60s - "doing their own thing."


""Power with"  is about what we can do together that we cannot do alone. "Power with" is how people who are individually powerless can join together to change the world. 

"Power with" is a reason for being here today. If alone was enough, we could each be having a nice Sunday morning lie-in.


And "power with" is not nearly as easy as it might sound. Not nearly.


"Power with"  does not emerge on its own. In the story of the birds who escaped capture by working together, coordination did not happen spontaneously. The flock had a leader - a wise and compassionate leader - a leader with the power of persuasion. It was only through that leadership that the escape took place. 


Throughout history, such lead birds have occasionally emerged and their abilities have changed the world. They have been people who - without violent power but with enormous power of influence - helped "power with" to emerge. Think of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Waclav Havel, Desmond Tutu... leaders who enabled the hidden power of their people to emerge.


Our story of the flock of birds ends tragically in failure as bickering breaks out among the flock, they each want to go their own way, they worry more about their own needs than the needs of the group, they fail to coordinate, and they are captured and taken to market. Ultimately, their individual desires meant their communal and individual doom.


Communities vary in their ability to hear and respond to the leadership that could help their "power with" to emerge.


I recently came upon a fascinating summary of studies of how conservative and liberal brains differ. 


Two apologies: First, I know that the word "liberal" can be troublesome. Please understand that I mean that political and social attitude that tends to support individual rights and freedoms and seeks to help the disadvantaged members of society. I don't mean a particular political party.


My second apology is because I'm going to make an oversimplication that you may find offensive, I'm going to assume that there is a generally liberal attitude in this congregation. That's a gross generalisation. Please forgive me, especially if that does not fit you. 


As an aside, I want to mention one of the most helpful characterisations I've seen of the difference between conservative and liberal attitudes.  It comes from sociologist author George Lakoff. He says that we can understand these conflicting styles better if we think about parenting style. The conservative outlook idealises the authoritarian father. Children - everyone - need to have strict rules and will learn the most from penalties and punishments.


Liberals on the other hand idealize the nurturing parenting style. They believe that children - everyone - do best when we give them freedom, love, support, and guidance.


So, the fascinating studies I came upon actually looked at the differences in the brains of liberal and conservative people. I'll quote from one paper that used functional MRI brain scanning and other methodologies:

"We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant... In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized...”


Given our "creative, curious, and novelty-seeking" approach to religion, it is not entirely surprising that we attract more liberals than conservatives at New Unity.


The notion that conservatives are "better organized" has particularly struck me in my own observations. In the US, the Republicans can usually put individual concerns aside and work together as one. The democrats are often said have a tendency - in a charming turn of a phrase - to eat their young.


To put the scientific results I read to you in a more functional form: Organising liberals can be like herding cats. 


When the lead bird says "quick! fly this way together!" We want to ask - "who are you to tell me what to do?" We want to explore the options: "maybe flying a different direction would be better", we suggest. "You didn't consider my opinion on this", we complain. We worry about being conformists and want to make sure we still individuals when that instruction to "fly together" is heard.


We shape our self 

to fit this world

and by the world

are shaped again.

The visible

and the invisible

working together

in common cause,

to produce

the miraculous.


And thus - fighting to be individuals - we have trouble producing the miraculous.


As I think of what we have seen as our two great disappointments or failures in this community, they are directly related to this tendency. 


We have failed to be do the kind of social activism we want to do. It's not for lack of discussion or lack of good intent. It is because we bridle at the notion of pulling together and working as a group rather than exerting our individuality.


We have found ourselves unable to focus on any one project because everyone brought their own opinion and wanted to hold to it. We always want to expand the options rather than converge on one good - but not perfect - choice.


We have failed to be as visible in the larger community as we would like to be. It's not for lack of intent or effort. It is because we fear that any cohesive strategy will not include all possible variations of people.


Paradoxically, our own liberal attitudes can prevent us from making a powerful difference for doing the work we want to do and helping the people we want to help.


Do you recognise this tendency in yourself? I certainly see it in me. When I see that everyone is going one way, I find myself drawn to do the opposite. If I am told to move, I want to stay still. If I'm told to be quite, I want to speak out. If I was a photon and everyone else was cohering to form a powerful beam of laser light, I'd suggest a discussion first. 


I don't do well with authority and I'd be surprised if many of you are not at least somewhat similar. We want to be individuals. We want to be as free as we can be.


Being an individual is good. Thinking for ourselves is good. Refusing to submit to arbitrary authority is good. These are values we treasure.


And furthering these values in the world sometimes means that we have to fight our natural tendencies - that we have to conform a little bit for that greater good.


Sometimes we have to allow the world to shape us as we shape the world, so we may act "in common cause to produce the miraculous."


And this means trusting one another. It means creating a community where we make the assumption that everyone has good intent behind their words and actions - even if we don't agree. It means being part of something greater sometimes.


Let's fly together - not always - but enough to create freedom, for ourselves and for the world.


May it be so.