Power: Using it and fearing it

You are sitting quietly. You are listening attentively.  You will hear my words and you will consider them. You are being influenced by me.

This is quite an interesting circumstance. Whilst you don't have to be here and you don't have to listen to me - you have not been forced in any way - I am standing her in a position of power.

I have the power to have you hear my thoughts without interruption. This is no small thing. This is a power that you have granted me by electing me to be your minister, by arriving here today, by putting down your mobile phone, and by being attentive.

The word "power" - I word I have used a few times already - is a word that may bring uneasiness to your mind. 

Power corrupts

Mad with power

The powerful against the powerless

The power elite

Abuse of power

We have heard all the stories and all the phrases and we have good reason to recoil from the word "power".  We know all too well that power has been exerted upon us and upon others in destructive ways. We know that the exercise of power has caused poverty, hunger, suffering, imprisonment, and many, many deaths.

Without power, the Nazis could not have perpetrated the holocaust.

Without power, the Khmer Rouge could not have killed millions in Cambodia.

Without power, the Christian church could not have managed the horrors of the crusades or the inquisition.

On and on it goes. And so we begin to think of power as an evil in itself because it has enabled evil events to occur.

And yet, power is, in its essence, simply ability to influence the course of events or to influence individuals.

Power can be used for ill, but power is also essential to live. We use power every day in hundreds of ways. We use financial power every time we purchase goods or services. Food, shelter, transportation, electricity, heat... none of these would be available to us without this use of power. Without power, slavery would not have ended, Britain would be part of Germany, equal marriage would never be legal, women would remain second-class citizens, and India would still be ruled by Great Britain.

We use the power of persuasion with our friends, our loved ones, our pets, and many of those strangers we encounter each day.

It is power that brought you here today - hopefully the power of attraction and persuasion rather than force.

Very little takes place between or amongst human beings and with other forms of life without the exercise of some kind of power.

Today, we will explore the way we use power in our lives and the way power is used upon us. Finally, and most importantly, we'll think about the ways in which we do not use power when we might.


Having returned yesterday morning from nearly two weeks in India, that country's past and present are very much on my mind.

In 1498, India began to feel the influence of Europe with the arrival of Portuguese Explorer Viscount da Gama in Calcutta. Just over a hundred years later, the first English trading post was set up in India. English commercial power later gave way to political power and then the power of force, as India came under British Rule.

India finally became free in 1947, some 200 years after it came under substantial British control.

Why did British control in India last for two centuries? Britain is very far from India. British troops in India were vastly outnumbered by the enormous Indian populace. This is a story about power - power to control and power to liberate.

Initially, European influence over India included a strong element of Indian self-interest. The opportunity to trade with European nations brought new goods and new technologies to India. 

As British domination increased, Indian resentment and anger increased. There were many instances of rebellion - especially by those Indians who were recruited to serve as part of the British military force in India. The Indians tried to use military power. Their attempts were eventually crushed by British forces. 

The largest violent rebellion happened in 1857. It was suppressed by British forces. Rebels were usually executed - even after surrendering. Innocent civilians were also massacred by the British forces. Queen Victoria took on the new title of Empress of India.

Despite India's massive numerical advantage, it found itself unable to throw off its colonial rulers for 200 years. Why was this? Partly it was because of the British technological advantages. When British rule was finally ended though, it was through the organising and inspiration of that great advantage - millions of supposedly powerless Indians. The British left as a result of large-scale non-violent civil disobedience  by the populace.

The Indian people, for many decades were unable to use the power they possessed. It reminds me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. After all her searching for the wizard and her final disappointment with his power, she learns from Glinda, the good witch, that she had the power to return home all along. The Indian people had more power than they knew or were able to exercise.

The Germans philosopher Nietzche was very direct in commenting about our human failure to know and use our own power "To exercise power", he said, "costs effort and demands courage. That is why so many fail to assert rights to which they are perfectly entitled -- because a right is a kind of power but they are too lazy or too cowardly to exercise it." Nietzche was not one to mince words... 

But he was right about the effort and courage required to exercise power. The power of the Indian people could only be exercised after years of painstaking preparation. It took careful and delicate coalition building - bringing together Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, people of different castes, socialists and capitalists. 

It took communicating with different people in the different ways that they could hear and understand. In writing, in direct conversation, in performances and stories that could be understood by and inspire the illiterate poor of the country. 

It required charismatic and wise leaders and especially the man who came to be known as Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi reached out to all the disparate Indian groups. He especially relied on symbolic action: fasting, spinning fibres for fabric, and traditional dress. He knew how to touch the minds and hearts of the enormous Indian population - to reconnect them to their own traditions - and to bring them together.

We may think of Gandhi's story as an example of the powerless challenging the powerful, but Gandhi was a master of the use of power. His power was enormous - influencing many millions of Indian people to take action and to exert their own power. 

Gandhi offers us a study in the identification, organisation, and use of power. Gandhi's persuaded and organised his people to exert their own power - this was not a power of force. It was a non-violent power, with understanding of the needs of both his friends and his enemies, and with the creativity and imagination needed to reach and affect one of the largest and most diverse nations in the world.

There are arguments to be made about the depth of Gandhi's commitment to nonviolent action.  If Indians had the military and technological power to challenge the British with violent means, would Gandhi's strategy have been different? Perhaps. But Gandhi's familiarity with non-violent means of power was deep. 

It is a part of the Hindu tradition, but Gandhi was also influenced by many others. Remarkably, he was influenced by two important figures from our own tradition. He read Unitarian Henry David Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience and remarked about how important they were to him. He also learned, through Russian author Leo Tolstoy, of the pioneering writings and thought of Adin Ballou, a Massachusetts Universalist who founded a Utopian community called Hopedale. Ballou emphasised the power of non-violent action.

Whether or not Gandhi's strategy would have differed if the balance of military and technological power had been different, his genius and mastery is shown in the way he identified, organised and exerted the power his people did have. Their cooperation with British rule was essential to the continuation of that rule. 

When enough Indians could be persuaded to stop buying British products, to stop fighting British wars, to stop collecting taxes for the British, and - most memorably - to defy the British tax on salt through a dramatic 200 mile walk to the sea - then the Indian people found and were able to use to great effect the power they had possessed all along.


We have more power than we know. We have more power as individuals than we know. We have more power in our communities than we know - whether those communities are small, like this one, or as large as the community of all humankind.

As Nietzsche declared, using power requires courage for all involved. It also requires effort. Nietzsche goes on to say something that might particularly resonate in our British culture. Speaking of our failure to exercise power and after declaring that those who fail in this way are lazy or cowardly, he gives his view of how we explain this failure to ourselves, saying "The virtues which cloak these faults are called patience and forbearance." Patience and forbearance are good, but they should not be used as a means to avoid exercising power for the benefit of all.

There are too many in our world who do not know and use their own individual power. Battered women who stay with their violent partners, abused children who are too afraid to tell anyone, people tricked out of their rights by intimidating bureaucracies. All of these and many more individuals need help and encouragement to find their power. They need help to know what power they have how they might use it.

And there are even more in our world who are unaware of the power they could exert in community. I am sure that this number includes many of us. We see the wrong that is being done in our city, our nation, or our world and we become angry - we become disheartened - we become depressed. We can't imagine that there is anything we can do. We recognise that our own efforts are but a drop in the vast ocean. 

I am not one to suggest having faith that many more drops will come. This is not what Gandhi did. His was not an approach based on wishful thinking. Gandhi was a prototypical community organiser - a person who helps a community to discover, organise, and deploy that power effectively.

Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work to secure civil rights for African American people. The whites had the guns. The whites had the police. The whites had successfully intimidated the African American people. King looked to see what power his people had. They had economic power - although they had less money than the whites, their numbers meant that a boycott - such as their effective bus boycott - could be powerful. 

They had the power also, with their courage and faith, to show the world what oppression looked like. They put their bodies in the way of violent racists and their suffering changed minds and hearts - their pain motivated the national government to take action. The powerless became the powerful.

Similar stories have taken place in many places at many times. In seemingly miraculous ways, people without power find their power and change their world.

Importantly, people who think they are powerless do not find their power without something changing - usually through the emergence of leaders who know how to use their own power to help the people find theirs.

Those who can help in this way can be liberators. They can be saviours. There is no magic involved. There is no need for a miracle. As Gandhi taught us, these changes can happen through connection, through wisdom, through caring, through communication, and through patient strategy.

They cannot come by rejecting the use of all power. Power is a tool that can be used for any purpose - for good or for ill. When we reject the power of liberating leadership, we ensure that the power of oppression will remain dominant.

We must recognise and learn to use the power we have. We may have no great power, but we have power nonetheless.  Adrienne Rich wrote these words:


"My heart is moved by all I cannot save;

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

who, age after age,

perversely, with no extraordinary

power, reconstitute the world."


I urge you to find your power. Yours may be the power to help yourself make your needs known. It may the power you need to help you pursue your dream. It may be the power to help another find their power or event to help thousands or millions to find their power. Your power, once discovered, may change your life, the lives of those around you, and perhaps even change the world.

Find your power.


We each have power - the power of our faith,of our hope, of our joy, and of our love. love.

Let us conclude by singing joyfully and enthusiastically of that power within each one of us!