The importance of power in peacebuilding

Integral mission and theologyPeacebuilding

In the last of a short set of posts looking at concepts for peacebuilding, I want to talk about power and how power works within relationships. Power is always relevant to peacebuilding, so it is important to think about how it works, what the Bible tells us about God’s power and how Christians should think about power as they engage in peacebuilding work.

Cross. Photo: Diana Vargas/Unsplash
Photo: Diana Vargas/Unsplash

Power is the capability to act or to effect change. It always works in relationships, between people and between people and objects. For example, power dynamics are a key factor in the way that diversity and inclusion (which I wrote about in a recent post) exist within communities. People often use power to exclude or oppress those who are different from them, or try to claim power by resisting oppression. This is one of the reasons why it’s important for peacebuilders to think about power. 

The Bible tells us that power is a characteristic of God. God’s power is creative and discerning: he has the power to make the universe and to tell good from evil. In Genesis we see that humanity is made in God's image and given power and authority to govern creation – in a way that shows God's character. [1] But power can also be misused, leading to injustice and conflict. 

We see this repeatedly after the Fall – for example, in Cain’s violent use of physical power over Abel, or Pharaoh’s exercise of power over the Israelites. A more complex example is the story of Jacob and Esau. Here, Rebecca and Jacob’s desire for the status and power that are the inheritance of the oldest son leads them to trick Isaac and create ongoing conflict between Jacob and Esau. 

In the New Testament, we see Jesus criticising the Pharisees’ love of their position of power (Luke 11:43) because it excludes people. And dealing with James and John’s requests that they be allowed to sit at his right and left hand in glory creates discord among the disciples until Jesus tells them, ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.’ (See Mark 10:35–45.)

‘God’s power is creative and discerning: he has the power to make the universe and to tell good from evil.’

However, power is not all bad: it continues to have positive potential. Andy Crouch, author and partner for theology and culture at Praxis, has talked about the fact that although Jesus models servanthood for us – for example, in his washing of his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–16) – he does not deny the power he has as God’s Son. It is not that Jesus becomes powerless, but that he doesn’t worry about the privilege and status that humans often associate with power. Instead, Jesus shows us that power is a characteristic of God, which we possess as image bearers, but which we should be willing to use or lay aside to pursue justice and peace. 

To bring the kingdom of God into being, we need to show this willingness to give up the status or privilege of power. We should be accountable to others in the way we possess, express and use power. It should always help to open up relationships between humans and God. This is seen most clearly in Jesus, who could have used his power to escape the cross. 

Paul describes what Jesus did instead in his letter to the Philippians: ‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!’ (Philippians 2:5–8) 

As peacebuilders it is important to be aware of power in two ways. First, we need to be aware of the historical power relationships between those who are in conflict, so that a peacebuilding process can begin to deal with misuse of power. Second, we need to be aware of our own power and of historical power dynamics between our own culture and others, in relation to the people we are working with, so that we do not accidentally create additional problems.  

[1] If you are interested in learning more about the theology of the image of God, you can read Tearfund’s essay collection Made in the image of God.

Hannah Swithinbank
Hannah Swithinbank is Tearfund’s Theology & Network Engagement Manager.