The Personalist Project

Power struggles are a consequence of the fall in Eden. Human persons are meant to live as equals. Christians are called to give ourselves in love and service. The strong, in particular, are responsible to serve the weak, the rich the poor, the well the sick.

But it doesn't follow that all power struggles are wrong. Sometimes they are called for. Whenever someone takes what is ours by right, or usurps a prerogative, or treats us with condescenion instead of the respect we are due, we do well to resist him. To fail to resist may well be a fault of weakness or cowardice or sloth. Often its easier and more comfortable to put up with mistreatment than to fight it. But it's not okay. We ought to stand up for what is ours, and we ought to resist those who are illegitimately "lording it over us," whether they realize they're doing it or not. It's about our commitment to human dignity, including our own.

A black man in the Jim Crow south who got angry when he was called "Boy" wasn't being touchy or uppity; the men who used the term were in the wrong, no matter how friendly their intentions or pleasant their tone of voice. 

There is nothing passive aggressive about defending your boundaries or refusing to cooperate with someone who is taking what's yours or failing to give you your due. Nor is it okay to withhold what belongs by right to someone else because you think they should first ask for it nicely. It's not okay to usurp the prerogatives of someone else's office, because you think you know better what to do with them.

Mark Twain's epic book, Joan of Arc, has a great scene. I won't quote it directly, having only the audio version at hand. But it goes something like this: Joan is about to sound the charge against a fortified city held by the English. A minister of the king is opposed to the idea. He thinks it rash. He wants to delay and discuss it first. He tries to tell her, as the King's minister, that she should desist. She reminds him that she answers to the king alone and asks him whether the King has instructed him to tell her to desist. He says, "Not in so many words, but..." Without letting him finish, Joan shouts, "Charge!"

Was she rude? Was she being authoritarian? No. She was acting with the power duly vested in her. It was the minister who was in the wrong. By pretending he was speaking for the king and calling for delay, he was undermining her authority. She was right to push right past him.

It's on my mind because I've been dealing with an officious person today—someone who seems to want to proceed according to what she thinks is best, regardless of the rights I have under the relevant law. She doesn't want to hear about my rights; she wants to discuss it on the phone. I'm not open to discussing the question, giving her my reasons, or listening to her explain why she thinks her ideas are good ideas. Not because I'm mean or arrogant, but because I care about the principle at stake.

It looks like I'm in for a power struggle.

Comments (4)

Rhett Segall

#1, Dec 7, 2014 5:29pm

Katie, I agree with you but think that a Christian has to add another perspective from St Paul: 1 Corinthians 6:7 :

Now indeed [then] it is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against one another. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather let yourselves be cheated?

I do not know how to reconcile the imperitive to stand up for our rights on the one hand and Paul's injunctive on the other. Perhaps the reconciliation is found in DvH's analysis of mercy where he points out that before being merciful it's necessary to ask whether mercy in this situation will actually be morally harmful to the "culprit".

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 7, 2014 6:31pm

I think it's important to keep the context of that verse in mind. The preceding verses indicate that what outrages St. Paul is not so much that Christians have disputes with each other, but that they are resorting to the "ungodly" Roman courts to settle them. Better to be cheated than to bring your complaint to a corrupt secular court.

If disputes arise (which is regretable in itself), Paul says, "appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?"

He is reprimanding the Corinthians for their corruption and their wordly-mindedness. He is not prohibiting them from standing up for their rights. He himself stands on his rights as a Roman citizen when he's arrested.

Gary Gibson

#3, Dec 8, 2014 7:10am

something to ponder - thanks, Katie!

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 8, 2014 11:43am

A qualification on my point in response to Rhett:

I don't want to seem to say that we always have to fight for our rights, when those rights are being trampled by someone else. Sometimes, abandoning our rights can be a sacrifice of love, as Jesus did in allowing himself to be crucified.

I only want to say that sometimes the moral call of the moment is to stand on our rights or defend our boundaries—in one way or another to refuse to cooperate with our own illegitimate subordination.

This is especially true for people who have a habit of being too passive or slavish.

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