From the Powerful to the Poor
by Gregory Thompson
This is the seventh article in a series of articles called A People of Repair; a series devoted to an urgent question currently facing every American Christian who seeks to live faithfully in this world: What do we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called? As I have wrestled with this question over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the Church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life.
In previous articles, I explored the shift from Dominion to Communion, a shift in the purpose of our faith, the shift from Myth to Truth, a shift in our interpretation of the context in which we live out our faiths, the shift from Victimhood to Servanthood, a shift on our identities, and the shift from Being Right to Being Good, a shift in our formation, and a shift from Hostility to Hospitality, a shift in our neighborliness. In what follows, we consider the shift from the Powerful to the Poor.
From the Powerful to the Poor: A Shift in Priority
In the early days of my life as a Christian, my understanding of the life of faith was bound to a vision of a life lived in service to the poor. This service was the substance of many of the sermons I heard, the prayers I prayed, and the ambitions that I nurtured. Indeed, it was in the context of a mission to a Navajo reservation that I, for the first time, truly and deliberately devoted myself to trying to walk the path of Jesus. And that path, as I understood it, was a path that led directly to the poor.
Looking back now, I can see with regret how my early concern for “the poor” was freighted with paternalism and largely free of any awareness about the social structures that not only create poverty but also sustain its nearly inescapable force. But I also see that at the earliest moments of my life of faith, that first snowfall of grace, my footsteps were oriented to a life of service to those who lived on the threshold of vulnerability and pain.
At some point in those years, due to some emerging combination of conviction and capacity, I came to be designated as a “leader.” In one respect, this was not only a welcome but a prescient development, for I have in fact spent virtually all of my vocation in one sort of leadership role or another. Even so, this designation, for all of its appropriateness, also came with an unseen consequence. That consequence, simply put, is that it ever-so-subtly re-oriented both my concept of myself and the concept of my faith toward notions of power.
First, toward notions of my own power. I began to think—in a way that I had not previously done—about being a powerful presence, having a powerful mind, and having a powerful impact. But it also led me to think about the power of others—to view (and to value) them not primarily because of their poverty or need, but because of their gifts or promise. At first, this reorientation was so subtle as to evade my awareness. Indeed, the focus on power seemed simply axiomatic, an inescapable (and God-ordained) dimension of how things are.
But over time, this reorientation became more substantive. Without even realizing it, my focus on the call to leadership and the stewardship of power became a touchstone of my Christian identity. This began, of all places, in seminary. I was fortunate—truly fortunate—to study under professors who labored faithfully and unendingly to curtail and shape the leadership obsessions of their young charges. Even so, the efforts of our professors, and the efforts of our own hearts notwithstanding, these obsessions remained broadly in place, determining not only our sense of ourselves and one another but also the vocational paths many of us would ultimately choose.
Within a decade of entering seminary, I and many of those with whom I had studied had moved beyond spirited discussion of leadership to vocational posts that entailed some measure of it. Many of us had moved to what was at that time (and in some quarters, still are) called “places of influence.” There we found ourselves in positions that allowed us not only to know powerful people, but also to shape their imaginations and, in some cases, collaborate with them on initiatives oriented toward missiological impact. Not only this, we found ourselves with the thrilling opportunity to collaborate with people in other places of influence, both in the development of strategies for cultural change and in the enactment of them. And with this, the turn to power was complete: Not only had I become a person of (relative) power, but I was also wholly surrounded by—and co-laboring with—other people of power to leverage our collective agency toward something like broad redemptive change.
However, as exciting as this period was, it was also attended by a growing inner anxiety—a strange disquiet that began to spread across my moral life. I did not understand it at first; indeed, it took me years to truly understand it. But the essence of my disquiet was this: At the very moment in my life in which I was not only surrounded by, but in partnership with people more powerful than I could have ever imagined, I began to see—in myself (I am not innocent) and in others—the terrible, and in my view, inevitable, costs of a life devoted to power. Those costs? The lure of exclusivity. The toxins of self-importance. The ubiquity of instrumental relationships. The ease of moral compromise. And perhaps, above all, the malignant need for control. Each of these bore in upon me with suffocating power.
As important, however, was what I began, for the first time in years, to not see. Namely, the poor. Somehow, in spite of the early seeds of my Christian life, in spite of my explicit theological convictions, and in spite of strong personal agency and extraordinary institutional opportunities—indeed, perhaps because of these things—I had built a life with no real or meaningful room for those at the margins. To the contrary, I had made room, almost exclusive room, for the powerful.
One day, as these realizations converged upon me with particularly terrible force, I set aside a day to hike and pray. I prayed with every step—for forgiveness, for clarity, for courage, for deliverance—and perhaps most of all, for God to speak to me. And, to my utter (and lasting) surprise, God did. Standing at a bend in a hiking trail in Virginia, I heard these words: “Follow me into the dark, and I will be your light.” Upon hearing them I said aloud, “I don’t know the way.” Again, the voice: “Stay close to the poor, and you will know the way.” These words came to me unbidden with what can only be called a supernatural force. I sat down, wrote them in my journal, and resolved to follow them.
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which I did not know what this new path would require of me. The degree to which I still do not know. But what I did know, and what I still know, is that it would mean a conscious movement away from privileging the powerful and toward a life that privileged the poor. Their voices. Their stories. Their agency. Their wholeness. “Stay close to the poor.” And it would, in some mysterious way, mean finding Christ there: “I will be your light.”
At this point, it seems important to say clearly that I have not, indeed do not know how to, disavow power as such. I remain not only aware of the reality of structures of power, but also convinced of the profound responsibility to steward such power (however much one has) for the sake of love. Indeed, as the years have grown since that day on the hiking trail, I see more than ever just how important it is that power of all kinds—relational, economic, cultural, institutional—be not only used on behalf of the poor but, more importantly, be given deliberately and directly to them that they may use it on their own behalf. This path, in other words, did not lead me away from power.
It did, however, lead me increasingly to step away from a life that privileges the powerful, away from the default adulation, deference, and centering of the powerful that had come to be so troublingly axiomatic in my life. And in walking this path (though never perfectly) I have come to the settled conviction that the Church in our time needs to do the same. After all, the prioritization of the powerful that I described above was not some sort of idiosyncratic personal fixation of my own life. It was—and remains—rather, axiomatic for much of the Church itself. Upon reflection, I see that in virtually every religious community or institution I have known, there is an easily discernible practice of centering the voices, ideas, resources, and wishes of those who have—through various means—accumulated economic or cultural power. Indeed, we thrill at their presence, elevate them to our leadership, defer to their wishes, and spend an inordinate amount of time seeking to resolve their concerns.
This is not to say that these people, so rich in power, are not also rich in wisdom, kindness, compassion, and love. Indeed, over the course of my life, I have seen and labored alongside many powerful people who are deeply shaped by the character of the kingdom of God. Many of these people have shaped and blessed my life in incalculable ways. My concern is not about the powerful per se. My concern, rather, is about the ways in which so many Christian communities seem, out of some sort of unholy instinct, to prioritize the powerful in our conceptions of Christian faithfulness, community, and mission. And, my concern is the demonstrable ways in which, precisely because of our prioritization of the powerful, the poor—the marginal, the weak, and the forgotten—remain voiceless among us. If, indeed, they remain among us at all.
Because of this, I believe that the Church in our time—even as we continue to engage meaningfully in ongoing conversations about the nature of influence and the stewardship of power—ought to do so with the trembling remembrance that our place, always and everywhere, is with the poor. And everything that we do—every idea we nourish, every strategy we conceive, and every institution we establish—ought to be conceived not only for them, but with them, and ultimately oriented toward their wholeness. “Stay close to the poor and you will know the way.” It is difficult to overstate how significant this change will actually be for many, many Christians and their communities. Our addiction to power and our infatuation with the powerful runs deeper than many of us even know. And yet, this change—this reprioritization—is the way to life. Not only because this is where our neighbors, in all of their glory and vulnerability, are to be found. But because this is, in the end, where Christ is to be found as well.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.