In the United States, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Sadly, this problem has not gone away. In Canada, 2-3 women are killed each week and in the U.S., 4 women die every day as a result of domestic violence.* Although these numbers are lower than they used to be, they are still shocking. Indeed, the number of U.S. women killed every day by an intimate partner is roughly twice the number of U.S. military personnel killed every day in Iraq. And domestic violence continues to be the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44: more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
Why is this problem so pervasive, so persistent? What is the root cause? One could, of course, point to many factors. I believe one key issue is power and the way it is used and misused in our homes, communities and institutions.
Like sex and money, power is a difficult subject to talk about in the church. For Mennonites, power can be especially hard to acknowledge and discuss, due to our traditional emphasis on humility and nonresistance. Yet, we cannot ignore power or deny the role it plays in our lives.
I also believe we need to reclaim power as something life-giving rather than expressed only as control and domination. We need to show that love, nurture and creativity also represent powerful forces, which in the end are even stronger and more enduring than domination and death. As the song affirms, it is love, not violence, that is “…Lord of heav’n and earth…” (“My life flows on,” Hymnal, A Worship Book, 580)
Unfortunately, we often view love as weak and passive, with “real” power residing in the ability to control and command others. Thus, power is usually understood as “power over” or “power upon.” A powerful person is able to do whatever he or she wants to do, whatever that may be. They can accomplish whatever they will, without regard to the needs or concerns of others. Bigger and stronger is always better.
Traditionally, this is how Western Christians have also thought about God and God’s power. God is able to do whatever God wants to do. A typical question then was whether God could create a rock so large that God could not lift it. The emphasis is on God standing alone, exerting God’s will over all creation. This is a dangerous view for it implies that God’s primary role is to rule the world in a forceful, commanding way. And those who want to be like God are also required – and entitled – to do the same. They too can use their strength and position to control others.
However, this is not the only image of God in the Bible. There are also images that are nurturing and supportive. In Isaiah, for example, God is portrayed as light, mother, midwife, healer, comforter, prince of peace, savior, liberator, deliverer, helper, creator, planter, provider, potter, teacher, shepherd, wisdom. In addition to power over others, God also uses the power of love and healing to create and nurture life.
Thus, we too can affirm other types of power, such as:
- Power for – the ability to support and protect those in vulnerable circumstances. People can use the strength, knowledge or training they have to assist those who need care and attention. Parents can care for children, doctors and nurses can aid those who are ill, emergency personnel can help those who are injured, citizens can advocate for those whose voices are often ignored.
- Power to – the basic capacity to do what is necessary to sustain and enhance life. Using energy, creativity and knowledge, people can care for themselves and their families. They can grow, learn, reflect and change. They can give life meaning and joy through music, art and literature.
- Power with – the capacity to listen to, learn from and work with others in order to accomplish more than one person can do alone. People can meet together to brainstorm and plan how to solve problems and improve the world around them. Using everyone’s gifts, they can build schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, parks and community centers. They can challenge injustice and end abuse and violence.
- Power within – the ability to use one’s internal strength and wisdom to act in life-giving ways. People can accept themselves and extend this basic respect to others. They can refuse to believe harmful messages that degrade and dehumanize themselves and others. They can hope, struggle and persevere.
Nevertheless, power always involves responsibility. It can be a positive force for good, but the potential to use power in destructive ways is also often present. This possibility is exacerbated by unjust social systems which give more privileges and power to certain people, based solely on their gender, race and class. Without even trying, some people start out ahead of the game. They are given more power to – more resources, more education, more affirmation, more credibility – so that even when they try to act for and with others, it can easily turn into power over them. Due to greater strength, assertiveness and access to resources, one can end up acting in coercive ways, even when trying not to.
Thus, for those who’ve been given more privileges and influence, it is especially necessary to be self-aware and accountable to those who are more vulnerable in relation to us. We must listen carefully to those who’ve been marginalized or hurt, and take their experiences seriously. It is also essential to redistribute the resources of our society, in order to build up and validate those who’ve been broken and oppressed.
In the end, we need to emphasize the power of love: love that cherishes and nourishes life, love that is strong and vigorous, love that is truly “Lord” of heaven and earth.
By Linda Gehman Peachey, Women’s Advocacy Director, MCC US, October 2006.