The power of talking about power: Why power and love are not exclusive

During the first few weeks of middle school, I learned to brace for a punch in the arm every morning. “Being bullied” was a term that I did not want to admit to, but I spent many days as an adolescent enduring disrespectful nicknames, punches and shoves as my bookbag was tossed over my head. I was a short, Filipino boy caught up in the mix of toxic masculinity and shoved-under-the-surface racism of White suburban America in the 1990s. And I was the immediate target of verbal and physical putdowns if I did anything remotely awkward or outside the norm.

So, I understand skepticism about embracing capital “P” Power as a positive. No one wants to associate with a bully, and it’s hard to mention power without thinking of oppression and exploitation such as using money and notoriety and hierarchy to hurt those with less.

Yet in the organizing I’ve done both in New York City and Portland, Oregon, the word “power” comes up frequently. Trainings under NYC organizers Metro IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) often start with getting folks comfortable with the concept of power, simply defined as the ability to change or move something. The Leaven Community Land and Housing Coalition in Portland connects the concept of “life flourishing” with power.

Is this what we want? Churches and Christians talking about power, even actively seeking power? Isn’t this messy? Isn’t this colluding with the world? What about Philippians 2 where Paul writes emphatically about the emptying of self, “servant” leadership and all the rest?

These are the types of anti-power messages that were instilled in me when I came back to faith as a college student. Jesus was revolutionary in giving up all power at the cross. God’s kingdom is “not of this world.”

And there’s certainly good and truth in this. There is something very revolutionary about Jesus rejecting individualistic worldly power and wealth.

The distinction of power as is taught in the organizing world is the difference between Power-OVER versus Power-WITH or Power-AMONG. Power-OVER is top-down, concentrated, self-centered power from oppressive systems. Power-AMONG is collective, more democratic, more people-oriented.

Except when I was younger, what I ended up internalizing from Christianity were anti-power sermons that did nothing to disrupt or discredit Power-OVER social dynamics. Specifically, I had “empty yourself” and “give up power” preached at me by power-centered White men who still seemed to keep a lot of that power to themselves.

This was very harmful for me. As a Filipino-American, I had already internalized the message to make myself invisible. Assimilation was White supremacy’s bargain with Asian immigrants — assimilate, let go of your culture, empty your self at the altar of Whiteness. You can never give enough, however, to satisfy Whiteness. All it takes is, for example, a pandemic to originate in a city in China and, before you know it, an elderly Filipino-American woman is beaten in broad daylight in New York City while being told, “You don’t belong here.”

The gaping void of the Power-OVER system, perpetuated by White patriarchy, regularly twists messages of Christ’s self-giving love and “humility” to take away the power of those who threaten the system. You empty of yourself, you have a humble servant mind like Christ, you stop talking about power. As long as it doesn’t mess up this arrangement.

I have been told not to speak up my entire life. This is why I appreciate how Power-WITH organizing breaks the cycle of bullying and Power-OVER and can ultimately bring real change. In organizing, Power-WITH happens when you speak up. When you matter. When you don’t “empty” your experience and presence but fully show up as a flawed, vulnerable human being who deserves dignity. And, specifically, when we do so with others.

The heart of organizing is one-to-one and small group relational meetings where people share stories of pain and joy with others and find common solidarity. I have felt my humanity come alive when I share the constant fear of “not stepping out of line” or of hearing “you don’t belong here” or sharing how I was bullied as a kid and experiencing another living, breathing human being across the table say, “Yes, me too!” but in a different way.

How does that translate to affecting change? First, the simple act of honoring each other’s dignity is one sacred decolonizing act of love that previews a better world. Then, take that one table conversation and multiply it by one, ten, 50, 100, thousands. People start to see their commonality and say, “Let’s not be bullied, let’s show how we are more powerful when we come together.”

That’s how 6,000 public housing tenants and allies flooded New York City Hall and got millions of dollars in the budget for senior affordable housing. That’s how ordinary church folks in Portland stopped the city from kicking out trailer homes from a lot and influenced City Council to change zoning laws so that faith institutions could quickly build affordable housing on their land. One Power-WITH story at a time.

There is a much-cited Martin Luther King Jr. quote that deservedly makes the rounds: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The pressing issues of our time, like a national racial reckoning and a ravished planet, require collective action and systemic change. This is our call as the church in 21st-century America. We simply cannot do this as individuals doing individual acts of service. We need Power-WITH and Power-AMONG. I pray we answer the call.