C. Kavin Rowe: 'Power' in the Christian sense is the concrete shape of hope

The work of institutions and communities will never be complete in our time. But if we live out lives of hope, we participate in God’s remaking of creation in Christ.

The powerful often get a bad rap.

Given the rampant misuse of positions of power, this is of course understandable, particularly in societies where power is supposed to be diffused equally through the rule of the people. But even when we think of other ways of structuring the relations of power, it is hard for us to shake the idea that the powerful remain a problem.

Lord Acton’s cliché is never far from our minds: “Power corrupts, and absolute power …” -- you can finish the dictum yourself. But the truth is, as Andy Crouch points out in his book “Playing God,” simply saying that the wrong use of power by those “in charge” is wrong does almost nothing to help.

As Crouch suggests: “The only way to understand power’s abuse is to begin with its proper use. When we begin with the best kinds of power, we learn some important truths about power that we would never learn even from the most penetrating critique. Most of all, we learn something that criticism will never teach us: what to hope for.” Crouch continues: “If power is dangerous -- and it is -- our hearts will be most prepared to resist its dangers if they have been shaped by hope” (37).

If Crouch is right, the implication for Christian leaders is obvious: we must lead in and toward hope.

But what is real hope?

According to the New Testament, real hope is not the shallow insistence that we can make something of our own that counts. And there’s a good reason for this: the truth of the human lot. Though we often refuse to look it in the face, the stark truth of our deepest trouble as leaders is something like this: all our projects will eventually fail.

Dreams may come to life, but they will die again. Good works may have lasting results, but the results will not last long enough. Buildings may be strongly constructed, but they will eventually decay and fall. “Sustainable” plans for this or that -- put in the noun you like -- may well get off the ground for a very long time, but they will sooner or later falter. A lifetime of work may achieve much, but it will eventually be forgotten. You may be revered and even thanked, but one day not only your work but you, too, will be forgotten.

To say it even more starkly, the trouble with leading in hope is death. For it is in fact the case that living in a world of decay and death threatens our ability to hope.

A quick glance at the New Testament’s grammar of hope shows that hope is focused upon the defeat of death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Absent from its talk about hope is any sense that we will survive the world or that our projects will be immortal. Instead, the New Testament consistently insists that hope is in our resurrection in Christ, in what is unseen (Romans 8:24) or laid up for us in heaven (Colossians 1:5).

Hope, as Paul said, does not disappoint, but it is utterly important to know that this complete lack of disappointment comes on the other side of our deaths and not necessarily at any time before that. We can, says the author of Hebrews, be given the assurance of the things we hope for -- that is faith, after all (Hebrews 11:1) -- but the assurance of hope that comes with faith is the knowledge that God’s defeat of death in Christ Jesus will be ours, too.

The point of the New Testament’s language of hope is that hope is what Jesus Christ gives us in the face of death. Hope is not the wish that we might triumph over our most complex problems and make something fruitful that will last. It is instead the assurance that our eventual defeat on earth -- and the extinction of all our efforts and projects -- is in truth not the final word.

The good news is that God has already put the power of resurrection to work in present life. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it with a startling image, not only has Christ been raised from the dead to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, but we, too, have been seated in the heavenly places with Christ (1:20; 2:6). This is the letter’s way of saying the resurrection is present here and now in the midst of the world.

Indeed, had God not put the power of the resurrection to work in the here and now, it is hard to see why we wouldn’t just wait for death and give up on the present life. The vast amount of effort and time we put into leading well would seem to be a waste.

But here is where power and hope most importantly connect. The power of resurrection that is now here is in fact the gift of hope in the midst of time. God is already making all things new. We recognize that the work is not yet complete in our time, but insofar as we live out lives of hope, we participate in God’s remaking of creation in Christ.

Cultivating thriving communities and establishing vibrant institutions, for example, are the work of hope in the present. They are not ends in themselves but are signs that the proper end of human life is truly seen through the lens of hope. “Power” in the Christian sense, therefore, is the concrete shape that hope takes. Leaders who lead in power will lead their institutions and communities in the way of hope.

This short reflection has suggested that Christian leaders ought to think about power in light of the hope we have in the face of our own defeat and death. Far too often, we try to tackle the problem of power head-on with theories about this or that configuration of justice or claims that amount to little more than “you have too much power; we want some, too.” Or we simply avoid the topic and act as if Christian leaders were only “servant leaders” with no involvement in the dynamics of power.

The truth is, however, that reflecting on power is something all Christian leaders must do, if for no other reason than that they do the work of the powerful. And the way to deal well with power, as Crouch argues, is to focus upon hope. For it is nothing less than the truth of human life that all our power -- and the work we’re able to do with it -- ends in death. And for exactly this reason, hope is what the powerful need to know most of all.