November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
January 28, 2019
In 2000, I was seduced by power. That year, I had become the dean of a metropolitan cathedral. I remember being delighted at having my own parking spot, which I guarded zealously. In those days, cathedral parishioners would also address me as “Mr. Dean,” an archaic but enticing turn of phrase. In other words, the seductions of power are not necessarily dramatic. A word, a gesture, a parking spot—that’s all it takes.
Years ago, I asked an archdeacon about an obscure aspect of the liturgy, and he became incensed at my impertinent behavior. The archdeacon began to yell at me, to shout insults that echoed off the sanctuary walls. Yet I did not complain. Others who witnessed his performance said nothing. The archdeacon, I suspect, felt little shame about his outburst and most likely did not view it as an abuse of power.
Our lack of response seems to suggest that we thought such abuses of power were normal, and perhaps legitimate, and I think we were correct. This kind of incident is played out repeatedly in churches all over the country and across the theological spectrum, including in churches with less hierarchical structures.1 Churches are human institutions and like all human institutions, they foster the dream of the strong leader. In politics, for example, we permit exceptionalism and a mission creep of executive power. It is normal for us to imbue our leaders with power and to overlook their abuses.
In my denomination, the secular practices of authority are, in fact, at the heart of our modern origins. Typically, we remember that the Church of England was established because Henry VIII wanted a divorce. This is true, of course, but Henry’s desires for marriage and progeny were in the context of a larger political struggle. In addition to coveting an heir, he aspired to be the locus of church authority instead of the pope. Henry VIII sought to be sovereign and supreme, and this legacy must be acknowledged.
As I have begun to wrestle with the church’s use and misuse of ecclesiastical power, I have found the French philosopher Michel Foucault to be a helpful conversation partner. No theorist is perfect, and Foucault had his issues with opacity, a lack of secondary sources, and gender exclusivity, but contra Miroslav Volf, who argues that Foucault does not take the concept of truth seriously, I find Foucault to be a diligent searcher of historical truth, particularly in the context of power relations.2 And I believe we must follow his example—discovering, mining, and refining truth so that we may better reflect Christ the abdicator of power.
Foucault maps out many different kinds of power—sovereign power, disciplinary power, and biopolitical power—but perhaps the most striking in the context of the church is his concept of sovereign power. This is power that flows through a leader who believes that she, as supreme or sovereign leader, is the exception to the law or the ultimate maker of the law. Since at least the time of Constantine, the church has been enmeshed with this kind of power, and Foucault would argue that such power is still operative today. As he writes in The History of Sexuality, “We still have not cut off the king’s head.”3 So why is this sovereign or monarchical power important? And how did it emerge?
To explain the development of modern governance, Foucault creates a schema known as pastoral power that is based on his reading of power relations in the church.Pastoral power describes the dynamic between shepherd leaders and sheep followers that is described in Luke 15:1–7 and John 10. In these passages, we read that the shepherd is responsible for each sheep, and each sheep is dependent on the shepherd. Obedience is highly valued in this dynamic, as there is no other way to salvation. Sociologically, this dynamic creates an unequal relationship that strengthens the power of leaders and disempowers the faithful. Ironically, this form of ecclesial power influences the style and character of monarchical, and later, modern governance.
For Foucault, power is always linked to knowledge: “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge,” he writes, “nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”4 Likewise, in churches, the shepherds have a tendency to exercise epistemological power over the sheep. Church leaders are regarded as bearers or guardians of knowledge who have been divinely authorized as shepherds, for shepherds speak to the sheep on behalf of the good shepherd. This means that the church community—that is, both the church leaders and the congregants—has a tendency to interpret leaders’ interpretations as true and to develop a culture of obedience.
Moreover, a church leader’s divinely authorized epistemic authority and oversight of a church’s formal and informal conversations (i.e., its discursive practices) are further reinforced by rituals and practices, like commissioning, ordination, and enthronement, that increase the sense of authority for these leaders.5 These rituals and the elevated language we use to describe almost all actions and relationships in the church serve to obscure power relations, as the complex relations between leaders and followers are colored by a piety that is inflected by words like sacrifice and obedience.
The presence of monarchical and pastoral power creates obvious temptations for leaders to court sovereign power.6 Power and its trappings are seductive, especially when they have been sanctified. Under these conditions, leaders can develop an inadvertently proprietorial air about knowledge. This is what Foucault refers to as “the sovereignty of the knowledge possessed by the warder.”7
Yet kings need kingmakers, and the entire church community is complicit in the power imbalance I have described. As the philosopher Judith Butler suggests, there is a clear relationship between our desire to survive and sovereign fantasies.8 Therefore, correcting the power imbalance in the church is not merely a matter of outing princes. Instead, we must name the factors that cultivate princely attitudes.
To that end, it may be helpful to discern how the culture of our church communities resembles the power structure of secular institutions. In both the political and corporate worlds, for example, we see success lauded, regardless of the casualties. If you make the deal, that is all that matters. It is imperative that Christianity tackle the notion of success differently.
One way in which contemporary churches begin to look like the power structures of the secular world is in our focus on stewardship and micromanagement. In the name of stewardship, many churches are uncritically adopting modern management concepts and strategies. In the name of efficiency, church leaders have been embracing micromanagement techniques, which easily devolve into fault-finding, “withholding information to maintain power over people,” “refusing to delegate authority,” or even bullying.9 In other words, micromanagement is indicative of sovereign power displaying “calculated, controlled strategies of power.”10
Churches that exercise sovereign power also focus largely on the instrumental value of persons. In such a church, the marginalized suffer greatly. We see this in the headlines today as we read about the appalling abuses committed by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, California, and elsewhere. Some of the coverage suggests that church leaders were often more concerned about the opinion of the insurers than the anguish of survivors.11 This would come as no surprise to Foucault, who explains that throughout history children have been treated as the estranged other.12 And yet treatment of the other is the measure of our ethical and spiritual life (Matt. 25:31–46), which makes the uncovering of these offenses an important opportunity for critique and transformation.
This transformation might begin by incorporating the egalitarian practices of the early Jesus movement. The church is called to be radically different, and the Apostle Paul is an advocate for an Athenian practice of public assembly (ekklēsia) in which truth is spoken freely (parrhēsia). Under his direction, the public assembly of the Athenians is adapted to the liturgical assembly, a space that is open to all and in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV).13 This proclamation is underscored by the fact that many members of the church at Galatia were not, in fact, Jewish or Greek but Galatians, who were considered barbarians by the Romans.14 Thus, in the welcoming space of the first-century church, love generates a shared sense of identity and unity (Gal. 3:26–29), which finds its fulfilment in freedom to live for others: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1).
Paul shows us that the church is called to be radically different. We are called to share this open space, this ekklēsia. As an open space of freedom, then, children matter. Survivors of sexual abuse matter. As an open space of freedom, the end does not justify the means. Relationships matter. They cannot be monetized or turned into data. Relationships embody the ends of our calling. Divine, human, and ecological relationships are interrelated and invaluable.
If we are to step away from Foucault’s articulation of pastoral power and into Paul’s vision for the church, we need to embrace self-critique. As sovereign power is the default position of institutions, including the church, Christian leaders tend to unwittingly or covertly exercise entitlements at the expense of others. The task of self-critique, then, is to attempt what I have attempted here, but in terms of the specifics of our individual contexts: we must examine and name problems. This is the starting point for establishing legitimate authority, the kind of authority that is not authoritarian but, rather, has the capacity to empower others. As an open church that strives to be a space of freedom, we must look for the ways that we can share power. We cannot stand outside the mesh of power-relations and objectively see where the power currents lie, but we can make choices about our use of power. In other words, we can choose mutual engagement. We can also choose institutional transparency, which then acts as a check on power relations.
I no longer need a designated parking space. Maybe this is the beginning of wisdom. It is certainly liberating, as it takes a lot of energy to sustain the old power structures. In many ways, this was Paul’s intuition. That is, the church as ekklēsia is an open space, and that openness makes the realization of freedom possible (Gal 5:1, 13). In contrast, churches under sovereign power, hold us captive. They focus on the instrumental value of persons, pursuing order over love. To address the problem of power, we must change the church’s culture by changing its controlling model from monarchy to open space.
Then, in ournew freedom, we are called to action. We are called to resist the ways our society treats others and to choose to live for others. These decisions are not easy, as we are tempted by “the spell of monarchy.”15 But the church is called to be an open space of freedom, a discipleship of equals,16 a space in which love generates unity, honors diversity, and finds fulfillment in freedom (Gal. 5:1). And by addressing the murky power relations within the church, we will substantially contribute to the public realm, for in the open space of freedom, we are all empowered, and when our power is shared, it is for the benefit of everyone.
Steven G. Ogden
Steven G. Ogden is a researcher and writer of both academic and popular works. His latest book is The Church, Authority, and Foucault (2017), a scholarly exploration of the problems and possibilities of power within the church, and he is currently working on a book on violence. Ogden lives in Adelaide, Australia, and is an adjunct lecturer in theology at Charles Sturt University, as well as a research fellow at the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre.