Hi there! We’ve been talking lately about broken social systems. Today we tackle the nature of power in these systems’ leadership and examine what about it is so harmful to the folks in those systems.
First, a brief overview. A social system is the framework by which a group of people organize and rule themselves. It’s a network of people and all their rules and mores, the customs, institutions and laws they create for themselves, and values all contributing to keeping the group’s members unified and on the same page with each other. A public school can be understood as a social system, and so can a college sorority. Religions are obviously social systems, and so are Iron Man Arizona and IBM. A nude beach operates under a social system, and so does a monarchy.
Any time you get people together in groups, they’re going to start organizing themselves and trying to differentiate themselves from all the other groups–and they’ll also try to demonstrate their own superiority to the other groups. Making and arranging ourselves into social systems comes naturally to us. From a very early age, children figure out who’s in the group and who isn’t, and start learning as young as three years old about group characteristics such as race.
A social system becomes broken when it starts causing harm to people both in and out of its group, and when it fails to deliver what its leaders and designers have promised it can do. But “broken” doesn’t imply a loss of power. To the contrary, a broken system’s leaders might have even more power than those in a healthy one because a broken system relies upon a shrewd understanding and brutal deployment of unwarranted power among its leaders.
That’s the kind of power we’ll be talking about today.
First Principle: Those in Power Seek More Power, and They Don’t Like to Share.
A while ago I noted that right-wing fundagelical Christians like Kim Davis are a lot more concerned with gaining and holding onto their power than they are about doing all that boring serve-and-love-your-neighbor stuff the Bible tells them (repeatedly) that they should be doing.
And there’s a reason for these Christians’ laser-like focus on self-proclaimed, self-fueled “culture wars” that serve no other purpose besides re-enshrining Christian privilege back into dominance in the United States: they are losing their onetime power over other people more and more completely and quickly by the day. Every single day, thousands of Christians walk away from church culture–many forever. Every single day, another three or four churches close their doors permanently. Every year, outsiders’ perception of fundagelicals as a group gets a little more negative; every year, more studies come out completely debunking their favorite talking points–be it about the age of the Earth (4.55 billion years old) or whether the HPV vaccine causes little girls to become promiscuous (it doesn’t, and even if it did, WTF, Christians?).
Little wonder so many of them wonder aloud and cry out during political meetings about how to get “their” country back from the scary Others who seem to be peeling fundagelicals’ control away bit by bit. Not once have I seen a Christian get up at one of these meetings and cry aloud, “How can we serve our neighbors better than we are?” or “I want to know how to give everything I have to the poor to better follow Jesus!” No, it’s always “I want my country back!” It’s not about doing loving things for one’s neighbors; it’s about retaking what Christians think belongs to them.
That’s why these Christians sneer at the idea of a suffering-servant Jesus as too feminized and wimpy for their tastes and paint for themselves instead a macho, gun-totin’, wrasslin-watchin’ musclebound Jesus who wouldn’t look much out of place among the Duck Dynasty cast of faux-billies–while the wimminfolk look on adoringly. And that’s why so many of these Christians pine after an imaginary once-upon-a-time when they think their power was uncontested and when their control of society was happily embraced, endorsed, and accepted by everybody who wasn’t in power. This magical time did not exist, and was as far out of reach for most people years ago as Wonderland is for us today, but simple reality is no match for fundagelical dreaming.
People who desperately want power will gravitate to whatever social system they think has the highest likelihood of rewarding them with it, and they will game the system however they must to get the most of it. And once they have it, all they want is more of it–and they really don’t want to see anybody else having it or getting it. They see their chosen idol as a zero-sum game: if they have all of the power available, then nobody else can have any of it. If someone else gets any of it, then that means there’s less of it for them.
Second Principle: Power is a Meta-Religion.
The lust for power, just like misogyny, transcends religion. Long before our primitive ancestors began making up myths to explain where the sun goes at night, they were vying for power and jealously guarding it. Even animals do it, as anybody who’s ever tried to introduce a new housecat to a houseful of pets can attest. And long after our species looks at religion as a quaint holdover from olden times, they will be doing the exact same thing people have always done to gain and keep power.
Religion could be looked at as a means of acquiring, holding, and increasing power, as well as a conduit for expressing it. For all the ministers who get into the field of ministry really wanting to do some good and help people, there are way too many hucksters who see it as the easiest and most effective way for them to get power for the least effort and time. It’s an irresistible equation. And it sure doesn’t take long to notice that many of the biggest-name preachers revel in the attention, power, and glory they’ve grabbed for themselves. They wallow in a level of fame that the itinerant apocalyptic preacher featured in the Gospels would never have recognized, much less endorsed.
And far from condemning the excesses and luxuries these leaders display, far too many Christians just want their cut of the pie before it’s all gone. How else are we to explain the way Joshua Feuerstein shamelessly claws for attention, or the constant stunts pulled by aspiring Christian vloggers Sam and Nia Rader? Or studies showing that young people would far rather have fame and wealth than increased spirituality or the ability to help others? A third of today’s young people are Nones, but that still leaves a hell of a lot of hypocritical young Christians who want stuff that their religion is completely clear about condemning.
Their real god is plain to see, and their devotion to this god is unwavering and complete.
Third Principle: People in Power Have One Goal, and That Is To Protect Their Power.
A number of Christian groups hand a lot of power to a select group of their members, almost entirely men, who are chosen on the basis of fortuitous birth or good acting skills. In the hierarchical world of right-wing Christianity, especially, real qualifications for leadership are eschewed for accidents of birth and projected charisma.
Because they possess these ersatz qualifications, these fortunate few are handed nearly-literal life and death power over those below them in the hierarchy. Husbands are considered the literal masters of their wives (content note: this
idiot pastor thinks wives are required to stay with emotionally abusive and/or substance-addicted husbands); parents are the literal owners of children; pastors can command their flocks to do almost anything; and denominational leaders can force individual churches into line over doctrinal issues.
Those at the top of their hierarchy are expected to use this power wisely and to the benefit of those below them. The whole idea is that “God” gave them this power in order to serve others. Some Christians even consider this servitude a requirement for leaders in their religion. “Leading by serving” is one of the more gag-worthy sayings to come out of the religion, and it’s a phrase that gets parroted almost by rote by adherents.
But nothing forces leaders to use their power in this manner except their own consciences. There is definitely no Jesus forcing those in power to behave themselves and use that power only to other people’s benefit.
In the real world, we know that leaders sometimes abuse their power over those below them. That’s why we have extensive laws protecting people from their leaders. Hell, we even have laws protecting those who simply call attention to the leaders who are doing something harmful. Entire citizens’ groups exist to keep an eye on industry leaders–like Hanford Challenge, which holds accountable the administrators of the Hanford, Washington nuclear site and those handling its cleanup. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) exists to make sure the American government is spending its money and using its power the way it’s supposed to. And other laws try to ensure fairness for all American citizens, like due process and various anti-discrimination measures like the Civil Rights Act.
We know better than to hand unilateral power over to anybody without any kind of check or balance on that person’s wielding of power. We know that left unfettered by oversight or force of law, nothing stops that person from doing things with power that hurt others. We know that some people even revel in hurting others by flexing their power over them. And we know that when an entire group is denied representation and a significant voice in the organization’s social system, that group is at risk of becoming prey for abusers, who know that nobody will listen to someone who has no voice. So we know that every group needs to have a voice in the system that governs them and wields power over them. It’s not just “nice” to have equal representation; it’s a requirement.
In Christianity, though, often adherents believe that their leaders are “anointed” by their god to lead them, and that this divinely-granted authority doesn’t need any kind of oversight or governing rules. In adherents, trusting ministers is not only a requirement but a virtue, while casting any criticism or suspicion upon them is seen as a mortal sin in the eyes of their god. Some denominations’ leaders, like Southern Baptists, actively resist any attempt to formally rein in the abusers in their ministerial ranks or even keep track of them. And in others, no matter how utterly heinous and reprehensible the pastor’s misdeeds are, Christians are encouraged to blame an abuser’s victims and to believe whatever half-assed excuse the abuser offers for his behavior.
The people in power in these organizations are not interested in protecting the vulnerable in their ranks; they are interested in maintaining their power and protecting their own.
That is why, when students at Pensacola Christian College raised serious and credible rape allegations a couple of years ago, they got not only blamed for inviting their rapes but almost immediately expelled for violating their school’s honor code by “fornicating.” One of the rapists involved was not only never confronted, but never disciplined by the school and is now a pastor. Nobody is ever surprised to hear about this total lack of accountability and responsibility among Christian leaders, however. Abuse stories often end with “and he’s still/now a pastor.”
Christian leaders resist even the idea of accountability. Watchdog groups are usually centered outside of their power structure, and if they actually say anything about one of these leaders, generally they get a lot of brutal “Christian love” slung their way. Accusations of “divisiveness” and worse are in store for anybody who dares to speak up about anything going on in ministry.
When Christian leaders are finally called to justice for crimes committed against others, it is because someone called secular justice down upon them. I’ve heard, as in with my own two ears from people standing right next to me, a number of Christian men openly say that only their fear of prison stopped them from committing this or that crime–never any fear of Hell. I’ve seen this sentiment echoed many times over the years. Whatever Christians might say to the contrary, they certainly act like they know deep down that Hell doesn’t really exist and isn’t really a danger for them, and yet they know perfectly well that if someone calls the cops on them for committing a crime, then that’s a real threat! It is the secular justice system that forces Christian leaders to behave and not their social system.
It’s quite clear who Christian leaders really want to protect. They show us this truth every time they respond to a new scandal.
Rejecting the Power Play.
These three principles are a big part of why I consider Christians’ social system broken: it promises a lot of things to adherents. It promises them that their leaders are trustworthy. It promises that if they follow the rules, they will be kept safe from harm. It promises that everyone’s on the same page with regard to sincere motivation to do their jobs completely and with a whole heart, and that everyone is working toward the same goals.
It fulfills exactly none of these promises.
Instead, the religion overflows with endless waves of scandals, sickening examples of hypocrisy and abuse, and unimaginable overreach. The further right we go into the religion’s pool, the more we see that it has absolutely no mechanism in place whatsoever to judge who really is or isn’t qualified to lead, giving these roles to people in a manner that might be called arbitrary in other organizations. It has even less of a way of calling attention to these leaders when they step out of line, much less a way of censuring and removing them!
This particular aspect of the broken system adds up to an effortless privilege enjoyed by the haves, while the have-nots languish and are preyed upon at will by their superiors.
Little wonder that Christians themselves are starting to vote with their feet. It’s much easier to simply leave such a group than it is to fight an entrenched power structure that is certain to react with brutal retaliation any time its privilege is threatened. What really astonishes me is the lengths to which adherents will go to try to salvage and redeem a system that seems totally irreparable; often some of them spend years dragging their peers along kicking and screaming before finally realizing that they need to go do something more constructive with their time.
When they do, trust me, their onetime tribe will only hope that the door doesn’t hit ’em where the good lord split ’em. They regard these defections as a necessary purifying process, one that will leave them with… what? A winnowing of the people who actually care about love, compassion, integrity, and honesty. A surging flight of those who aren’t gullible and trusting enough to put up with endless abuses, leaving behind countless predators circling an ever-shrinking herd of prey animals.
A broken system can limp along for a long time, sometimes for centuries, but eventually it will fall apart. For a very long time Christianity had uncontested legal power over people, and dissent was easily enough silenced and crushed. It’s no coincidence at all that right when those conditions stopped being true in American culture, the religion began struggling mightily to retain its power over both its own members and the society around itself. Tellingly, the religion’s leaders’ response to this massive social change is to try to make society go back to the way it was when those conditions were still true, blame those who leave for not wanting to be abused and fleeced, and to try to silence their critics and detractors, because they’re well aware that their desired social system can only exist in those conditions. It can’t exist in a society where people are free to reject and criticize Christian overreach and demands, and where Christians’ offenses and crimes are publicized and brought to justice whenever possible.
That is how it should be. One cannot reason with someone grasping for power in such a broken social system. All one can do is slap away that person’s grabby hands by categorically refusing to grant that person any unwarranted power.
Time will tell if those trying to reform Christianity can manage the trick before the religion falls into total irrelevance. I don’t think they’ve got a whole lot of time left for farting around, but that’s up to them. Either their religion will ride the Fail Train all the way to Irrelevance Station, or else they’ll figure out how to reform it before the final whistle sounds at the platform and then we’ll finally see their religion become the force for good their best and brightest minds want it to be.
And either way… well, you know, right? Say it with me:
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