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Power over? Why not power with?

Ed Wolff, Community Voices Columnist • Aug 3, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Power and control. I write about both of these because of the dire cultural situation existing, especially with our national government, but also, to some extent, our state and some local governmental bodies, as revealed in the Washington County Board of Education.

Power and control are both a blessing and a curse, depending on the participants purpose and goal. There are two purposes worth noting, “power over” and “power with.” As far as “power over” is concerned, the curse can be explained in an old adage, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unfortunately, since the beginning of time, humanity has yearned for “power over” rather than “power with” for a myriad of reasons. “Power with” provides a different perspective. It is the power that comes together with respect for each person and/or entity to provide higher and deeper values for all involved.

There are six levels of conflict that arise out of the need for power over and control over. The first level occurs when a problem occurs. A problem arises when the participants cannot resolve it. At this level, the participants are wrestling with different perspectives as they try to resolve it. If it is not resolved, the second level appears in the form of disagreement. This is the time for the participants to engage in mutual listening to better understand and identify common values, processes, and goals for a healthy resolve through consensus or compromise. Unfortunately, it is also the time when participants can become inflexible and take opposing positions. This leads to the participants involved taking sides, which is the third level of conflict. Participants leave behind reason and cooperation and they develop strategies that establish power over and take control. If level four develops, it is described as a “war” within a group. Levels five and six describe hopelessness. Does this sound familiar? Have you been a part of or connected with such experiences?

Let me give an example to which all of us can relate. It is the experience we have when we are in conflict with our spouse, partner, significant other, good friend, or a family member. When we fail to be open to understand the other person’s perspective, i.e. “I’m right,” “he’s wrong,” or any variation of it, and neither party takes time to listen, the real issue the becomes one of power and control.

You have heard me use the phrase in my writings, “the good ole boys.” I have mentioned the challenge we face with inclusivity, whether it be ethnicity, country of origin, sexual orientation, economic status, faith tradition, mental capacity and/or political perspectives. The need for power over and control over might arise from fear, ignorance, familial indoctrination, the need for recognition, or from traumatic experiences. Peel away the layers of intent or development, and at the foundation will be the need for power over and control over.

Our national and state political atmosphere will always demonstrate, very openly, the existence of power over and control. However, over the years it has become more and more intense. I contend that two factors drive this need and desire. They are the unlimited terms for the legislative bodies and the exorbitant funding of elections. Term limits and monetary controls would do much to force politicians to use their innate gifts rather than their ability to manipulate the system through these two factors. It would not be perfect, but it would be an improvement.

In addition, the lack of responsibility of the voter has added to the challenge, both because of apathy and the inability of voters to have access to voting or time to vote. Those with the power and control influence the lack of ability to vote. The power to vote could be called “power with” and “control with.”

The Christian faith is not excluded from the affects of power over and control over. In my years of experiencing the faith community from the perspective of a minister, an influential factor is the hierarchy. It provides power over and control over from theological and moral interpretations. Unfortunately, worldly concerns then become much more difficult to address.

National and state corrections will take time. First of all because of “power over” and “control over,” our cultural system has been rigged from the beginning. The positive part of our history is that we have a Constitution that permits us to take corrective action, as stated in the Preamble, “We the people.”

The real power begins at the local level. Here, it is possible to develop relationships across all the lines that divide us. Here, it is easier to break down walls. Here, as we develop inclusive relationships through schools and other connections, we find that our hopes, dreams, needs, frustrations, concerns and fears are relatively similar. We can build on what we have in common, rather than develop the conflict that divides us.

I believe it’s possible.

The Rev. Edward Wolff of Jonesborough is a retired Lutheran minister and progressive activist.

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