Monday, December 29, 2008

Michael Lindsay and Andy Crouch on power and privilege

I'm now at the Following Christ 08 conference for grad students, faculty and professionals, cosponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity Press. It's kind of an off-year Urbana-like event for folks in the academy and professions. I was at the previous FC conferences in 1998 and 2002, and both were quite significant. 

This year's theme is "Human Flourishing," and prior to the conference proper were a number of day-ahead events. The one I attended was on "Exploring Privilege and Redeeming Power," hosted by the Professional Schools Ministries department of IVCF. This pre-conference brought together people from various disciplines to discuss different dimensions of the use of power. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, gave a summary of his book. A few nuggets:

- Of the 360 Christian leaders he interviewed for his research, only one had ever been visited in the workplace by a local church pastor. Lindsay encouraged pastors to make pastoral visits to their church members' workplaces.

- The greatest indicator of a leader's character is how they treat an assistant.

- Disciplines that can help Christian professionals guard against the trappings of power: sabbath keeping (which is a recognition of human finitude and limits), deep friendship/accountability, humility/integrity, and using power/privilege in service to others.

Then yesterday morning, Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, gave a presentation in which he made a distinction between privilege and power. The track had been using the terms somewhat synonymously, but Andy differentiated them this way: Cultural/creative power is the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. But privilege is the accumulated benefits of past successful exercises of power. In some ways, privilege is coasting on previous actions, whether yours or someone else's.

Others in the track had argued that Jesus divested himself of power, but Andy pushed back against that and made a more careful distinction. Jesus retains power but does not exploit privilege. Jesus would certainly exercise power in feeding five thousand or stilling the storm, but when people wanted to hail him and accord him further status, he divested himself of that privilege.

So too we are called to exercise cultural and creative power in responsible, generative, Christian ways, and to divest ourselves of privilege. Power involves the risk of creating new cultural goods. But privilege can tend to lead to a sense of safety, complacency and entitlement. If we find ourselves in positions of privilege, we should try to find ways to use it on behalf of others. Rather than coasting on past accomplishments, the challenge is to continually use our power to generate new opportunities and cultural goods for others.

This was particularly challenging, to think about how I might be "coasting" on my accumulated benefit/work of the past, and how I might take risks to exercise cultural power for the benefit of others. I'm always a bit ambivalent about discussions about privilege, because it makes me aware of how I might be outside certain spheres of privilege and status. I'm not from a pedigreed background, I didn't go to Ivy League schools, I don't move in upper crust circles. And yet I realize that I do have certain levels of power and privilege that are not available to others, whether in terms of access to education, networks, social capital, etc. It's weird to remember that I do have cultural power, and it's challenging to ponder how I might be a good steward of that power. 

1 comment:

Foggy Blogger said...

Great post Mr Hsu!

The power and privilege question is one that i keep circulating back to. I have a rather difficult and colorful background. And yet in comparison to my family and some friends i have more power than they could ever dream (im the first to go to college). But on the other hand, i feel my lack of privilege next to my middle class friends. It can be hard to find your way when you make such a class jump.

The question now is how do i use my power and acquire some privileges to make a more lasting impact...hmmm.