Godtalk: The Power of Powerlessness

Published on 22 Aug 2014

There are different kinds of power and different kinds of authority. Military power for example, physical, political, economic, moral power, charismatic power. And different kinds of authority:  we can be forced into acquiescing to certain demands or we can be persuaded into accepting them. Power and authority are not all of a kind.

Imagine four persons in a room.  The first is a dictator who wields a brutal power. Next to him sits a gifted athlete whose quickness and strength give him a graceful power. The third person is a rock star whose charisma can electrify an audience; another kind of power. We also have in the room a baby. Which of these is the most powerful?

The irony is that the weakest, the baby wields the greatest power. The athlete could crush it, the dictator could kill it, the rock star could out-shine it, but the baby has power of a different kind. It can touch hearts in a way that no dictator, athlete, or rock star can. Its innocent, wordless presence can transform a room and a heart in a way that nothing else can. We watch our language and actions around a baby. The powerlessness of a baby touches us at a deeper, moral level.

And this is the way we experience God's power here on earth, sometimes to our great frustration, and this is the way that Jesus was deemed powerful during his lifetime. The Gospels make this clear. Jesus was born powerless, and he died helpless on a cross. Yet both his birth and his death show the kind of power on which we can ultimately build our lives.

The Gospels describe Jesus' power and authority in exactly this way. In Greek, the original language of the Gospels, we find three words for power or authority. We easily recognize the first two: energy and dynamism. But when the Gospels speak of Jesus as ‘having great power’ and as having a power beyond that of other religious figures, they do not use the words energetic or dynamic. They use a third word, exousia, which might be best rendered as vulnerability. Jesus’ power was rooted in certain vulnerability, like that of a child.

This is not easy to grasp.  Our idea of power is normally rooted in the opposite, namely, the notion that power lies in the ability to overwhelm others. And yet we understand this somewhat in our experience of babies, who can overpower us precisely by their powerlessness. Around a baby, as most mothers and fathers have learned, we not only watch our language and try not to have bitter arguments; we also try to be better, more loving persons.

Metaphorically, a baby has the power to exorcise.  A baby can cast out the demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us. That's why Jesus could cast out certain demons that others could not.

And that's how God's power lies within our world and within our lives, asking for our patience. Christ is always found in our lives just as he was originally found, a helpless baby who must be picked up and nurtured into maturity.

Yet we forever want something else, namely, a God who would come and clean up the world and satisfy our thirst for justice by showing some physical power and banging some heads together here and now.

We are impatient with quiet, moral power that demands infinite patience and a long-term perspective. But that's not the way intimacy, peace, and God is found. 

Peter Knott SJ