“Power…has become an evil word, with overtones and undertones that suggest the sinister, the unhealthy, the Machiavellian. It suggests a phantasmagoria of the nether regions. The moment the world power is mentioned it is though hell has been opened, exuding the stench of the devil’s cesspool of corruption. It evokes images of cruelty, dishonesty, selfishness, arrogance, dictatorship, and abject suffering. The word power is associated with conflict; it is unacceptable in our present Madison Avenue deodorized hygiene, where controversy is blasphemous and the value is being liked and not offending others.”
In recent weeks, many people have reminded me of something that I learned in my early days of community organizing: lots of people seem to think that power is always a bad thing, even though it isn’t.
This assumption—that power is necessarily bad, evil, or corrupt—is false. Dangerously so. You cannot have real conversations about why some people are poor and systematically oppressed without talking about power. Nor can you discuss how to help those who are poor and systematically oppressed overcome their oppression without discussing how they might build their own bases of power.
In other words, our failure to talk about power actually just gives the privileged, wealthy, and powerful of the world more power; it excuses them from confronting those systems in the world that benefit them, that give them more power and privilege—and that keep others poor, oppressed, and underprivileged. Our dismissal of power as a concept is in itself a form of oppression because it allows us to avoid discussing the ultimate root of oppression: the fact that some people in the world have more power than others over what happens in their own lives.
Not talking about power is in itself an exercise of power—an oppressive one that never benefits the powerless in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and liberation.
One of my favorite thinkers when it comes to power is Saul Alinsky. Alinsky, a community organizer who was dedicated to improving the lives of poor communities in the USA, defines power quite simply and classically as, “ability, whether physical, mental, or moral to act” (50). But he also offers this other, more detailed definition:
“Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life. It is the power of the heart pumping blood and sustaining life in the body. It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose. Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change. Power, or organized energy, may be a man-killing explosive or a life-saving drug.”
Power, in other words, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the ability to get something done—whether that thing you want to get done is morally or ethically acceptable or not. Adolf Hitler had power—and so did the President Franklin Roosevelt. The repressive, oligarchic government that governed El Salvador during the war had power—and so did Blessed Monseñor Romero. Pontius Pilate had power—and so did Jesus.
Power isn’t good or bad. It’s a tool, like fire, that can either heat or consume depending on who wields it—and that works best when shared.
So let’s not be afraid to talk about it.