To Change the World, Essay II, Chapter 7

The title of the second essay is “Rethinking Power,” and Hunter now wraps it up with some “theological reflections.”  Power, he writes, is intrinsic to our relationship with nature and other people.  But power is not necessarily force (“hard” power); in fact, force means that power is weak rather than strong because it has to resort to force.

Power is far more strongly and efficiently demonstrated when it is exercised symbolically and culturally [“soft power”]…. The power that inheres in culture is the capacity to define what is real in all the ways that reality presses against us….  The power to define [truth, knowledge, legitimate science, valuable goods and ideals, family, sexuality, friendship, moral and just behavior], to name them, and to describe their purpose is power of the first order for it portrays the natural and social world in ways that predispose some action versus others.  The capacity to define reality varies extensively and those individuals and institutions that have more engage in a kind of “symbolic violence” (or forms of coercion that are effected without physical force) against those who have less.  The ultimate expression of this symbolic violence is to so thoroughly define a situation that dissent or opposition becomes unimaginable. (178)

This idea of “symbolic violence,” Hunter notes, is drawn from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and his broader ideas of power are influenced by, among others, Michel Foucault.  He disagrees with postmodernists like Nietzsche and Foucault because he doesn’t think that power is the only thing that matters when looking at human behavior (as Nietzsche and Foucault do), but he does think that power is always at least present.  I think that this definition of power is really insightful, because it takes into account a dimension of power that we rarely think about.  Hunter has done well in this book in bringing out the idea that culture and power are most influential when the world that they create is simply accepted as reality.

The one thing that I don’t like about this view is his acceptance without reservation (at least as far as I can tell from having read this far) of the concept of “symbolic violence.”  My concern with it is that if a person or culture defines reality in a way that is true, the people who then accept that are not victims of symbolic violence in the same way that people who believe falsehoods are.  Good parents who teach their children are not trafficking in the same cultural “violence” that cult leaders use.  Marvin Olasky relates the story of Vietnamese schoolchildren who were told to ask first God and then Ho Chi Minh for candy, and were of course given candy only in the second case.  Olasky says that preventing people from knowing God is the ultimate injustice.  Sure, this is an amateur example of symbolic violence, but applying that term to any case of the power to define reality doesn’t leave room for the true definition of reality (since postmodernists deny ultimate reality, that’s probably not a concern for them).  I’m certain that Hunter believes this too but some kind of qualifier might have been good idea.

Hunter also identifies three other dynamics of power: it “tends to become an end in itself,” the relational character of power means that the less powerful still have some ability to resist, and power has “unintended consequences,” “act[ing] back” on the users (for example, technology helps us to exert power over our environment, but it also has its own power over us, as it changes our culture and daily lives) (179-180).  I think that an example of this would be the immense convenience of communications technologies that also put us “on call” at all times.

Given all of this, a human being cannot disconnect himself from power, and for Hunter this is a severe weakness of the neo-Anabaptist position.  The church itself has power as an institution, so how do we best use it?  He lays out “two essential tasks” (184-187):

  • “Disentangle the life and identity of the church from the life and identity of American society” so that the church embodies God’s norms rather than blessing American culture in areas like education, courtship, work, leisure, and retirement.
  • Make a distinction between “public” and “political” with the intention of interacting with the world in a way that doesn’t conform to the resentful political culture.  Public witness is good, he believes, but not when it’s entirely political.

The model that he offers as a substitute is drawn from his observations of Jesus’ social power during his earthly ministry.  He describes four characteristics of Jesus’ social power:

  • It was rooted in “his complete intimacy with and submission to his Father.”
  • Jesus refused “status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them.”
  • His refusal of status and privilege was motivated by his love for people and creation.
  • He did not coerce those who did not believe in him.

The third essay will look at how these things can be lived out by American Christians today.

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