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Who got the power?
Reflection on power for service and subjugation
One of the most life-changing things moments in my life was realising, in my late teens, the difference between the X-Men and Magneto, and what it meant on a more existential level.
I noticed this particularly when watching X-Men Evolution, the animated show that ran from November 2000 to October 2003, and which we were lucky to have running about the same time on a local station (I still lived in Lagos, then). And what particularly struck me was the difference in how both these teams recruited new members.
Basically, Magneto (the bad guy, if you needed the reminder) recruited people by appealing to their desire for power. (A through-line through the X-Men mythos is about mutants being uniquely different from regular people, so it was often used to explore how we engage discrimination and prejudice.) So Magneto would approach mutants and remind them how weak they felt, and how powerful they really were and how much more power they’d have if they aligned with him. And of course, way less rules about stuff (as long as they obeyed him, of course, but he never really focused on that). Magneto’s longer term aim was for mutants would take over the world from the “puny humans.”
The X-Men (the good guys), on the other hand, appealed more to meaning, and making a difference. Yes, they appealed to the need for mutants to survive and thrive, but the hope of their leader, Professor Xavier, was that mutants and humans would be able to coexist and thrive even better together than they could separately.
You might say the fundamental disagreement between Magneto and Prof Xavier (who, in the stories, otherwise had sort of a grudging mutual respect for one another) was on what power was for: to serve others, or to subjugate them. To the one, what made them different made them inherently better, while, to the other believed, it made them potentially worse or better depending on what they did with it. One believed that their abilities made them worthy of greater respect, while to the other, it placed on them a greater responsibility.
And that was the first time in my life I began thinking seriously about power and what it means and what we do with it. It was also the first time I noticed that it offered a way to think about the Christian mythos: the divine appeal was to love, while the devilish appeal was to power. And seeing that, for the first time in my life, I learned to distrust appeals to power.
All this was before I would come later to learn about privilege, about discrimination and how humans subjugate one another, about the global history of transatlantic slavery and colonialism, about masculinity and femininity and the entire dynamic, about how humans have used whatever was at hand to dominate others, whether religion or ritual, money or the military. All that would come much later. But a fundamental category for processing it had been clarified in my mind.
And so when I was first to learn about privilege years later, in my late twenties, it wasn’t hard to see that the best use of privilege was not guilt but service. That guilt about whatever privileges I had was still self-serving, still about how I felt, whereas simply putting it in service of those without that privilege both took me beyond myself and also brought others closer to where I was. Where subjugation widened the gap between people, service bridged it.
But I also began to notice something, a dichotomy in the faith I have held dear for most of my adult life and wrestled with for nearly all of my entire life. In general we all struggle to live up to what they claim to believe, and it’s no different in Christianity: many Christians don’t exactly live in line with the faith’s primary document, one of the core themes of which is this:
Power is not yours primarily for your benefit.
That in turn got me thinking about Christianity through the centuries, something I’ve read a good bit on, and it seems to me we’ve often been much less than our best when we’ve been eager for power and eager to use it to protect ourselves or further what seem at the time good ends. And we’ve often been, historically and recently, at our worst when partnering with the power of the state—that’s almost been, to borrow from another story, Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, like us grasping at the One Ring, thinking we may use for good what is almost corrupted in itself.
Power is a funny thing.
We’ve all got it, in one form or another: at home, at work, in our families, over our kids or those of others, over a big or tiny domain. Even among friends and in every relationship the power dynamic is never quite equal. And it’s always interesting to see what we do with the power we have: like they say, give a person a little power and their true character reveals itself. Some people with little power use what little they have with the greatest ruthlessness. You see others with great power who wield it with incredible thoughtlessness. Some wish to get rid of those with power but secretly only so they can, like Magneto, wield it instead. Others see themselves as having no power even as they subjugate those they don’t even take notice of.
Power can do a lot of good, but given human nature it tends to be used for a lot of damage instead. And the thing is, you don’t need to think about doing damage with power to do so: it’s enough to not think about it at all. Even when we think we are only using power for our benefit and not to subjugate, we’re often doing so without realising it. But doing good with power? That takes some thought.
I’m convinced the only good use of power is service.
Where do you have power?
And not just political, but also financial, relational, professional, spiritual, emotional, whatever. However little it is, please consider reflecting on three questions:
In what ways have you focused what power you have inward?
In what ways are you serving with it?
How could you, in 2020, better and more thoughtfully serve with what power up have?
Yours in power,