What is Power, and How Can It Be Used for the Common Good?

An essay by Robert Linthicum, ICON

The Nature of Power

What is power?  Power is the capacity, ability and willingness to act!  Every word in that definition is important for an adequate understanding of power.

First, power is the capacity to act.  “Capacity” means, “the facility to produce, perform or deploy”.  For a group to have the capacity to act means that they have developed or gathered the resources together in order to exercise power.  A military illustration makes the concept of capacity clear.  If a military unit has been issued rifles, but hasn’t been given any ammunition, then they don’t have the capacity to act.  Even though they might want to attack the enemy and are expert marksmen, the absence of ammunition means that they don’t have the resources at their disposal that enables them to act.

Second, power is the ability to act.  Ability consists of having the skill, aptitude and/or competence to carry out the action one wishes to undertake.  Thus, to use our military illustration once again, if one has adequate rifles and ammunition in abundance, but no one in the unit knows how to fire the rifles or can’t hit “the side of a barn”, they don’t have the ability to act.  Capacity without ability still creates a powerless situation.

Finally, power is the willingness to act.  There must be a resolve and a commitment on the part of the group to act, even if that means taking the risks necessary to act.  Thus, if one has sufficient ordinances (capacity) and the skill to use them (ability), but they do not have the resolve or motivation to go into battle, then you would still have a powerless situation.

It takes capacity plus ability plus willingness to act powerfully.  And this is as true of individuals or of a community of people as it is true of an organized basketball team or college students or army or even a nation.

Change cannot occur in a city, a neighborhood, a church, a tribe or a nation unless the people and their institutions have developed their capacity, ability and willingness to act.  Then – and only then – do they have power!

Now I particularly want you to note that power, as I’ve described it above, is neutral.  It is neither good nor evil.  What makes power either good or evil is the intent and commitments of those who exercise that power.  The motivation and intentions of the person or people holding power determines whether that power will move in evil or transformative directions.  Thus, Hitler had the capacity, ability and willingness to act – and he used that capacity, ability and willingness to drag an entire world into war!  But a religious leader like Jesus also had the capacity, ability and willingness to act, exercised that power towards individuals, towards his community of disciples and towards the religious-political powers of Israelite society and began a movement that has transformed society and millions of lives for more than two thousand years!

The Two Kinds of Power

There are two essential types of power.  One type of power is called unilateral.  The other type of power is relational.  Both types of power are built by honing the capacity, ability and willingness of its people and institutions to act.  Either type of power can be used for good or used for evil – but most often is a mixture of both.  But unilateral power primarily organizes institutions and those institutions’ capacity to create and adjudicate laws, use military power, control wealth or act symbolically.  Relational power, on the other hand, organizes people and the institutions of people (e.g., churches, clubs, community groups, unions, etc.) to act as one.  Thus, one can say that unilateral power is essentially institutional while relational power is built upon the people.  Let’s look more thoroughly at these two exercises of power.

Unilateral power is the kind of power that is most often used by large corporations, fiduciary institutions, government and organized religions.  Unilateral power is basically “power over” a people.  There are two types of unilateral power.  Dominating power is the lowest form of power.  That is the power exercised by a government or group through the force of guns and physical intimidation.  It is the tyrannical use of power — colonial, plantation, paternalistic power.  It was dominating unilateral power against which most of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible protested.

A second form of unilateral power is constitutional power.  This is a “higher” or more “sophisticated” form of power than dominating power.  But it is still essentially unilateral in nature.  Constitutional power is power over people as defined by the law rather than defined by force.  It tends to be highly structured and hierarchical, with responsibility being delegated by the people to those who hold power.  That was the kind of power being exercised by Pilate in his trial of Jesus or by massive business that was so virulently opposed by the recent “Occupy” movement. It might have been unethical and even tyrannical, but it was all perfectly legal!

Under constitutional power, those in power theoretically rule by the consent of the governed and thus are responsible for representing the governed.  But, in reality, the governed play little role in the day-to-day operation or influence of the government or of multinational corporations.  Thus, in the United States, the people’s responsibility is to vote upon their selection of representatives and to write letters of protest or telephone their protest.  But that is what people assume is the limits of participation by the people in the decision-making process.

The other essential type of power is relational power.  Whereas unilateral power is “power over” a constituency, relational power is “power with”.  Therefore, it is a higher form of participatory power than is either dominating or constitutional power.  There are two types of relational power, the first being mutual power.  Mutual power exists when two people or groups hold fairly equal power.  Rather than trying to enhance their own power at the expense of the other party, however, mutual power will respect each other’s power and position, working together for common objectives.  It is therefore a negotiating exercise of power.  A biblical example of mutual relational power was the power exercised by David and Jonathan toward each other.  Jonathan had power as the son of the king; David’s power was based upon his military acumen and popularity.  Both men could have acted destructively toward each other, and Israel would have suffered.  Instead, because they loved each other, they used their mutual power to both strengthen and secure Israel.

The second type of relational power is reciprocal power.  This is the deepest form of relational power.  It is one in which the people understand that both parties or forces can benefit from power decisions if they authentically share decisions.  Therefore, reciprocal power is truly shared power, in which each party is of equal strength, is equally participative in the decision-making process, and each commits itself not to its private or exclusive good but to the common good.  This was the type of power being presented in Deuteronomy as the base for a relational culture that resulted in justice, an equitable distribution of goods and the elimination of poverty.  If power is the ability to get things done, relational power is the capacity to organize people around common values, relationships and issues so that they can bring about the change they desire.

Relational Power in Action

People who act together with relational power operate in significantly different ways to people who don’t know how to use power.  The very way you respond to the system in a mutual encounter with them informs them whether or not you and the people possess power (and, therefore, whether they need to pay attention to you or can dismiss you).

For example, people who have built strong relational power with each other will be direct with the leaders of the system they have targeted for action.  They will be confrontive in their statement of the issues (but not necessarily nasty) and specific in what they demand of the systems.  People who don’t feel powerful, on the other hand, will be vague and abstract, and will preach lofty principles but not specific concrete action.  People with power will seek to negotiate; people without power will polarize.  Thus, people with power will seek a win-win resolution of the issue (precisely because they negotiate from a powerful position); people without power will seek to destroy the opposition (“win-lose”).  People with power, when meeting with the systems, will set the agenda for the discussion; people without power will let the systems set the agenda for them.

In essence, people with power will be extremely realistic in what they are seeking to accomplish, willing to build on little victory after little victory after little victory.  People without power, on the other hand, will be idealists who will demand “the whole loaf or none at all”.   People with power are always able to accept “half a loaf” (because they have enough power to know that they can be back tomorrow with greater negotiating force to get the other “half”), and are therefore free to compromise, settle and deal.  People without power will feel the necessity to fight “to the death” or surrender.  Thus, people with power are flexible while people without power are rigid.  Finally, people with power will always be accountable for their actions, while those without power will refuse to be accountable to anyone other than themselves.

If any well-meaning people’s institution (like a church or union or community group) wants to make a difference in its city, it will not accomplish this by pontificating on the same from lofty pulpits or by passing resolutions or releasing statements.  It will make a difference — and will be respected by the political, economic and values-creating systems and leaders of a city — only as the people use power intelligently.  And what does it mean to use power?  It means a willingness to work together in a city as one single disciplined body, rather than each people’s institution “doing its own thing” and seeking to grab all the credit.  It means being direct, confrontive and specific in its demands upon the systems.  It means a willingness to set the agenda rather than reacting to the city’s agenda, being proactive in working for the city’s social righteousness.

It means that it must set and execute its agenda out of its own perceived highest common self-interest in which it also understands both the articulated and unarticulated objectives of the systems.  And out of that understanding, the people’s organization (like ICON) must seek a “win-win” resolution in which both the people and the systems benefit by the decision made.  To accomplish that win, the entire organized body must be willing to negotiate, settle, deal, compromise, work on details, negotiate and negotiate some more while remaining flexible in the midst of the struggle.  It must be realistic in regards to the decisions made and the toll of the struggle.  Each member institution of a broad-based organization like ICON must be willing to be accountable to the full organized body for both its actions and its delivery of the commitments it has made.  In other words, to be powerful, the people organized in that city must be disciplined!  And, finally, for power to be authentically and successfully exercised, the leaders of the people must be able to trust each other, for that is the very essence of relational power!

Relational Power and the Discipline of Community Organizing

The exercise of relational power by any relationally based organization is difficult for it to undertake by itself.  The reason why is because we have such little experience in actually exercising it in “the world as it is”.  Consequently, to effectively exercise relational power in public life, a group needs to be in relationship with a professional community organizer – someone who has been trained and is deeply experienced in the mobilizing of relational power to enable the people’s institutions to work for significant systemic change in its city or community.  That relationship is best lived out in an organization of organizations – an organization of like-minded people and institutions that want to build and use relational power together as their base for impacting the political, economic, educational and social systems of their city and thereby work towards the transformation of their city.

ICON refers to itself as a broad-based organization.  That means two things.  First, the constituency of the organization is broad-based – that is, it includes all kinds of institutions that build their power primarily upon relationships: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, unions, schools, not-for-profit organizations, civic organizations, local neighborhood clubs, etc.  Second, the reach of the organization is also broad-based – that is, it might not only include the entirety of a single city but of an entire metropolitan area or region, like the Inland Empire of southern California.

All organizing, such as that done by ICON, operates around the Iron Rule: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves”.  It concentrates upon equipping the people and their institutions to act powerfully together to bring about systemic change in their societies.  Unless a church, community group, union or any other well-meaning people’s organization joins with other relational institutions and is adequately equipped to use its relational power, it will have an exceedingly hard time being effective in bringing about significant systemic transformation in its parish area, community or city.  But if it knows how to exercise relational power – then watch out!  They will then be a people who know how to use relational power, and will use it to build through confrontation and negotiate their societies into communities of shalom!

Robert C. Linthicum, Building A People of Power (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Press, 2006), pp. 98-101, 106-109.
Used by Permission.  The IAF’s understanding of power has formed the foundation upon which this article is based.