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(*** Disclaimer: I am a white, middle-class, cis-gendered male who enjoys and can take advantage of these privileges I’m about to describe. I can’t help but write from my perspective. However, I do try to write as if from the shoes of the marginalized, the abused, the victims and the survivors. I try to do a new cartoon and post every day, so this post is written, some would say, in haste. But I hope it starts to convey the dangers of which I try to speak. I welcome responses that not only confirm, but challenge, correct, or complete what I say.)
I hear a lot of stories about abuse from victims and survivors. In fact, I think more and more of us are going to in the future because of the accessibility of the internet. Many of you will assume that this post has been inspired by my now infamous blog post and ensuing comments, Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What Came First, the Thug or the Theology? I would like to suggest to you that this is only partially true, because what I’m observing and trying to articulate is a pattern, and that post is only a piece of a very large, intricate and developing puzzle.
There is a story I want to tell you before I begin. It is very personal, and I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I must because this is what jolted me into learning about the privileges of power. I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1986 and served that church until 1995 when I left. When I left the ministry then I had no intentions of returning. I was suddenly a layman. Long story short, Lisa and I were looking for a church where we could just relax, get healed and renewed, and restore our passion and enjoy Christian community. We visited a Vineyard church. I asked if we could meet with the pastor before we came. He agreed. When we arrived, I learned the pastor was on vacation and the assistant pastor said he would meet with me. I was insulted that the lead pastor didn’t show me the respect I thought I deserved and keep his appointment with me. Through my conversation with his assistant, it became very clear that there was no respect for me as a minister and that, indeed, I was just another person visiting their church. I suddenly realized I had no influence. I was used to being called “Reverend” and treated with respect. I enjoyed benefits. Even favoritism. Not here. At this church, I was a nobody. I realized I didn’t have any advantages, and that I was really starting from scratch all over again with no investment, no equity, no favors. When Lisa and I left that church, I was struck by how stripped I felt of all advantages, benefits and privileges. But more than that, I was alarmed by how hurt I was, how offended, and how insulted I felt. These feelings were repugnant to me. They were ugly and I was ashamed, so I decided to face the ugly truth. In a flash I saw, because they were now revoked, how I had enjoyed the privileges of power and taken them for granted.
So when I speak of power, I’m speaking from experience. I’m also speaking generally about anyone who enjoys the following privileges. Some can say I’m really talking about influence or the size of someone’s sphere of influence. This may be true, but it doesn’t change the pattern. I am going to use myself as an illustrative example of this dynamic, pretending that I have abused my wife Lisa in some way. I’m going to sound like a real male pig sometimes. Forgive me, but it is for the sake of my argument.
So, here are some of the privileges of power that I can think of. Those in power have:
- A SET OF SKILLS: Those who have power have been endowed with a certain set of skills that they have developed over their lifetime and often their careers. This is the power of persuasion. So let’s take me, for instance. I started to learn how to persuade people as a child. I could talk articulately. Even lie convincingly. As a teenager I lead youth groups. I became a preacher and teacher for over 30 years, who’s primary job seemed to be to change minds and convince people to believe me. So let’s say I abuse my wife Lisa. Lisa is a nurse in a palliative care home. She quietly cares for the dying. She doesn’t like speaking publicly. She doesn’t have the personality that desires to change minds or persuade people to her way of thinking. Plus her whole raison d’être doesn’t require it. If the story leaks, when I tell my side of the story I have a certain set of skills that can persuade you to believe me. Lisa may share her side, but it may not have the same persuasive power. Where I may often say things to influence people, she doesn’t have that same drive. She will just quietly and gently tell her story, but only to a trusted few who she cares what they think of her. But because of her lack of need to persuade, especially strangers, her version may not have the same appeal. She might not understand, like I do, that spinning a personal experience is more important than the experience itself. If this were to really happen and I need to persuade you that my version is the true one, I know that I should sound reasonable, humble, calm, cautiously explicit but in a respectful way, articulate, and in control but the real victim here. On the other hand, Lisa would probably not employ those same rhetorical skills. In fact, if she acted out of character and tried to publicly tell her horrific tale of abuse, she might sound unpracticed, unprepared, unreasonable, angry, hysterical, out of control, inarticulate, and mean. My hope would be that my impression of poise would trump her impression of instability.
- A CACOPHONY OF CONNECTIONS: What many in power take for granted is the endless connections they enjoy. On the one hand they’ve earned them. On the other hand they are a privilege. I suppose I’m talking about resources. Again, let’s take me as an example. I used to pastor a well-known Vineyard church and have many connections in that movement. Through years of blogging and posting on all kinds of social media outlets, I have made a lot of significant connections with thousands of people. I have nurtured these connections with personal correspondence, some of whom are famous. I’ve written four books and am working on my fifth and have received endorsements from many Christian celebrities. My cartoons appear in a lot of books, journals, magazines, blogs, and all kinds of other media and I have a relationship with all who used them and maybe even with their readers. I’m popular! I’m not bragging. I’m just pointing out that I have thousands of connections, and some of them are to very influential people. So, let’s say I abused Lisa and the story leaks. To tell and get support for my version of the story, I can immediately pick up the phone, write an email, or post it on all my social media and thousands of my fans see it. They have no reason to disbelieve me. I could also cry for help and immediately get free legal advice, professional counseling, collaboration from popular journalists and writers, a ton of personal support throughout the ordeal, and maybe even financial help. Lisa, on the other hand, is a very private person who avoids publicity. She has a total of 160 friends on Facebook. Period. And most of them are real friends… family, buddies, co-workers, and such, and none of them, as far as I know, have any influence, especially in the world that matters most to me: mine! Before she even gets up in the morning I already have thousands of supporters. She could try all she wants, but she would never be able to match that. If her story did slip past someone’s eyes, they would already have seen my well vetted and collaborated story, and their first reaction might be, “Who is this crazy woman?” I guess I would get tons of sympathy where Lisa would get tons of questions.
- PLENTY OF PLATFORMS: One of the most powerful privileges those with influence enjoy is the number of platforms they have at their disposal where they can tell their story. If I was an abusive husband to Lisa and I was a pastor, for example, I would have my endless connections, my “church” (in this case my online community The Lasting Supper), my social media outlets, my publications, my audio-visual productions, my speaking events, the platforms of my friends that they would loan me, and more. They are tools that I use automatically without even thinking about it. If I want to get my story out there, they would function like a blitzkrieg of information for all my friends, fans and followers. I have a popular blog nakedpastor that has thousands of fans. Over 100,000 people see my work every month. I have nearly 5,000 friends on my personal Facebook page, almost 10,000 fans on my nakedpastor page, almost 10,000 followers on Twitter, and thousands more on Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn and GooglePlus. I have a small but growing mailing list. I also have an online community of nearly 400 people who love and support me daily. I have taken years to earn these by blogging and posting and currying connections every day for ten years. Plus, I could employ my connections with influential people to have them share my version on all their outlets. My story would spread like a virus across all kinds of platforms. This gives the impression of credibility. What does Lisa have at her disposal? Just her Facebook page! Or, if she was stupid enough or had the guts, she might tell her side of the story in a comment on someone’s blog post. Most people would wonder why she’s telling such a private story in such a public place. Many would think it was a sign of desperation and highly inappropriate. They wouldn’t realize, and maybe Lisa wouldn’t either until it’s too late, that I am fighting a war for public approval and will win. I know that if my story gets published by authorized people and authorized publications, that it lends incredible credibility to my case. Just by the sheer volume of the availability of platforms, my story gets all the official publicity and would therefore seem most true. Lisa’s story, then, because it only appears in inappropriate, unauthorized, and unconventional places, would seem random, insignificant, and therefore probably not accurate. My authorized story is endorsed by authorized friends through authorized news channels in a morning, whereas she has nothing but recourse to private relationships, records and documents, if she has them, but that she will be required to produce to corroborate and substantiate her unbelievable story.
- THE LUXURY OF LEEWAY: Most leaders don’t realize they enjoy this luxury, but they are granted more leeway than those who don’t have influence or aren’t as important as they are. Because of the internet, we are seeing just how much those in power can get away with. Yes, we give leaders wider berth. It’s because we subscribe to the notion that their job is more important then their character. We look past the wife-beating because he’s such a great actor. We look past the drug-abuse because he gets things done. We look past the bullying because people are getting saved. We look past the deception because he’s an influential theologian. A celebrity has a greater chance of getting a warning for driving while intoxicated than a twenty-one year old college woman in a scoop neck tee and short skirt. Pastors and preachers, like politicians and other celebrities, are constantly forgiven for embellishment, exaggeration, and expressions of egotism. But we turn a blind eye to this because we just accept that this is how those in power operate. In fact, we might even chuckle at the ridiculousness of their behavior because sometimes it’s kind of cute. Men get away with stuff because, well, “He is just a man after all.” I recently heard about a pastor who had an affair. I was immediately informed that his wife struggled with a disorder, and I just knew that people jumped to the conclusion that the husband was unhappy at home and in bed and, being just a man, looked for love elsewhere. This is how the world works. So if I abused Lisa, I suspect that there will be enough people who, if they get a whiff of the story, will look past it, or ignore it, or disregard it, or forgive me and let it go, or dismiss it, because they appreciate the work I’m doing. My hope is that they would realize I’m just a man with my own needs, and that sometimes in moments of weakness I do bad things just like they do. I would accept some responsibility, but I will somehow portray myself as a victim who acted out of my own deep need for love and understanding, and that I was desperately trying to stay alive personally and professionally. I would also suggest that to take me down would be to take down the important mission I’m on, and we don’t want that. I would also remind people to not believe false reports, but if they did they should forgive me so I could get back to my calling. I think most people would because I already have a space in their heads and hearts. Lisa, on the other hand, is unknown to them so she has no leeway. She has absolutely no space in their heads or hearts, and it is very difficult to get there if she sounds hurt and hysterical.
There are many more, but I think these are the main privileges of power. It is so subtle, but it is also so obvious if you are even slightly aware of them. My observation is that most people with this power aren’t even aware of it. It’s like air to them… something they don’t even have to think about. It’s just there to enjoy and take advantage of every moment of every day unconsciously. I know this personally because, like I said, I enjoy these privileges and can take advantage of them, as I occasionally have. I’m not saying leaders shouldn’t have these privileges, but that they should be aware of them and use them properly and justly, always remembering they have an advantage over the marginalized, including the victims of their own abusive behaviors. In fact, they should use this power on behalf of the marginalized to prevent further abuse.
In closing, I just want to suggest that even the way I wrote this betrays a privilege of power. Because this is my platform, not Lisa’s. Sometimes in this post I wrote as if I abused Lisa. I hope you can see for yourself that Lisa appears here as a kind of shadow. She’s not the main character. I am! Just by the sheer volume of words and how I used them places me firmly in the spotlight and escorts Lisa into the shadowy sidelines. Even in the way I told this story, I have assumed center stage while she is hardly even in the theater. I loom large and my story gets heard and maybe even applauded while she gets ushered behind the curtain and may even get booed for trying to disrupt my program.
Yes, this is how power works.
I’d love to hear what you think about this.