"A lot of people thought Cesar was trying to play God, that this guy was trying to pull a saintly act. Poor Cesar! They just couldn't accept it for what it was..."
- Dolores Huerta in Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa
A few weeks ago I had the incredible honor of helping with the interviews and days of discernment for the next classes of US-2 and mission intern young adult missionaries of the United Methodist Church. First off, April is a beautiful time of year in Manhattan. I wish that the flowers were blooming in Chicago now like they were in the West Village then. Next, it is always a pleasure to interact with the wonderful, very capable folks at the General Board of Global Ministries who work tirelessly on the third floor of the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive, just across the street from the famous Riverside Church. But really, the thing that will make those couple days stay with me is interacting with young adults who had converged from all over the United States to offer a few years of their lives in service to God and their fellow people. Those folks blew me away with their passion, their intelligence, their imagination.
And their ambition.
After returning from a night out, a few of us settled into the basement lounge of Alma Matthews House just because we knew that we wouldn't see each other again for a long time. Discussion wandered everywhere from liberation theology to infallibility of scripture to how we could lock out the guys who were smoking outside. For whatever reason, however, we kept returning to how we, the so-called Millennial generation, would soon step into the leadership structure of the United Methodist Church, especially with general conference approaching in spring of 2012. We were aware of the power of our voice, and I for one found both hope and at least a bit of panic at that thought.
See, I grew up with the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Especially by my junior of college, I had all but rejected most bureaucratic structures that concentrated power, and I had flirted with Christian anarchism. I still have many friends who remain on that far left edge who reject nearly any form of organized power because of how it is often abused.
I no longer see that philosophy as feasible. The problems of the world are too great, too complex, and too often perpetuated by people with much more organized money than I have to follow such an ideologically pure path. In order to unleash the streams of justice, people must pool their power until dams of oppression finally break. I did not understand this even last summer when I first was introduced to my current placement site, Interfaith Worker Justice, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable claiming any power for myself when power from God alone. Then I started learning about organizing for social change, about different strategies and some tried and true tactics to put pressure on the power brokers who keep so many in chains. I came to understand that organizing is another form of the Holy Spirit, and, just as some folks speak strange languages and supernaturally heal the sick, this form of the Holy Spirit is righteous power.
I, like some of those of young adult missionary candidates, have ambition, or better stated, ambitions. I have ambitions to eventually obtain a master's of divinity and perhaps the white collar of ordination. Though the concept seems a bit far-fetched, I also can see how I could land in other positions of power and authority within or outside of the structures of the United Methodist Church. God help me if that happens.
Which makes me think of Cesar Chavez, whose biography I am currently reading. Despite the fact that he never even graduated high school, Chavez came to embody the farmworker movement and interacted with some of the most powerful men in the country. There are pictures of him with United States senators and even the pope. And naturally many people view him as something of an egomaniac. From what I have heard and read, there is some truth in that. It is also true that to wield power, one must also have a strong ego.
Thus, I don't think that we as Christians should flee from power. Hiding away in a cloister can be as insidious a temptation as controlling the masses from the bully pulpit. We, as Christians, must claim and then utilize our power in a fashion that honors God. The problem is that many Christians disagree about what honors God. Therefore, we must constantly stride the path of the cross and center ourselves in Christ's love. The path of the cross is sacrifice and nonviolence and hope. The path of the cross is ambitious because the cross has unimaginable power.
It is the power of love.