Cui Bono?

This week I am teaching one of my favorite topics to discuss–the death penalty.  We begin the chapter by watching Dead Man Walking and then get into the moral arguments and the practical realities of the death penalty in America.  This chapter comes near the end of a year long morality class, so we’ve been practicing all year how to identify and analyze moral arguments.  As we discussed some statistics about prisons and the justice system, we started talking about the why.  Why are American prisons beset with recidivism? Why is the greatest concentration of crime found in predominantly black neighborhoods? Why are the conditions in American prisons so terrible and how did they get to be so corrupt?    While my students are becoming adept at parsing moral issues, the questions they ask aren’t usually about morality–they are usually about power.  

As you might imagine, discussing a topic as sensitive as death penalty with teenage girls is difficult, but not because it is too serious or potentially political (though it certainly is).  It is difficult because they don’t quite know how to analyze power yet.  We got into a contentious discussion yesterday about voting rights for incarcerated and convicted felons.  Most of the conversation revolved around how unfair it is that a felon who has served his/her sentence can’t vote–which is great.  Having a student voice frustration around an injustice means that she’s successfully understood the justice concerns and may have emotionally invested in the issue.  But I tried to push them into deeper analysis of the issue by asking–who do you benefits if convicted felons don’t vote?  Crickets.  Blank faces.  You could hear a pin drop.

However, I can’t blame my students.  Asking who benefits is actually just asking–who holds all the power in this circumstance?  And who is trying to hold onto their power?  I’m not surprised they first, don’t know how to analyze power, and second, don’t know that they *have to* analyze power.  I don’t think I really understood politics or how to analyze power until well into college or graduate school.  Even now, compared to my more politically engaged friends, I don’t always immediately see the political ramifications of new laws or alliances, and I find shows like The West Wing and House of Cards stressful because I constantly have to be pointedly thinking…cui bono?  But this conversation with my students really struck me because I left the classroom thinking–they should be able to do this, and I should be able to teach it to them.  And it definitely belongs in a religion class.

What I think I was lacking in my conversation with my students was a solid, faith based explanation of power.  I can explain political power, or economic power to a group of students.  But the nexus of faith and power is trickier.  Essentially, the Church needs a theology of power.*  Power is intricately related to how we behave in the world and what our lives are like.  Power can be economic, social, political, moral, structural, intellectual–it affects nearly every area of our lives.  So it is only natural to conclude that power impacts our faith lives.  So my basic questions that lead me to consider a theology of power are:  how does the fact that we profess a faith in Jesus affect how we see power?  And conversely, how does the way we use power affect our faith?  Christianity has pretty clear articulations on justice and how to act justly in the world.  But what about power?  Power, quite often, is the foundation of justice–power used appropriately brings about justice, and used inappropriately, it perpetuates injustice.

Now, I am not one of those theologians who believes that we need A Theology of Everything (a theology of sitting!  a theology of 15th century women poets!  a theology of that one time you saw God in a grilled cheese!)  God can indeed be found everywhere and every created good does point back to the reality of God, so a good theologian could write a theology of everything.  But, good theology doesn’t just ask and answer theoretical, academic questions.  Good theology advances our understanding of God in the world.  So  when I say “we need a theology of power” I am not trying to say “here, theologians.  You’re probably bored–write this theology.”  I really do think that attempting to understand how power works in the world can say something about God, and looking at how God works in the world can tell us something about power.

I learned the phrase “cui bono” through my studies in feminist theology.  Feminist theology does a really great job of asking–who benefits from women’s oppression?  Whose power increases when women’s power decreases?  Similarly, black liberation theology asks those questions of racism and racial prejudice.  But what I’m asking for is a look at power as a whole.  Feminists have already written extensively on structural power and its damaging effects.  But power isn’t always oppressive, and a theology of power wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the exercise of power is always negative.  Indeed, the fact that God acts in the world powerfully and exercises power on behalf of God’s people (i.e.: the Exodus story, the destruction of Jericho, the “power of God” that is the cross, as referenced in 1 Corinthians 1:22, etc) is already an indication that when God acts powerfully, the results can be confusing.  It’s definitely good, for example, that God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery…is it good that God intervened so that Israelites could murder Canaanites in the Battle of Jericho?  Maybe not.  So I think we need to take a step back and look more critically and power as a whole, not just examples of oppressive power or power over someone, structurally or otherwise.

I think because of the breadth and depth of this topic, this will not be the last I write about a theology of power, but rather, a beginning to the conversation.  My goal in trying to articulate a theology of power is two fold: first, to understand something about God and about power, and second, to be able to explain to my students what power and God have to do with one another.  I’m driven to this discussion because, if it deals with justice, it influences how we can live out our Christian commitment to love our sisters and brothers.  And if it confuses my students, then it matters to people of faith, people trying to understand how to live according to our faith.  I’m not sure there are two better reasons for a theological reflection than those.


*If you know of a good theology of power that has been written already, do share!


5 thoughts on “Cui Bono?

  1. Fascinating, thank you!

    While I share your dismission of women poets and grilled cheese, I think perhaps we do need a theology of sitting. Although it is easy, not to mention comfortable, evidence is mounting that it is intensely harmful to our physical and mental well-being. We may be forced into it by our occupations, or choose it for the fleeting respite it provides from the toil of being alive. I’d wager that Americans do more sitting than any other single activity (except breathing); seems to me like a thing which needs a theology.

    In even more seriousness, I think theology of power is a really great topic. It seems like many aspects of the teachings of Christ deal with the subject of power: who has it, what is it, and how should we act given our lot in the power spectrum? Is more self-sacrifice required when one has more power?

    • Haha maybe one day I’ll write a theology of sitting. Which will require me to sit for a while to write it.

      Yea, that’s where I’m at–power is at the foundation of everything. And given that Christians are *supposed* to give up power (last will be first, etc), are we supposed to understand that power is always bad? God acts powerfully–doesn’t that mean that power wielded on behalf of another is good? Kinda confusing.

  2. I like this so much.

    “I’m not surprised they first, don’t know how to analyze power, and second, don’t know that they *have to* analyze power.”
    For me–as, I suspect, for a lot of us–learning to analyze power has been largely a self-defensive move. It’s one of the things that has been great and instructive for me about feminism–I’ve learned, largely through reading (contemporary) feminist thinkers, to look for the unseen beneficiaries of structures, and to imagine a world in which unjust structures were not taken for granted. But it’s required a further step to think about power structures that don’t seem to have anything to do with me.

    “But power isn’t always oppressive, and a theology of power wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the exercise of power is always negative.”
    THIS. And this is where it gets so complicated, isn’t it? I’ve been poking around a little in recent months into the administrative and power structures of the Episcopal church as compared with other denominations, and one of the central unresolved issues seems to be, how is power distributed? Somehow, decisions have to be made; and the totally-democratic-and-congregation-led church of my dreams–well, would it actually do a better job than the semi-top-down, bishop-directed church we have?

    “…when God acts powerfully, the results can be confusing.”

    Please, please write more about this!

    • I guess that last part is where I’m at right now (as I explained above)–I’ve been thinking a lot about how God acts powerfully in the Bible as a paradigm for how to start thinking about power. In the OT we get some pretty impressive acts that demonstrate God’s power, and God’s intervention for God’s people (i.e.: positive use of power). But we also get demonstrations that by today’s standards seem like negative uses of power (Jericho). And then you throw in the “last shall be first/servanthood” of the NT. (Good connection to your next post!)

      Shed some light, wise Biblical Scholar. How am I supposed to think about power in the Bible?

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