It's Time to Talk about Power
We remember the story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in the Upper Room as a story of humility and servanthood, which is entirely true. We often retell that story as if it involves Jesus "giving up power," as if power were the opposite of humility and servanthood.
But the footwashing, like John's whole gospel, is shot through with signs of power. "Do you know what I have done to you?" Jesus asks. "You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am" (John 13:12–13, nrsv). There are no more powerful roles in the disciples' world than rabbi and Kyrios—the titles given to Jewish leaders and the lordship ascribed to Caesar himself. Jesus claims them both. He has "come from God and is going to God." He is, John wants us to see, completely at home with power. What he is entirely indifferent to, indeed averse to, are the privilege, status, and perquisites that preoccupy powerful people who have forgotten what power is for.
What would a new conversation about power include?
It would acknowledge, indeed insist, that power is a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve. Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself. Power's right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick, and the dispossessed. Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.
Being this honest, and positive, about power would help us grapple with its dangers. If power is irredeemably negative, none of us would want to admit we have it—which means none of us will be accountable for the power we have. We would conceal our power like a flesh-toned microphone, pretending that power's dangers, and responsibilities, don't apply to us.
But if power is a gift, then we can be accountable for its proper use—to its Giver, and to one another.
Clothed in Power
On the day when priests were commissioned to serve in the tabernacle, according to the eighth chapter of Leviticus, the people gathered in solemn assembly.
Moses himself washed Aaron and his sons with water in front of the entire community. Upon Aaron he placed a linen tunic, fastened with a sash, a robe, and a richly embroidered ephod with its own sash. On top of these garments Moses placed the breastpiece with its Urim and Thummim. "And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden ornament, the holy crown" (Lev. 8:9, NRSV). Over Aaron's head Moses poured the oil of consecration. Then, after each of the sons were similarly clothed, the smoke of sacrifices rose up before the Lord—a bull, two rams, cakes of bread—and the priests were marked with blood on their right ear, right thumb, and right big toe.
This narrative comes to us from the almost inconceivably distant world of a high power distance culture. In every way, Israel's ordination service was meant to mark and set apart those with religious power, the power to represent the people before God and vice versa.