Strength in Weakness

We have the power to help others gain more authority by exposing ourselves to risk
April 12 th 2016

"Check your privilege." It's a phrase that gets tossed around a fair bit, but it is conspicuously absent from Andy Crouch's new book, Strong and Weak (IVP, 2016). Most of the time when he uses the word "privileged," it accompanies the word "power." Crouch is very interested in how our families, histories, wealth, physical attributes, or words might describe the gradients of advantage or disadvantage that colour our daily interactions. However, while more popular conceptions of privilege tend to describe power in zero-sum terms, Crouch paints a more robust picture of social and cultural power, one that sees the potential for good not only in playing to our strengths but also in reckoning with our weaknesses.

To this end, he asserts that exercising authority or submitting to vulnerability are not two poles of a binary spectrum, but rather two axes on which we move back and forth, adjusting both our assertion of power and our willingness to expose ourselves to genuine risk as the situation demands. The two are still clearly linked, since he defines authority as "the capacity for meaningful action" and vulnerability as "the exposure to meaningful risk" while arguing that the actions which contribute the most to the flourishing of others will generally involve both. He represents this dynamic with a 2x2 matrix where authority and vulnerability together constitute "flourishing" and the avoidance of both constitutes "withdrawal," and in the other quadrants lie "exploitation" (authority without vulnerability) and "suffering" (vulnerability without authority).

The examples Crouch relies on the most have clear delineations of power and fairly obvious goals to work towards. What about when flourishing isn't as clearly agreed upon?

The chapters dedicated to these two aspects share the most in common with Crouch's previous book, Playing God. The two books share very similar territory—how to help people who have privilege and power think about vocation, mission, and relationships in a way that addresses the very real injustices in the world. However, where Playing God mapped out the ways in which justice or injustice flourish when cultural values and individual actions reinforce or neglect the hard work of building reliable institutions, Strong and Weak focuses more on how no person can escape the reality of suffering or the pull of temptation no matter how much power they might have—and how we confront these realities head-on. As Crouch puts it, "[In] dying, relinquishing power, confessing sin, receiving and offering forgiveness . . . we not only break the grip of idols, we restore the kinds of relationships, especially with the most vulnerable, that the idols have destroyed."

A great deal of writing (or other media) nowadays attempts to enlighten, shock, or browbeat the reader into a greater sense of "awareness" that will move them into some particular action. A subset of this discourse focuses particularly on privilege-checking, trying to disassemble and reveal the unconscious features of social interaction and hidden reservoirs of power that smooth the way for some and impede it for others. With so many aspects of privilege unspooling into intangible guilt for things that we can rarely make a one-to-one trade for (and so many other privileged people unwilling to even consider the possibility that their work had force multipliers others did not), it is easy to see how we can choose to invest more and more emotional and social currency in discourse. Particularly when it comes to social media, discourse itself becomes the arena of power plays and—most notably for Crouch—an opportunity to simulate the disavowal of one's privilege with nothing to lose but your time and nothing to gain but the approval of certain peers.

Strong and Weak, while never discussing "awareness" explicitly, clearly works in the shadow it has cast and charts a different path than the standard shock-react pattern that a great deal of activism and fundraising cultivates. Crouch recognizes that his readers could fear either vulnerability or authority, but his experience (particularly with young people) leads him to think that withdrawal is a greater danger, particularly when withdrawal is hidden within a simulation of authority and vulnerability. His schema by no means limits the role of thoughtful discussion, social media activism, or pointed discourse in challenging the privileged (after all, it is a book!), but it does place far more emphasis on the ways in which we have the power to help others gain more authority by exposing ourselves to risk.

In this way, the simplicity of Crouch's Punnett square-like diagram gives us the opportunity to cut through some of the barriers that our political tribalism or theological commitments tend to put on our expressions of faith and service. If our imaginations have been limited by the distance between ourselves and the wrong side of town or between our congregation and those people at the church down the road, simply asking "Where do I have authority?" and "Where can I make myself vulnerable?" opens up more possibilities that can then be hammered out practically.

This does not undermine the role of affiliations or institutions—Crouch has already spoken highly of both in Playing God and does not intend for his readers to set out on unilateral quests to singularly save the world. Rather, he draws out how every person has a sphere of influence and authority they embrace or reject and how joining together in community allows us to bear risk together. He is also particularly interested in how leaders of those communities bear "the burden of visible authority with hidden vulnerability" that attends the difficult choices and sensitive information that come along with wielding power.

Here, though, a key unanswered question emerges. I don't begrudge the brevity of the book, nor its stepwise interlocking themes that make it feel like a well-crafted pop single to Playing God's concept album. However, the authority/vulnerability dynamic is very useful in situations where we bear the risk of failure for the sake of extending authority to someone else. The examples Crouch relies on the most—building institutions of public justice to rescue and restore people trapped in slavery and serving the disabled—have clear delineations of power and fairly obvious goals to work toward. What about when flourishing isn't as clearly agreed on?

Conflicts of vision and strategy often keep people in withdrawal or ignominiously punt them there.

Once someone has been rescued from suffering, repented of exploitation, and made the leap of faith out of withdrawal, flourishing often follows. In the places of deepest human need, though, there are difficult choices about what kinds of vulnerability to display and which sort of authority needs to be exercised—and here, the framework of privilege is no help either. For example, conflict between team members is often cited as a top reason for missionaries leaving their field of service. While peacemaking between passionate people who take big risks to promote flourishing deserves a book of its own, I found the omission of the subject from the book disappointing because conflicts of vision and strategy so often keep people in withdrawal or ignominiously punt them there.

Helen Roseveare comes to mind—a missionary physician working in the Belgian Congo who was dedicated to teaching and training a new generation of health workers as the colonial era came to a close. In the violent transition of power, she was captured and raped by rebel soldiers but still returned to build a training school for paramedical officers. Despite years of labour to maximize the authority of her students and create an institution that distributed power, the revolutionary sentiment among her trainees still led to intractable conflict that only ended when she resigned. Her hidden vulnerabilities became public suffering, recounted in a pair of autobiographical books that ought to be required reading for anyone trying to build institutions among the disempowered.

Crouch clearly states that the flourishing life he imagines isn't immune to suffering, and he certainly doesn't think that exercising authority and vulnerability will always produce a desired result. The book continually comes back to our dependence on the death and resurrection of Christ for our example and, more importantly, our hope. Within this framework, the opposition of an exploitative enemy, the failure of our best-laid plans, and the betrayal of a friend are all risks we take with a clear refuge for our suffering—but the last is missing from the discussion. Even though the book discusses the habits that will ground us and prepare us to cling to Jesus when we encounter loss, it elides a unique facet of vulnerability that befalls many who take on authority.

So does this leave us back on social media, critically deconstructing privilege and raising awareness in our simulations of authority because we can't figure out how to best pursue flourishing? Hardly! For one, there are countless areas where the wisdom and experience of people who have suffered and worked for the common good have beaten out simple paths where all that is needed is more people willing to keep walking in the same direction for a long time. Furthermore, Playing God also takes up a more nuanced look at the topographies of power that would help inform any discussions of how to go about the work of flourishing, where Strong and Weak answers what flourishing is (broadly) and how to tip the balance into acting even when one isn't sure success is guaranteed.

"We do not lack for authority," says Crouch. "But what unlocks that authority is the willingness to expose ourselves to meaningful loss." While I wish Strong and Weak had addressed the loss that fellow boosters of flourishing can inflict on one another, it remains a valuable expansion on the work of Playing God. Readers who take the newer book to heart will undoubtedly want to read the older one, but for the many people who doubt their own capacity for authority or shrink back from the risks of vulnerability, inhabiting the spaces of that 2x2 matrix is the place to start.

 

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. He is a columnist for Christianity Today and a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

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