The Church and Power Conflicts

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, March 22, 1965. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The church needs many ministers who identify themselves with the efforts of the poor to gain power to balance the thousands of ministers who, implicitly, give their blessings to the way the strong keep their power. In no church should the Gospel be reduced to simple advocacy of this or that social goal. The preaching and the liturgy should clearly transcend the immediate teaching about the social issues.

Much of the debate about the Church and power conflicts now going on in many American cities seems very familiar because it is a replay of discussions in which I was involved in the 1930’s when the chief issue was the relation of the churches to the labor movement in its early struggles to achieve power. Almost the first article I ever published was on the subject "Christianity and Class Consciousness." (It was published in 1932 under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.) Rereading it recently, I found it quite relevant to the present discussions.

I might say some things differently today, but I would still hold to the basic principle that an important aspect of Christian social responsibility is the organization politically of the victims of social injustice so that they can use their power to change conditions.

It was often assumed in certain circles in the Thirties that there should be labor churches, though it was also assumed that the Church at large should find ways of including all classes. In those days many of us thought in a more doctrinaire way about social classes than we do now. Those were the days of the Great Depression when the whole of American society was so stricken that one could think of organizing the many against the few. Such a pattern is no longer needed.

Rather, we need to find ways in which the comparatively few who are most neglected can combine the strategic forms of power they still have with persuasion in order to change those conditions in our cities that cry to heaven. In this process we need to find ways in which churches can help both in organizing political pressures and in using this as part of a broader strategy of persuasion—often persuasion of consciences within the Church.

Let me now mention several presuppositions that underlie what follows.

(1) Christian love must seek justice for the neglected and oppressed in our nation and the world.

We all take this for granted, but it has not generally been assumed. It probably would not be as widely accepted in the Church as it is if the neglected and oppressed had not in this country gained a voice and considerable power to make themselves felt. I doubt if the churches themselves have done very much to inspire the revolutions of our time even though the inspiration of the Gospel has been behind them.

One hardly needs to argue today for the revolutionary implications of our faith. God, as known to us in Christ, is seeking to raise the level of life everywhere. (I like the phrase of my colleague Professor Paul Lehmann, "God is seeking to make humanity more human.") God is acting in the "revolution of rising expectations" on other continents. But he is also active in the revolution of rising expectations in American cities where millions live in shameful ghettos.

Our civil rights revolution is a part of this worldwide revolution. While it must go on in Mississippi and the hard-core South, for most of us this revolution is concentrated in Northern cities where the racial factor is important but where there is also a broader rebellion against slums, schools that do not educate, poverty and unemployment. One of the most startling facts about America is the contrast between our great prosperity as a nation and these islands of misery in our cities, Why, with all our resources, initiative and ingenuity, do we do so little to solve these problems?

We seem to sacrifice these millions of people on two altars—the altar of prejudice and the altar of economic individualism. In the name of freedom of the individual, we sacrifice them to that caricature of Christianity that some people call "the Protestant ethic," an ethic that finds no way of dealing directly and massively with large-scale social problems.

(2) The Church should not choose to be a sect made up of those who belong to any one class or social group, or of those who hold the same opinions.

I am not suggesting that the Church should include everyone, all the slum landlords and all the members of the John Birch Society. If some people choose to leave the Church because it has come to stand for racial integration and for a dynamic approach to social problems, that may be a good sign. But let the Church still seek to be the mother of us all. Let it not exclude those who, because of many confusions, differ from one or another of its declared positions. Let it include people on all sides of the conflicts of power, seeking to be a pastor to them all. Let it go out to all men—poor and rich, in city, town and suburb—with the Gospel, seeking to change and heal them.

Think for a moment of what a policy of exclusiveness would mean. If we were to begin to divide the Church over differences of opinion about current issues, it would be split in the 1960’s over one set of issues and in the 1970’s over another. This is madness, and it must not be. We must still have a church that seeks to be all-inclusive and yet stands for something.

(3) We should be guided by a doctrine of man that sees our humanity as made in the image of God and as distorted by pride and egoism, and especially by that form of both that causes people to try to exalt themselves by keeping others in an inferior position.

All too often people are corrupted by the crudest form of greed, though they are skillful in covering this up with high-sounding defenses of the rights of property. My emphasis here is on the fact that all of us are strange mixtures of virtue and sinful distortions.

I want to stress two implications of this general view. The first is that people who have advantages and are complacent about their situation do not usually change unless pressure is put on them by those who, because of their suffering, need to have things changed. It doesn’t mean that those who bring the pressure are subjectively better people than those who have the pressure brought on them. The latter are in a different position, and it may well be that those who bring this pressure are, on the whole, on the side of an objective justice.

Persuasion is seldom an adequate lever; people do not even see the facts until they are forced to look at them. And the defenses of complacency are endless. In our society, pressure by itself is not enough either. One of our chief interests should be to make interpreted pressure an instrument of persuasion. Certainly this has happened on a very large scale in this country since the Montgomery boycott and the first sit-ins. People all over the country, North and South, were forced to attend to the problem; issues became clearer; many minds and hearts were changed.

Sometimes the changes have been accepted grudgingly, but they have come. There is a combination of pressure and persuasion when a candidate discovers that he lost because ninety-five per cent of the Negroes in his state voted against him. A shifting of gears is necessary, and then people can learn by doing. We need not take a cynical attitude toward this process.

The other implication of this way of thinking about human nature is that we must not separate groups, classes or races of men by assigning to one the image of God and to the other the effects of the fall. Martin Luther King’s strong statement in London expressing alertness to the danger of black racism as well as white racism is to be welcomed. In one moment almost all the virtue may be on one side in a conflict, but that moment will not last long, and it is the responsibility of the Church to help people on both sides realize that they have common temptations and weaknesses and sins. The outward expressions may be different, but the Church stands for the common humanity across the lines that divide people.

Herbert Butterfield in Christianity and History (Scribners) emphasizes the contribution of Christianity as an antidote to self-righteousness:

The more human beings are lacking in imagination, the more incapable men are of any profound kind of self-analysis, the more we shall find that their self-righteousness hardens, so that it is just the thick-skinned who are more sure of being right than anybody else. And though conflict might still be inevitable in history even if this particular evil (of self-righteousness) did not exist, there can be no doubt that its presence multiplies the deadlocks and gravely deepens all the tragedies of all the centuries. At its worst it brings us to that mythical messianism—that messianic hoax—of the twentieth century which comes perilously near to the thesis: "Just one little war more against the last remaining enemies of righteousness, and then the world will be cleansed, and we can start building Paradise." (p. 41)

The optimism of the last words has faded, but we still are inclined to assume that victory in this last battle against the one enemy in our minds at the moment will destroy the major threat to our society.

One of the major problems in Christian theology and social ethics is to relate this warning against the danger of self-righteousness on all sides to the necessity of taking a stand. We may have to risk a little self-righteousness to get a necessary job done, but if people recognize the problem, this will reduce the effects of self-righteousness.

So much for presuppositions:

Love must seek justice, often revolutionary justice.

The Church should seek to include those on both sides of most conflicts.

Our doctrine of man should help us to remember the need of combining pressure with persuasion, and it should warn against the self-righteousness on both sides of a conflict.

The most general definition of power is in Paul Tillich’s Love, Power and Justice (Oxford): "Power is being actualizing itself over against the threat of non-being." Another rather general definition is in Bertrand Russell’s illuminating book Power (W. W. Norton): "Power is the production of intended effects."

These definitions do not help us much with concrete problems, but they may help us to realize that power as such is neutral; it is always present when any of our purposes are actualized. Also, we need to remember the wide range of the forms of power, from pure persuasion at one end of the scale to what Russell calls naked power at the other.

One of the most important distinctions is between covert and overt power. The established forms of power are no less coercive because they get their way without very obvious use of power. Such power is exercised by the almost automatic enforcing of the accepted rules in the society. Those in power discharge employees; they evict tenants; they refrain from taking any positive remedial steps by dragging their feet.

They might take drastic action to change many things, but they prefer to do nothing or to take delaying or token action. It is in their power to do so, and it avoids the appearance of naked power. Protection of interests by foot-dragging is often the most pervasive form of power in our cities. Behind it is control, of votes, property, corrupted investigators and many opinion-forming agencies.

This power of the strong to protect their interests may be just as coercive as the most obvious form of violence. The weak who are trying to put together forms of power and to gain political strength are constantly forced into positions in which they have to demonstrate, strike, boycott or initiate events that may be accompanied by violence. This use of power may appear more bloody, but it is less coercive and less destructive than the power to prevent change.

In labor disputes the workers are the ones who cause inconvenience to the public by denying services or perhaps creating a scene in which there may be some violence. Yet the employers may be the cause of the strike, or the responsibility may be divided.

Boycotters, sit-ins, freedom riders, demonstrators have for years been seeking to develop power in a weak minority to counteract the power of employers, local law-enforcement officers and state governments. They are accused of making a disturbance, of risking violence; but their activities have been a relatively weak form of power, in intention nonviolent, against the institutionalized violence of the police system of many a community, against the pervasive intimidation that is the next thing to violence.

Our Protestant constituency by and large does not understand this distinction between the overt force of the weak and the covert force of the establishment. They are all too ready to give low marks to the former and high marks to the latter. They can see the former because it occurs on the streets.

The famous study of Harlem entitled Youth in the Ghetto has a significant subtitle: "A Study in the Consequences of Powerlessness" (published by Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, 2092 7th Ave., N. Y., N. Y., $4.50 donation). Harlem "can best be described in terms of the analogy of a powerless colony." As a result, "the basic story of academic achievement in Central Harlem is one of inefficiency, inferiority and massive deterioration." How can this be true of a city in which there is so much wealth and which is sophisticated and liberal in so many ways?

I realize that the conditions described are not only the result of deliberate defense of greed or prejudice or foot-dragging. They also result from the sheer complexity of many problems, but this fact of complexity too easily becomes a kind of umbrella under which the more deliberate efforts to prevent change are the more effective.

The churches have the responsibility to help develop forms of power among the powerless in order to counteract the pervasive power of the strong. It is at this point that I reject the a priori arguments against the community development programs in Chicago and elsewhere. To say that they increase conflict need not be a valid criticism. (I do not deny the force of such criticism when this is done without restraint.) But there is a stage in which hidden conflict needs to be brought out into the open. It is a great advance when people who have been powerless and plagued by apathy or fatalism organize to improve their lot, and this means creating instruments of political and economic power that enable their interests to be felt by the community at large.

I realize that such methods have some unfortunate by-products: Concentration on a single issue, the tendency to use oversimplifying slogans, the tendency to turn other parties into provisional devils. But the intensification of conflict may be a necessary stage in the movement away from apathy and submission to injustice and oppression.

This was true in all of the early struggles of the industrial workers. It has been true in all the struggles of the new nations for independence. Anti-colonialism creates many devils; yet it is a by-product of a basically constructive impulse. This is true of the awakening of the younger generation of Negroes who decided that they have taken conditions of deprivation and humiliation long enough, and some of them are tempted to believe no good of any white man.

Most of the criticism of the community development movements is what might be called pre-Niebuhrian. The year 1932 is an important date in American theology and church history. It saw the publication of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, which contains basic diagnoses of tendencies in human history that are still true: One cannot escape from sin by refusing to relate oneself to movements that seek to develop the power of self-defense among the powerless. One becomes involved in some evil by-products, but one should also count up the evil by-products of refusing to do this: Hypocrisy on one side, apathy on the other, and the injustice that pervades it all.

Some critics charge that many of the processes of community development are "sub-Christian." Doubtless they are, and in some cases particular methods may be justly condemned. I am not asking for an uncritical acceptance of any policies, methods or movements. What I am saying is very similar to what Walter Rauschenbusch said in the context of the struggle of the industrial workers for justice:

We started out with the proposition that the ideal of a fraternal organization of society will remain powerless if it is supported by idealists only; that it needs the firm support of a solid class whose economic future is staked on the success of that ideal; and that the industrial working class is consciously or unconsciously committed to the struggle for the realization of that principle. It follows that those who desire the victory of that ideal from a religious point of view will have to enter into a working alliance with this class. (Christianity and the Social Crisis, Harper Torchbooks, p. 409.)

As we look back on all that has happened since 1907, we would now speak differently of "class." Many qualifications need to be made as a result of hindsight. But at the core of social advance there must be the dynamism that comes from the interests of those who know in their own lives the necessity of change. Today Negroes are the most readily organized group among those who feel the need for change. Their welfare depends upon broad solutions to the problems of urban poverty, unemployment, housing and education that will benefit all races. Here we do not want to play up the racial factor; yet we do need to allow the solidarity of a deprived race to open doors into which many others can enter.

This should not be a struggle involving the use of naked power. Organization to give dignity and morale so that the apathetic can help themselves, organization to bring economic pressure on the community, organization to make effective political decisions—these are all necessary, but we must remember that the world that needs to feel this pressure is itself very complex. Such organization would have many allies and potential allies; it may also count on others who have enough of a bad conscience or who are open enough to accept a changed situation without continued resistance. Also, our Federal Government can be a mighty force in taking the side of the weak and the poor.

The Church can bring essential resources into this struggle: Resources for the organizing of power and for the correction of the idolatries that often go with power. The local church in a neighborhood of deprivation and injustice should not hold aloof from this struggle. I admire what I have read of the work of some local churches in Chicago. Ministers and congregations have identified themselves with this struggle.

To be sure, this creates problems. Their action is no different in principle, however, from what many Negro congregations have done in Montgomery, Birmingham and many other places, for which they have been widely praised. It is no different from what happens in new nations where the Church identifies itself with the aspirations of the people.

The minister may play a provisional political role in these situations, since he is a visible spokesman for his own people who need his leadership. The ambiguities of this role are less than the ambiguities that surround the political silence of the minister in a homogeneous church that resists change, who allows the people to think that he agrees with them when he doesn’t.

The church needs many ministers who identify themselves with the efforts of the poor to gain power to balance the thousands of ministers who, implicitly, give their blessings to the way the strong keep their power. There are no clear roles in this area.

A person may rightly choose a role that had its limitations, its dangers, its by-products, all of which are ambiguous, but let us bring this out in the open; let him know about the ambiguities. And let the person who doesn’t know what his role is, except that he ministers to those who hold on to the status quo, also learn the ambiguities of his role and try to correct some of these.

But there are other dimensions: In no church should the Gospel be reduced to simple advocacy of this or that social goal. The preaching and the liturgy should clearly transcend the immediate teaching about the social issues. The minister and laymen who have been exposed to the full teaching of the Church should keep alive resources for criticism of their political involvement. They should not become intransigent in facing complexities that emerge as any community moves toward concrete solutions. Slogans are less and less helpful as guides as soon as real, constructive possibilities emerge.

The local church or a group of churches may move into various forms of action that from the purist position may seem problematic, but at a given moment these may be actions of enormous importance in giving dignity and opportunity to the people of the various congregations and their neighbors. Yet the local church should remain part of a larger Christian community.

Here we return to the emphasis upon the more inclusive church—inclusive of people in the suburbs and inner city, of all races, of people of many different opinions and on both sides of most conflicts. Churches must live with the problems created by inclusiveness.

But such inclusiveness may be good for both community and church. It may temper the partisanship on both sides. On central issues it may reveal many allies. But it may also help to correct one-sidedness in the understanding of the Gospel and prepare for a future in which the lines of conflict may well be drawn differently and perhaps modify future forms of intransigence. It may help Christians in many different situations with different experiences and interests to remain under a common judgment, to be open to each other in a common fellowship, and to recognize that they are objects of a common redemption.