restoration and power

we’ve spent the last two days with Elaine Enns at a staff retreat, talking about restorative justice, and making links between the ethos and values behind RJ and our work within the church and community.

it’s been a provocative and inspiring couple of days – in the midst of all the stories of transformation and restoration, we also did a lot of thinking about power, working around or with both imagined and real opposition, the [false?] dichotomies that shape our thinking and our work. we imagined new ways of relating, and of holding our work accountable to the ethos of restoration.

the stuff that i think will be most confronting for us is the critique of power that restorative justice demands. restorative justice has at its core a re-balancing of relationships, a reclaiming of life and identity, and our understanding of power is a major part of that.

It goes without saying that we act out of our perception of our power, and that we largely define ourselves and our capacity to act by our perceived place on the power continuum. our normal critique of power is to believe we need to open up one end of the continuum to allow more people to be part of it [for example, males ‘move over’ to allow space for females to participate; we decide that someone can be in leadership in the church ‘in spite of’ their sin]. we’re still working off the same continuum, but the ‘other’ is allowed in by virtue of the power-holder’s generosity. at the heart of a transforming gospel, though, is the idea that the very continuums themselves are challenged: people are no longer defined as good or bad, in or out, worthy or unworthy, male or female, prisoner or free, jew or gentile… it’s not that we all end up at the same end of those continuums, it’s that the continuum itself is questioned. so, it’s not that we make everyone worthy of a leadership position – it’s that worthiness is no longer part of the equation. if we challenge the continuum, one end of it can no longer have privilege, and those who hold it no longer have the power to include or exclude.

there’s nothing new about any of that, but the last few days have made me analyse how much of the language we use is power-based. i’ve talked often about how the most important message in the workshops we host on alt worship is about permission-giving… but wordy, that’s terrible language. it assumes that permission is someone’s [mine?] to give, which means, by extension, it’s also mine to withhold [even if i would never choose not to]. it’s generous language, but it still holds people within a power relationship.

i’m not sure if the connection between that and what follows will be clear yet, and i’ll elaborate in a week or two with something we’re working on here… but it reminds me of the story i’ve loved most in the book the starfish and the spider. It’s of Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, who heads up Goodwill Industries in San Francisco. This is a bit of her story:

The moment Deborah set foot inside [Goodwill], she began to enact massive changes. “I realised that I had to create a certain level of chaos,” she told us. Her board, her management team, and the employees were scared. “Do you have to be so disruptive?” one board member asked. “Yes, I do,” Deborah replied.
“We’d been such a hierarchical organisation,” she told us. “We needed to get people into a conversation and get them to be innovative and creative. People in positions of power needed to understand that great ideas come from people who are closest to the ideas.”

This type of leadership isn’t ideal for all situations. Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change and creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive.”

– p. 130f

i think she’s describing an organisation where the continuums are being redefined. so much creativity and imagination in the church is constrained because people hold the power to give permission, or people are waiting for permission. it’s still based on a power continuum. it’s only possible by virtue of someone else’s generosity…. how do we create a system, or a network that isn’t based on permission giving, on one person or group having the right to validate another’s work? can we actually do it within an institution that has been shaped so tightly by the continuums we’re actually trying to redefine?

we’ve got so, so much work to do on all this…