For Youth Workers Post

Power Plays

Steve Matthews

“In the Habit” session for devozine meditations for October 21–27, 2013.


“How easy and seductive it is to act as a power player! My sister, for example, at the age of ten was already skilled at exerting her wisdom and savvy at my expense. (Of course, my being three years younger and inherently trusting made me an easy target.) One Christmas, she suggested that we tell each other the biggest present we knew the other person was getting. She told me to go first, and I excitedly told her that she was getting a new ten-speed bike. She was delighted. I looked at her expectantly, yearning to hear what amazing surprise was coming my way. I can still hear her laughter as she told me that my biggest gift was going to be underwear.

“My sister and I are now loyal friends, but the point is that even the best of us learn early how to get what we want and how to wield power, even at another person’s expense.

“Power is an energy of authority, determination, focus. It can be used for good and for ill. Unfortunately, most of the time we associate the word power with abuse. Power plays derail the potential for good in our political systems, our schools, our work, our relationships, and even our churches; and they leave us feeling cynical, angry, resentful, and powerless.

“Jesus was a powerful person. He was a wise teacher, a courageous healer, and a trusted friend; and he used his God-given gifts—his power—to benefit others. Throughout his life, Jesus was also on the receiving end of power plays. As an infant, he was taken to Egypt to escape Herod’s power-hungry wrath. As an adult, he was crucified by the powers that he threatened. Each time Jesus faced abusive power, he offered his followers creative and transforming ways to address threatening forces. [NOTE: You may want to read the article “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way” by Walter Wink in preparation for this lesson.]” —Steve


devozine Steve Matthews IMG_0433

Steve Matthews was a youth minister for more than fifteen years. At present, he is living in central Virginia on a small farm with a cat, a dog, and sixteen chickens. He loves growing his own food as well as cooking and eating it. Steve is a leadership consultant and is presently working with “missio:Engage” (an online school for church redevelopment, sponsored by the Episcopal Church). He is also a spiritual director and was a writer for The Way of Pilgrimage: An Adventure in Spiritual Formation for the Next Generation.



  • Jesus’ life and teachings offer us creative and transforming ways to navigate the stormy waters created by power-hungry people and institutions. Standing up for our God-given dignity in the face of power plays takes courage. Gandhi recognized the transforming nature of Jesus’ teaching on non-violent resistance to power and used this wisdom to bring down English rule in India. This clip from the movie Ghandi depicts Gandhi’s early days in South Africa and shows the courage and cost of daring to stand up to dehumanizing power. A second clip from the movie shows Gandhi, a Hindu, teaching an English priest about the real meaning of Jesus’ teaching on confronting power.
  • The song “There’s no Thief Like Fear,” by Jason Gray, provides a poignant choice: Will we shrink in the face of fear or move forward in love, claiming the dignity inherent in each of us?


Begin this session with an opening ritual: a moment of silence, a short prayer the group says together, or lighting a candle to symbolize Christ’s presence. Take a moment to claim this space and time as holy.

Then invite group members to reflect on a time in the last month when they felt they were being put down or humiliated, a time when they felt as if their dignity was being assaulted in a power play. The source of the power play may be a friend, a colleague, a family member, a boss. It could also be an institution (work, school, government) that enacted a new and unjust rule or practice.

Then ask them to answer these questions, encouraging them to listen to one another prayerfully and without comment.
       How did you feel in this situation?
       What made the situation a power play?


Scripture: Matthew 5:38–41

When we encounter someone who is wielding a power play, we naturally feel threatened and defensive. How do we best respond? Will we fight, giving more energy to the cycle of violence; or will we flee, trying to escape? Perhaps, we will remember that we have more options. Second Timothy 1:7 says, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The sense of power, love, and self-discipline that comes from God motivated Jesus to offer a third way to respond to power plays that threaten our dignity and sense of peace.

Distribute Bibles. Ask group members to read Matthew 5:38–41 silently as you read the scripture aloud. Invite them to read it a second time and to notice a word or phrase that draws their attention. Then ask:
       Does this sound like a passive response to abusive power?
       Are we supposed to accept the abuse of others? Is that what Jesus wants for us?

Pastor and theologian Walter Wink suggests that what Jesus instructs is completely different from passivity. Jesus’ ministry was about transformation; it was not about keeping people trapped in oppressive situations. In Matthew 5:38–41, Jesus presents three culturally significant situations in which people can choose to be victimized or to stand up to power in a creative and powerful way.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek” (Matthew 5:39) describes a backhanded strike meant to humiliate, to put a person in his or her place. This was not a fistfight between equals but a situation in which someone of greater power sought to diminish someone of lesser power. Walter Wink says, “The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’” Of course, the risk is that the less-powerful person may get hit again; but in Jesus’ time, the person in power who strikes a second time is violating a cultural code, acknowledging that the other person is an equal, and risking humiliation.

In each of the three situations in this passage the theme is the same. Jesus takes a culturally demeaning experience and invites the injured party to stand up to his or her oppressors in a creative and empowering way. Jesus encourages his followers to practice non-violence, to acknowledge their equality, to claim their dignity, and to present power players with a potentially humiliating choice. If the powerful continue to exercise their advantage, their actions will unmask their oppression, and they will be held accountable for the consequences.

Show the two clips from the film Gandhi (see “Plugged In”). Then ask the following question, and write people’s responses on a sheet of newsprint:
       In what ways was Jesus’ approach to power played out in these scenes?

Invite discussion:
       What does the comment, “I thought you’d be bigger,” posed in the second clip, say about the power of human dignity?
       What are the costs of holding and wielding abusive or debilitating power?
       In what ways do all the people involved in a power play become less of what God intended them to be?
       In what ways does a creative and courageous response to power offer our enemies a way out of their power plays?
       Why is it important to pray for the powerful?



Invite group members to list on newsprint the names of people, living or dead, who have modeled creative, transforming, and dignified responses to power. Then ask them to read in unison this prayer:

“O God, we thank you for the lives of great saints and prophets in the past, who have revealed to us that we can stand up amid the problems and difficulties and trials of life and not give in. We thank you for our foreparents, who’ve given us something in the midst of the darkness of exploitation and oppression to keep going. Grant that we will go on with the proper faith and the proper determination of will, so that we will be able to make a creative contribution to this world. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Thou, Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits



Say: “Responding to power plays in the transforming way of Jesus takes creativity and courage.” Then invite further discussion by asking questions such as these:
       How can we support and encourage one another when they face power plays?
       What are creative, non-violent responses to power that will help you maintain your dignity in a difficult situation?
       In what ways do we act as power players? How do we deliberately misuse power?
       How do we unconsciously use our privilege (race, status, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, age) as a source of power to hurt others?
       What changes can we make in our lives so that we better follow Jesus Christ in situations that involve the misuse of power?


—from devozine In the Habit (July/August 2013). Copyright © 2013 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.
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