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[Chalice] Power [Chalice]

Presented April 25, 2004, by Michael Flanagan

Opening Words: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

". . . one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites - polar opposites - so that love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love."


"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." -- Mao Tse-tung, 1938.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." -- Lord Acton, 1887.

Readings for the Service:

Poem: "Receiving," by Victor W. Pearn, from Devil Dogs and Jarheads (Busca, Inc.).

After you sprint
from the barber chair
you come to a long counter.
Great shouting
down the halls:
what is your waist size,
your shoe size?
Somebody throws a sea bag
green socks fly at you
belts, T shirts, boxer shorts,
all the articles of clothing
you will need for the next 12 weeks.
If you get the wrong size
too bad, tough shit, wear them.

Then the herd
stampedes into a room
with cubical desks.
You are given a box,
take off your civilian
clothes, put them into
the box, and address
the box to your home.
This is your last chance
to get rid of any contraband,
guns, knives, drugs you may
have brought with you without
getting into trouble.
It is the last time
you will see that box.

Get your group shower.
Gold dial soap bars
five shower heads
blast steam, duck under,
lather up, rinse off,
get out, drip dry, try on
your new boxer shorts,
T shirt, green utility pants
and socks, black basketball shoes,
gray sweatshirt, put on your hat
grab your sea bag and run
out the door. Everybody waiting.

The sea bag on your shoulder
might weigh 60 pounds.
The DI wants you to
form four lines.
The tallest man
in front. The shortest man
in the rear of the line.
Now put your left hand
on the shoulder of the
man in front of you,
and lock your right arm
around the left arm
of the man to your right.
Now walk and stagger
like a million legged

Nobody knows how to march,
but somehow you finally
reach your assigned quarters.

Metal bunkbeds, wooden footlockers,
pick a bed, put your sea bag
into the footlocker.

You are given two green wool
blankets, two sheets, a pillow
a pillowcase, and the soft spoken
DI demonstrates how
to make your bed with
military folds,
expects you to
make your rack
like that,
gives you ten minutes
to make your bed.
And when he returns
your rack made,
you will be
standing at attention
in your skivvies.

The angry
green and red eyed
Drill Instructor
comes in yelling
to get your covers off.
"Take off those covers,"
everybody starts ripping
blankets and throwing them
on the floor.
Angry DI throws people
on the floor, anybody
he can get his hands on.
Then he grabs a recruit,
pulls his hat off and says,
"ladies this is your cover
and you better have
those racks made
before the other DI
gets back."

Soft spoken DI
comes in. Your bed is made.
You are at attention
in your skivvies.
He checks arms, legs, backs
for bruises, wounds,
broken bones, to be sure
we are healthy,
then tells us to get in bed.
At the light switch
he says, "there are armed
guards outside the door
with orders to shoot anybody
that tries to escape,"
then he turns out the lights.
"Good night ladies."
It is 3 a.m.

From The Art of War by Sun Tsu

"Warfare is the Way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable, if active, appear not active, if near, appear far, if far, appear near. If they have advantage, entice them; if they are confused, take them, if they are substantial, prepare for them, if they are strong, avoid them, if they are angry, disturb them, if they are humble, make them haughty, if they are relaxed, toil them, if they are united, separate them. Attack where they are not prepared, go out to where they do not expect. This specialized warfare leads to victory, and may not be transmitted beforehand."


I've been having difficulty with this topic. Part of my difficulty lies in my own hang-ups about authority. It seems like there is a large set of terms that have a relationship to each other. Power, authority, rule, repression, threat, incarceration; all these terms seem to belong to a common category to me. The other part of this topic that gives me difficulty is that there are huge differences in scale between the kinds of power that are expressed by political entities, by corporate entities, by organizations, and by just plain old simple folks like you and me.

At the most huge end of the scale, there is the power of the United States of America. Somehow, something seems wrong about the fact that the power of the United States is demonstrably greater than the power of the United Nations. Whether we view it in relative terms, or in absolute terms, America is the most powerful entity in all of human history. In relative terms, never before has one nation been so much more powerful than the other nations of the world. America has no rival. When we look at it in absolute terms; never before has one nation possessed the ability to destroy all of the earth so many times over! All the world knows of the power of the United States. It inspires reactions of awe, fear, anger envy, jealousy and even rebellion. Rarely does the power of the United States of America go unnoticed; seldom is it disputed; and only the most audacious and secure dare to challenge it. This is truly a unique period in history. Not the ancient Egyptians, not the ancient Chinese, not the ancient Persians; not even the Romans, the Mongols, the Ottomans nor the Britons could claim the level of domination that America enjoys, today.

So, where does all of America's power come from? I think that we need to be careful about the broad, general claims that America's power derives from its ideology, or from its free and open society. It doesn't take much research to find other nations whose society enjoys every bit as much freedom, every bit as much openness; nations which display higher standards of concern for the health of their citizens, lower levels of infant mortality, higher standards for the education of their citizens, lower rates of crime, and lower percentages of their populations living in prisons. In terms of a government's demonstrated concern for the well being of its citizens, I am quite impressed by what I hear about the Scandinavian countries, about the Netherlands and France. In the Western Hemisphere, Canada and Costa Rica pique my imagination. I'm sure that I could live quite comfortably in any of those places - If I could only make a living there!

That's what it is, isn't it? It's the business climate. America enjoys a very high standard of living. America is a very good place to do business. America is the land of opportunity. America is where you want to come if you want to become rich. I'm rich, aren't you? Oh, yes you are! Don't compare your standard of living with the guy across town. Don't compare your standard of living with other Americans. Compare yourself to those in the rest of the world; Africa, Asia, Central America, even Mexico. See, like I told you, "We are rich."

America's ideological superiority derives from the latitude that we offer to businesses to grow and prosper; it's the business climate. Our military superiority derives from our ability to spend only 3.2%, a tiny percentage, of our gross domestic product on our military and to still produce such an overwhelmingly massive military force! In 2005, America is budgeted to spend $420 Billion Dollars on it's military. Next in the line of the big-time spenders are China and Russia with roughly $51 Billion Dollars each. Each of them, China and Russia, spends less than one-eighth of what America spends. As you go on down the list, America's expenditure is greater than the next 28 countries on the list, combined! To quote Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, "For 45 years of the Cold War we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Now it appears we're in an arms race with ourselves."

When the rational part of me focuses upon this huge disparity between America's excesses and the want of basic human needs that is being experienced in many other parts of the world, I become outraged. And my rage is branded as unpatriotic. The emotional part of me rises and becomes part of the problem that I'm having with this subject. I want to rant and rage and rave over these inequities! I become a personification of the problem. In the words of cartoonist Walt Kelly's Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Yes, we have unprecedented power. Yes, we are living in a unique period in history; so, what are we to do? Is there value in having power, or do we hear, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely;" and get the idea that we should disdain power; that we should be embarrassed by the power we possess; and that we should act as if we didn't possess the power that we do in fact, possess? I agree wholeheartedly with the neo-cons, the group of Conservatives wielding American power today, that America's position in the world presents us with uniquely unprecedented challenges and responsibilities. But I have radically different ideas about the goals we should strive to attain, and the means we should employ to attain them.

The most dangerous trend that I see happening in our world today is the increasing polarity of points of view. I see political leaders who can't understand the views of their opponents. I see political leaders who refuse to acknowledge that there is any commonality between their goals and the goals of their political opponents. I see leaders who gain popularity in direct proportion to their level of stridency, in direct proportion to the shrillness of their discourse. I fear that much of that polarity of viewpoint is being manufactured for political advantage is intended to serve the purpose of political strategy. A statement like that is going to take some explaining.

When we speak of strategy, we need to start with military strategies; I hope you'll see why, in a minute. And when it comes to military strategy, We have to turn to Karl von Clausewitz, the author of a series of books that are collectively called On War. Clausewitz fought in the Napoleonic wars and is mentioned by Tolstoy in great great novel War and Peace. Clausewitz' enduring quote is, "War is a mere continuation of politics by other means." That's one way to see it, but the 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault saw it the other way 'round. He stated the proposition as, "Politics is the continuation of war by other means." I'm not sure that it makes so much difference which way you turn it. It is the relative equality given to war and to politics that I find to be significant - and disturbing!

Perhaps it was Mao Tse-tung who fleshed out this concept in the most vivid terms:

"When politics develops to a certain stage beyond which it cannot proceed by the usual means, war breaks out to sweep the obstacles from the way.... When the obstacle is removed and our political aim attained the war will stop. But if the obstacle is not completely swept away, the war will have to continue till the aim is fully accomplished.... It can therefore be said that politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."

So, politics is just war being fought without bloodshed! Where is the good of the populace in this formula, if bloodshed is the only hold that is barred when we are fighting politics? What are peaceful people to do? How are we to "fight" peacefully?

Clausewitz' defines war as ". . . an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." That's an entirely reasonable definition of war, but I can't find the morality in it. Even when you take out the, "act of violence" part of it and leave just the "compel" part; I can't relate to the word "compel" in moral terms. There is simply no way that I can view the concept of "compelling our opponent to fulfill our will" as a moral activity. And especially so, when our will is to be compelled through violence. Must people who are willing to live in peace always be at the mercy of the bullies who would "compel" us? I should hope not!

Von Clausewitz is taught at America's military academies. Indeed, his thought is important to the study of strategy in every application; military strategy (of course), political strategy, corporate strategy, even the strategy of trying to find a job these days. I cannot tell you how disturbing it is to me that the strategies of war and the strategies of politics and the strategies of corporations and the strategies of ordinary people who are trying to get what they want out of life - are all so intimately and intricately intertwined with the unconditional incivility of war. Surely, there is a more appropriate military philosophy for the reality of the 21st Century than this.

I'm not a military veteran. When they tried to draft me, I found a way to avoid it. It was my perception that there was little that I could do to influence world history other than to make it impossible for this body to be used for the killing in Vietnam. I was able to maintain my integrity. Certainly there were others who felt it their duty to serve. Their integrity would have been violated had they not been able to serve. I do not criticize them. They acted according to their conscience, I acted according to mine. I know of yet others who held views similar to mine, but who were unable to find their way out; young men who felt compelled by the morés of this society to fight that war against their own better judgement. I'm thinking now of particular, specific friends. The scars of having done so much killing can run terribly deep. The damage done to the integrity of our soldiers' individual psyches can be insidious and it can be overwhelming. And our military and our society cannot see a need for recognizing the horrible damage that is being done.

Quoting Henry David Thoreau:

A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? Or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

I am a veteran of the counter-cultural movements in the 1960's. My involvement in those movements grew out of my sense that I was politically powerless. For instance, I was required to sign up for the draft on my 18th birthday - I was not allowed to vote until I reached the age of 21. There was a presidential election 16 days before my 21st birthday. I was not allowed to vote for a president until I was 24, only a few days short of being 25. In the meantime, I demonstrated instead. It is my experience that violence is always an imminent possibility with every demonstration. The balance is terribly precarious. Demonstrations can shift from peaceful to violent in an instant with only one misunderstood and unforgiven act from either side of the line.

Many of the demonstrations of the 1960's were exactly that: Demonstrations. What was being demonstrated was the character of America. What was being demonstrated was how the American power structure really worked. There were places where peaceful demonstrations were allowed to happen. There were places where peaceful demonstrations were turned violent by the demonstrators. There were places where peaceful demonstrations were turned violent by the patrolling police. And there were places where peaceful demonstrations were turned violent by directive from higher authorities. Then too, there were demonstrations which were never intended to be peaceful in the first place.

There were many demonstrators, and there were probably as many motives for demonstrating. The intent of the idealists among us is contained in the phrase, "Civil-disobedience." Emphasis on the "Civil." And today, I see much need for civility, both in America, and in the world. What I see instead is an increasingly bitter and vicious exchange of mud, blood and invective between unyielding and strident opponents. Politics being waged according to the rules of war. I see it in so many places: There is the Texas legislature's determined effort to see to it that the Texas legislators are allowed to choose their electorate, rather than allowing a fairly distributed electorate to choose appropriate representors of their viewpoints. I see it in the Supreme Court short-circuiting the re-count process in Florida's last presidential election. I see it when suicide-bombers can believe that their desperate acts will make for a better world. And I see it when the United States purports to be the model for democracy and human rights, and refuses all respect for the rights of those it deems "enemy combatants" in a war that cannot be declared against any enemy nation.

I enjoy recalling a statement made by a former minister of this church, George Christ. He told us that democracy is a messy and inefficient process. Efficiency is a strength that totalitarian governments have. If it is the will of the people that is to reign supreme, enough time must be allowed for the machinery of democracy to work. Expediency, a necessity in the conduct of a war; expediency must not be allowed to get in the way of the conduct of democracy. It is easy to drown out the voice of the people. It is easy to intimidate those who are shy about putting forth unpopular views.

Power begins in very small places. Don't you occasionally see a child in a public place, throwing a tantrum? Whether or not the child is aware of the power that it is exerting, the embarrassment that the parent is feeling certainly can influence a parent's actions. Years ago, a friend of mine, a theatrical director, related the story of his having met with a Hollywood producer in his office. Joe said that the producer's massive desk was elevated on a small platform above the level of the rest of the office, and that visitors were invited to sit on a low, plush couch where they sank nearly to the floor, leaning backwards, and in a proper posture to experience a suitable level of awe in the presence of a powerful studio executive. The very architecture of a space can influence the people within it. Michel Foucault tells us that the way hospital wards, prison cell-blocks, traditional classrooms and courtrooms are arranged, contribute to the distribution of the power that is exercised within those kinds of spaces. Observe the arrangement of this space. - Thank you for allowing me the power to speak before you this morning, I appreciate it more than you will ever know. While I think there is nothing terribly insidious about these relatively petty strategies to gather power; I do think it is important that we be aware of when they are being directed toward us.

Each of us possesses a modicum of power. The truth of Chairman Mao's dictum that "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun," lies in the singularity of its terms; "THE barrel of A gun." Mao understood that power resides in the conscience of the individual, and Mao was a master at shaping and then collecting those consciences into an amorphous mass, then bullying that mass to do his bidding. From its origins in our Constitution, I believe that our government was intended to be the process by which the will of the people could be discovered and made manifest. Instead, our government has become the aggregator, the collective container of the personal power of each of us, and our voices have become cacophony and our will indiscernible. We are asked to focus upon trite half-truths and undefinable slogans. The debate is not being framed in a manner which will produce understanding and consensus, but in a manner which will polarize the electorate and produce votes. Only a few years ago, we heard an American President declare that, "America speaks with one voice!" His voice. That's not the kind of government that I want us to have. We deserve better. Never forget that the German words Der Fuhrer, translate into the English words, The Leader. America speaks with hundreds of millions of voices, and so it should be throughout the world, forever.

Closing Words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God's universe is made; this is the way it is structured."

©2004 Michael Flanagan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Flanagan, Michael. 2004. Power, /talks/20040425.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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