God's Mission Matters
Perceive the power!
Power dynamics — understanding racial and social privilege
By Dennis Smith
"Never boast of anything except Christ crucified" (Galatians 6:14).
When U.S. Presbyterians set off on mission trips, we often carry an invisible suitcase filled with power. I’m not talking about military might or political influence, but rather the cultural and economic power we so easily take for granted.
Our credit cards, education, relative job security, health insurance and pension plans guarantee that most U.S. Presbyterians will enjoy a level of security unknown to many of our mission partners.
Our power often wears the guise of racial and social privilege. Throughout the history of Christian mission, one of the great challenges has been to discern what elements of our mission initiatives reflect the core values of the gospel of Jesus Christ and what elements can be attributed more to our own racial and social backgrounds.
One casualty of this legacy is our latent suspicion of power itself. We often see power as a synonym of abuse and corruption. But power need not be evil. Power administered wisely and subject to checks and balances is a necessary tool for building the common good.
In the United States we have no monopoly on such problems. Racism and social inequality are just as entrenched in Guatemala as they are in the United States—and just as invisible to many middle-class Guatemalan Presbyterians.
Some mission groups have experienced the gift of being able to explore such profoundly human problems with their mission partners. But the sharing doesn’t come easy. It requires trust-building and hearts that are open to God’s grace. It requires time spent together studying God’s Word. It requires a humble, inquiring spirit that allows us to look openly at our history and to celebrate how the Holy Spirit works through our churches despite our limited vision.
The mission, after all, is God’s, not ours.
Listen to this episode of “God’s Mission Matters” and hear stories by David Hudson, former mission co-worker in India, Korea and Pakistan for a total of 10 years and former area coordinator for the Asia/Pacific area office in Presbyterian World Mission, and by Heather Grantham, former Young Adult Volunteer in the Philippines from 2004 to 2005.
Perceive the power! episode toolkit
Use these resources to equip your congregation, network, youth group and other groups in your church for mission involvement. You may use any of these for activities in the context of Bible studies, Sunday Bible class, Sunday worship service and committee or session meetings.
- God’s Mission Matters: Perceive the Power!
Prefer printed? Download and read this ready-to-print booklet including the text of the podcast, a study guide for group leaders and a reflection on popular culture. This is a great tool for a learning session in your congregation or mission group context.
- Download the “Identifying our power and privilege” exercise.
- Download Eric H.F. Law’s “What is Cultural Diversity” and the “Cultural Diversity Chart.”
- Download the “Role of Power” exercise handout for participants.
- Matters from Pop Culture: Stories of struggle; perceiving the power as portrayed in literature
Summaries of three novels—The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell—and what happens when mission becomes an imbalance of cultural power.
- Matters of Worship
Holy Spirit, thank you for this time of reflection and learning. Teach us your ways, appreciating diversity while nurturing equality among all people. Help me to understand where I hold power and privilege. Teach me how to live more faithfully, cultivating Kingdom values of genuine love and the justice that brings peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
- Hymn suggestions:
We are Your People (Presbyterian Hymnal, #436)
Family of God (New Song, first edition, #51)
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