Relational Power: Three Dimensions
by Bob Mesle
We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hatred can never put an end to hatred; Love alone can.
By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.
Process Relational people have a long history of rethinking the nature of power. Pioneers in relational thought have emphasized persuasion over coercion, and creative transformation over domination. But we have another rich offering to share: Relational Power.
When most people think of power, they point to examples of what Bernard Loomer called unilateral power: powerful sports teams, ultra wealthy people, giant corporations, hurricanes and tornadoes, the President of the United States, the military, and especially nuclear weapons. All of these kinds of examples point to power as the ability to affect others without being affected by them. In the language of sports or the military, unilateral power includes both offense (scoring, defeating, even destroying the opposition) and defense (preventing the opposition from scoring, winning, or destroying us). Unilateral power flows downward—moving the burdens of life from top to bottom of the power hierarchy, with few at the top and many at the bottom.
Unilateral power is woven deeply into our lives. We compete all the time in games, grades, jobs, romance, and more. It is hard to imagine life without such competitive expressions of unilateral power. Even when we do not want to control and win, we do want to feel safe and secure. Most of all, we don’t want to die. We want to be “unaffected” by all the threats of the world.
So unilateral makes a lot of sense in how we usually approach life. But consider what it looks like in the extreme. Given the realities of the world, no person has complete power over anyone. But consider examples where people come very close to having absolute unilateral power over others. The starkest examples of this are deeply troubling: child abuse, slavery, rape, torture chambers, tyrants, and genocide. Unilateral power, in the extreme cases, shows itself as very dark, indeed.
Most disturbingly, if unilateral power is the ability to remain safely unaffected by others, then unilateral power seems to be the opposite of love. For surely, to love someone is to be affected by them. The more deeply we love someone the more we are affected. Their joys and sorrows become our joys and sorrows. To have a child, it has been suggested, is to have your heart walking around outside your body. Unilateral power seems the opposite of love.
Bernard Loomer proposed a very different vision of power which embraces love:
In my own formulation, relational power has three dimensions.
1. ACTIVE, INTENTIONAL, OPENNESS: Children are wonderful examples of this aspect of relational power. They constantly explore the world with all five senses, literally stuffing the world into their mouths to learn more about it. Even we adults must engage in such openness just to survive and enjoy. And we value those with greater strength in openness. Stronger students are precisely those most gifted at, and actively committed to, openness to new information, ideas, and visions. Artists are more open to the colors and shapes of the world, while poets are alert to the nuances of language. Musicians hear music all around us. Rather than “picky eaters,” we admire people who can sit at any table and learn to enjoy the amazing array of flavors the world has to offer—in food, ideas, beauty, nature, language, people, and more. The best parents are those most sensitive and responsive to the changing feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams of their children. This fits the old saying that we should walk a mile in another person’s moccasins to learn who they are.
2. SELF-CREATIVITY: Relational power involves taking all that active openness and responding to it self-creatively. We are not just putty in the hands of the world. Relationally powerful people don’t just believe what we are told, or think as we are directed. Rather, we take in the new and thoughtfully integrate it with what we already have and value. We use our existing values and knowledge to sort out what we consider truer and better. But creative transformation demands that we sometimes recognize new truths and values as better than our old ones, requiring us to rethink, reconceive, revalue, and even reconstruct ourselves, our visions, and our actions in response to creativity. Walking a mile in the other person’s moccasins gives us a chance to integrate their wisdom with our own, and see the world through their eyes—but without giving up our own wisdom or eyes. Active openness and self-creativity make it possible to see something creatively new.
3. THE STRENGTH TO SUSTAIN MUTUAL RELATIONSHIPS: Relational power involves the willingness and insight to take in the new and then return to the world and our relationships with more openness, better questions, more sensitivity, and new understanding. It means being willing and able to go back and learn more, to sustain engagement with ideas, experiences, and people, especially when those relations are challenging in some way. It is so easy to avoid growth and change, to dodge conflict, to resist the new. This step leads right back to the start in a spiral. We try to become more actively and intentionally open, and more self-creative.Having walked a mile in another person’s moccasins, we are in a better position to enter creative dialogue with them, and walk further with them.
Relational power takes great strength. In stark contrast to unilateral power, the radical manifestations of relational power are found in people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus. It requires the willingness to endure tremendous suffering while refusing to hate. It demands that we keep our hearts open to those who wish to slam them shut. It means offering to open up a relationship with people who hate us, despise us, and wish to destroy us. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The opening quotations above from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Buddha capture the greatest challenges and achievements of relational power, and make it clear why relational power requires so much more strength that unilateral power. To return hate for hate is easy; but to respond to hatred with love is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Those who can are the saints, the true sages, the greatest hopes for our world. They have hearts, souls, and minds of enormous SIZE.