Weak v. Strong Power

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

I recently attended the College Theology Society Annual Convention, which was held at Rockhurst University. The theme was Liturgy + Power, and the topic of weak power was raised in a number of sessions, as well as Susan Ross’s plenary address. Ever since beginning John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, I’ve been thinking about the distinction between weak and strong power, so the conference was very illuminating.

At the request of a friend, I put together the following reflections concerning the difference.

I think of weak power as the sort of power manifested when one makes a gratuitous gift or sacrifice of one’s self, thereby investing responsibility in and demonstrating trust in the other in a surprising and powerful way. It is essentially self-giving and sacrificial, and I think it is most authentically manifest when one has no hope that some strong force will intercede to rectify the situation. For example, imagine a horrific situation in which a gunman is threatening the lives of others and where they have no hope of overpowering him. If the victims would offer themselves up to the shooter (e.g., present themselves en masse to be shot), that would be an example of weak power. It might not be efficacious weak power—the shooter might not experience the affective response we desire—but it has the potential to be efficacious in a qualitatively different way (a weak way) than an aggressive response.

One of the problematic risks associated with believing that God is a strong force rather than a weak force—i.e., believing God is the omnipotent deity that doles out justice or avenges injustice through a show of overwhelming aggressive force—is that it undermines the ability of believers to manifest authentic weak power. If they believe that God will avenge injustice through a show of awesome aggressive force, their seemingly meek displays of power become forms of vicarious strong power.

One of the reasons I believe that God’s power is weak power is that I believe weak power is the only form of power that has (as a virtue proper to its very nature) the potential to authentically raise awareness of sin and lead to the way of being that we associate with redemption and salvation. Aggressive or strong power brings about submission; it over-powers, but it does not essentially challenge the underlying sinfulness that precipitates an act of aggression and domination. (I should note that I am aware that strong power can, as a matter of fact, precipitate genuine awareness of sin, redemption, and salvation—as when one, after being beaten into submission, hears and receives the good news—but it’s not a virtue proper to strong power per se to do so.)

Weak power has the potential to tap into what I believe is an innate ability on our part to recognize agapic self-gift as the presence of God. Strong power has no such essential ability to do so; if and when it does precipitate a proper love of others, it is always accidental.

The danger of preaching weak power, as Susan Ross alluded to in her address, is that such preaching can further forms of domination. For example, it would be inappropriate, to say the least, to wax poetic about weak power in the face of police brutality—even though it has a legitimate place in such discussions. As she also noted, part of the way to respond to this problem is to recognize and insist that weak power is not a substitute for the reform of institutions. The creation of just laws and the proper administration of those laws are also important. (For what it’s worth, I grant that aggression or the threat of aggression does have the virtue of bringing about obedience to law. That’s a function of the fact that obedience to law is a matter of action, or bodily comportment, not immediately spiritual rectitude.)