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Reading 1 – Power and Authority

Reading 1 – Power and Authority

Irene Alexander, ‘Power and Authority’, A Glimpse of the Kingdom in Academia: Academic Formation as Radical Discipleship, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013), 132-150.

Irene Alexander is a psychologist and spiritual director. She lectures at Christian Heritage College and the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane. Her primary interest in this text is exploring a new form of contemporary monasticism inside a ‘Christian university’. One of her chapters is on power and authority.

The focus for Alexander is on Jesus’ model of power and authority. The key texts are the obvious ones: the comparison with the Gentiles who lord power over others, the disciples’ question as to who is the greatest, and the Philippians hymn where Christ is ‘humiliated’.

The preferred model is obviously one of servanthood in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of ‘do as I have done to you’. This kenotic or self-emptying way is seen to be in keeping with Gordon Cosby’s understanding of the ‘descension of God’. The contrast is made with so much western thinking where we assume the route to power and authority is by way of ‘ascent’. For Maggie Ross such descension is an expression of the ‘kenotic humility’ of God: it shows forth God’s ‘inviolable vulnerability’ – and, so she poses the conundrum: ‘Suppose the only way we can know God is to go down, to go to the bottom … If God is going down and we are going up, it is obvious that we are going in different directions. And we will not know him. We will be evading God, and missing the whole purpose of our existence’. (135).

Alexander argues that such servant leadership is seldom practised. Why this does not happen in the church leads her to consider the work of Tom Marshall. His writing on Understanding Leadership sets out the differences between different types of authority – task, teaching and spiritual. That which is task is short-term, goal-oriented. It is often the only kind of leadership style we see offered in the church and Christian institutions; it is an ascending form of power which contrasts with a spiritual leadership which is not designed to make the rebel conform.

Alexander prefers to think in terms of an exchange of power. The tenor of her argument is that genuine power is not power-over (ascending) but power and authority which comes from within: whenever there is a relationship in which power is exercised, its authenticity relies upon the ‘agreement’ of the other to recognize the power of the other. Such an exchange is not coercive: it leaves room for freedom of choice and invitation.

Alexander believes that our understandings of power flow from our understanding of God. She argues in favour of a transformational rather than transactional God. The practice of empowerment comes from servanthood through guardianship. On the basis of these conclusions Alexander examines what makes for a faithful understanding of power practices. For her this objective is grounded in a love-driven leadership.