- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
McMusing: Who Chooses your Chair?
For several years I have been posting my morning musings on Facebook and it is probably time to be more intentional (my word for this year) and blog instead--maybe if for no other reason than being able to find what I wrote! This is the beginning....the first McMusing.
I have been thinking about the difference between power and agency. When we say that someone is powerful, that usually indicates the traditional sense of the word: "the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events" (Oxford Languages) or "possession of control, authority, or influence over others" (Merriam Webster). Interestingly enough, this is the second definition. The first is: "the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality" (Oxford Languages) This is usually used in the sense of being a powerful speaker, writer, etc.
The second definition comes closer to agency: "Agency is the sense of control that you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations. Your sense of agency helps you to be psychologically stable, yet flexible in the face of conflict or change" (Source)
As I watch how Christianity is being lived out in the political arena, I wonder if we have somehow confused the two definitions of power. I think of Colossians 1:11: "Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience..." (NIV) This entire section is about how we live, the previous verse says: "so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God." This is not the definition of power that exerts control or influence over others, it is more like having agency.
One of the most important reasons to heal from painful life experiences is the development of agency. When I walked into therapy on the first day, my therapist said, "You may choose where you would like to sit." There was a couch, a comfy chair, a rocking chair, and a standard-looking office chair. I preferred that she would tell me where to sit, but she didn't. It was my first lesson about agency--making my own choices. Not that I hadn't been choosing chairs my entire life--but now I realize that I was always looking for others' expectations before I chose. Still, it was a form of agency because I was choosing for myself--kind of.
What would power look like in comparison? I would have walked into the room and told the therapist where to sit. Ridiculous you say? Rude you say? I would agree, but it seems that many have come to believe this is how we are to live as Christians in this world--that our job here on earth is to tell everyone where to sit. This is a desire for power, it is not the type of power that looks like agency. Agency (dare I say biblical power) is way more concerned with living out the fruits of the spirit.
Let's say we are not the client walking into the room, but instead, we are the therapist. Don't we have a right to tell the client where to sit? After all, we have the credentials that qualify us to tell people where to sit in a session. No. That is not what the credential qualifies a therapist to do. It says that they have done the necessary preparation to not do that, but to instead empower clients to develop agency--to make their own choices.
My therapist was working on that from the moment I walked into the room. She also didn't assume that I would always choose the couch. She left the options open and occasionally asked me if I was still comfortable with the couch. This was so important! Agency not only means making choices but the ability to change our choices. Though I never changed my spot, I knew I could. One day, I did change spots--just because I could.
At a very basic level, God allows us to choose our own chair. It is called freewill. He may suggest one as being more comfortable, but the choice is ours. God is all about agency. Lately, many churches and people in the church have not been good at imitating God in this regard. God's way of doing things just doesn't seem powerful enough so we have gone looking for others who will force people to sit in the chairs we choose for them. We have substituted the use of agency (to choose for ourselves) with power (to control or strongly influence the choices of others).
Many Christians are adamant about their right to choose and often equally vocal about how others do not have that right on different issues. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot have the liberty to choose our own chairs and deny that right to others with whom we disagree. Yes, power does work that way, agency does not. Because agency is about how we choose to live our own life, not about how we choose to force others to live theirs.
This need to control others became most evident to me when I contracted with a state agency (not in WA) to do a presentation. Not long after I sent an invoice for the payment, I received a letter saying that if I used the money to promote a particular practice/cause I would be liable for breaking a law and the state could take legal action against me (as a contractor offering services). The presentation had nothing to do with this particular issue which was one that a large segment of the church/conservative movement has joined forces with politicians to enable them to tell people which chair to sit in. I did keep my agreement to present but declined payment. It had nothing to do with the issue; it had everything to do with agency--my ability to make my own choices. This is but one example of how power is being used to rob others of agency all across our nation.
It behooves us all to determine if our focus is on power (controlling others) or agency (making choices about how we choose to live) because power is fickle. It has no core principles and is always on the prowl to ensnare those without agency who are looking for someone to tell them which chair to sit in. It can just as easily turn against you as it can be for you. And for those who like me were robbed of agency (through both abuse and harmful teachings that diminished who God created me to be), it is very easy to pick up power or latch on to those who hold it, as a substitute.
Power is the alluring side of legalism that is destroying our witness as followers of Jesus--the one who showed us the true nature of the Father. It is the belief that one person or group of people have the right to tell others which chairs to sit in. Jesus NEVER used power (during the time of temptation specifically) choosing instead to pour a sense of agency into everyone he met. He did condemn the religious leaders who colluded with political leaders to rob the people of agency. We should not discount the fact that allowing the people to choose their own chairs is the cornerstone of a democracy and when we overrule it with power (no matter how important we believe our cause to be) we may back ourselves into a corner where we have no chair to sit in. Power will always tell you you are winning until you realize it lied to you.