We often speak of people and power in terms of individuals and the authority God has given to them: over their individual lives, in their responsibilities as parents, children, spouses, among friends and associates, in the community, etc. Such is well and good in light of Romans 13:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, and 1 Peter 2:11-17, among other passages. Nevertheless, if we only view power in terms of individual human beings and their autonomy and standing before God, we neglect how people cultivate and leverage power in collectives.
People developed such collectives as soon as a sufficient number of people existed to create them. Cain built a city, and Noah’s descendants became the eponymous ancestors of the nations of the world (Genesis 4:17, 10:1-32). Ever since, humans have cultivated and developed a multiplicity of collective forms to suit various purposes. Extended families developed into clans, tribes, and ethnic nations, and built villages and cities. Leaders of these communities and groups gained greater power and built out infrastructures to leverage their authority with ministers, secretaries, developing the bureaucratic state; at different times and different places, multiple levels of such a bureaucratic state would develop. People who labored in specific crafts and disciplines would collaborate and form guilds and eventually trade unions. Merchants would work and share profits together, ultimately developing the business and corporate models we find today. Where other forms of connection were absent, people would often form various voluntary associations or societies based on shared religious beliefs, geographical location, class standing, political or philosophical positions, or shared hobbies or passions.
In short, people have sought to associate and connect within collectives throughout time and space. As Christians we should not find this tendency surprising. Humans are made in the image of God, the God Who Is Three in One and One in Three, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, Deuteronomy 6:4-6, John 10:30, 17:20-23); thus, man is made yearning for relational unity with God and with people (Genesis 2:18, John 17:20-23). Humans have only been able to leverage dominion over the earth and develop what they deem “civilization” because of their penchant for collective action. As individual humans we are rather weak and frail, and predators would find us easy to hunt; when humans communicate and work together, nothing they plan to do will be beyond them (cf. Genesis 11:6). The “self made person” imagined by middle class Western philosophically liberal values remains a mirage and a myth; beyond the inescapable fact all we have and are comes from God, success in hard work and entrepreneurship still demands good training, infrastructure, and functioning cultures, markets, and societies to lead to any kind of material benefit. People need people in order to succeed.
While each human being has authority and power in their own lives, whenever humans band together to form a collective, these collectives inevitably cultivate and manifest their own kind of authority and power. We therefore find ourselves compelled to grapple with the existence and influence of collective, or institutional, power.
Institutional power represents the authority and influence leveraged by and within collectives of people. Institutional power, by necessity, also includes systemic power: the way collective power is leveraged to benefit or harm certain individuals or types of individuals within a greater society. The systemic power flows by necessity from institutional power on account of the nature of institutions, particularly those with some kind of legislative or regulatory authority over others. A ruler over a small group may be able to personally hear and address every challenge or difficulty in his community; yet, like Moses in Israel, at some point the ruler will have to delegate authority to sub-rulers in order to determine matters (cf. Exodus 18:13-26). As the people expand in size and the difficulties grow in complexity, authority becomes ever more delegated to more and more agents. To maintain standards, said agents will be expected to follow certain protocols in addressing difficulties and challenges. Such is how systems inevitably grow within collectives and become their own form of power within collectives.
Yet the challenges of collective, institutional, and/or systemic power have remained evident since the Tower of Babel: in our corruption, we humans tend to build things in order to make a name for ourselves and to resist being scattered about (cf. Genesis 11:1-5). As with individuals, so with groups and systems: they work to preserve themselves and advance their own interests, even and especially when those interests come into conflict with others. Collectives like making names for themselves: they want to be known for who they are, what they do, and the benefits joint participation can bring. They want to enjoy good press and a good reputation no matter what they are actually doing, since they want to cultivate their power and legacy. If participation in the collective does not provide life enhancement, why bother participating in the collective? In our corruption humans often look for ways to gain advantage and superiority, in pretext or substance, over others, and we often find outlets for these in our collectives: everything from nationalism and patriotism regarding our nation-state to “the sports team from my local area is superior to the sports team from your local area.” Collectives want people to invest them with some level of ultimate meaning: by participating in them you share in something greater than yourself, something nobler, something which will bring honor and glory to you. Such is generally the appeal of everything from religions to military service to corporate mission statements. Furthermore, the making of a name for one collective generally comes at the expense of other collectives: for one group to win, often one or more other groups must lose, as can be seen in anything from sports teams to corporate competition in the free market to nation-states at war.
Humans deeply fear alienation and isolation, and so it is with collectives. Collectives exist to insulate individuals from the dangers and difficulties which arise from alienation and isolation; thus collectives work diligently to perpetuate and advance themselves. Collectives resist the premise they will die; instead, they will arrogate and presume for themselves a form of immortality which humans as individuals cannot aspire in their subjection to death. Individuals die, but collectives might continue on; therefore, collectives encourage individuals to expend their energy and power to perpetuate and advance the collective so it might thus carry on. How much effort and labor have people invested to perpetuate a given club, sports team, community group, corporation, or nation-state?
Let none be deceived: collectives, groups, institutions, and their systems are not intrinsically good or bad, right or wrong. God has established many such collectives: families, clans, tribes, nations, nation-states, and of course the church (Genesis 10:1-32, Matthew 16:18). Christians have collaborated in families, community groups, corporations, and in various aspects of the governing of nation-states and have found ways to glorify God in so doing (Acts 18:1-3, Romans 16:23, Ephesians 5:22-6:9). Yet, as with individuals, so with collectives: they decide whether to leverage their efforts and power in ways which glorify God, or in ways which work against God and His purposes.
We will inevitably be part of and work in collectives, institutions, and their systems. We may primarily benefit from the ways in which those collectives leverage their power; we may find ourselves at a disadvantage or oppressed by the leveraging of that collective power. As God will judge each individual for what he or she has done in the body (Romans 2:5-11, 14:10-12), so God also will judge collectives, institutions, and their systems; they will all ultimately fall, undone by their sinful oppression, and others will rise to take their place, and this cycle repeats until the Lord Jesus returns (cf. Revelation 12:1-19:21).
What shall we do, then? We must be aware of the existence of collective and institutional power and the systems which they develop. If they advantage and privilege us, we do well to advocate for those who find themselves disadvantaged and oppressed by them. We must call out such collectives for their arrogant presumptions, for they will not endure forever, and they cannot provide ultimate meaning; only Jesus through God’s Reign can. Just as no individual is intrinsically superior to any other, so also no collective, institution, or their systems are intrinsically superior or should be more advantaged than any other. The people of God must always be on guard lest they are distracted by the collectives of this world to prioritize them and their interests over the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (cf. Matthew 6:33). In the end, only one collective will endure: the collective of God’s people saved by Christ living under the Reign of God (Revelation 21:1-22:6): if we are God’s people, we must do all we can to ensure the church does not act like the world in its corruption and does not try to re-create the Tower of Babel in its own way, but in humble love and service continually embodies Jesus to the world (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). May we seek to glorify God in all we do as individuals and in various collectives, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry