Power currents in the age of the #hashtag

Greg Clarke on blending the old and the new

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, but what about new power? Could new power renew humanity? That’s the view driving the work of Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in their recent book, New Power. Heimans co-founded the social movement GetUp! and is an expert in using technology to build campaigns around social issues. Timms is a renowned community organiser and philanthropist, responsible for “Giving Tuesday,” an antidote to the US Black Friday’s consumerism. It takes place on 27th November.

Heimans and Timms detect a major change in the way power works in the technological age.

In the new age, energy is found in cooperation, not competition

In the old age, currency was power: some people had it, and they had the power. But today, current is power: it flows like water or electricity, runs in many directions, and its volume determines its impact.

The authors provide a range of compelling case studies to demonstrate the way that technology, particularly the interconnectivity of the internet and social media, has upended power relations. From the charity sector (remember the Ice Bucket challenge?) to services (Uber, AirBnB, etc., etc.) to justice movements (#MeToo), it’s hard to find a sector of society that hasn’t been affected by the new ability of the average person to publish their views, participate in petitions of various kinds and place pressure on the old power structures of politics, business and institutions.

Heimans and Timm’s vision depends on a changed view of “them and us.” In the old power age, progress takes place via competition. People try to acquire the most power they can in order to become the “us” of the equation. “Us” is a small group. In the new age, energy is found in cooperation, not competition, and the aim is to share power as widely as possible and achieve change because of that breadth, rather than concentration. We are all “us.”

The best contemporary approach to power, the authors argue, is to deftly move back and forth between the old power of influence, intervention and currency and the new power of participation, cooperation and current. Leaders and organisations who can blend these powers will do best, and their success will build a “full-stack society,” a computer coding metaphor for a culture where participation is deep and pervasive, rather than an occasional viral tweeting experience.

There seem to me to be many, many lessons for Christian communities in this shift in the nature of power. Some are easy to see; others will take a great deal of care and thought to sift through. The easy ones include a recognition that the old power structures have by and large failed us. Churches as institutions have often become instruments of secrecy, hiding wickedness and failure, and finding it almost impossible to change. And yet, we are called to participate in communities, to be more than individuals.

We don’t ultimately get to decide what’s what by hashtag.

Can we blend old and new power effectively to develop the “full-stack” churches we need today?

The trickier ideas to think through concern how the voice of the people relates to the belief structures of the Christian faith. After all, there is a power structure to Christianity, with the triune God holding the “currency” and we creatures owing everything to that God. It isn’t democracy. We don’t ultimately get to decide what’s what by hashtag.

Heimans and Timms point out that the current Pope is a fascinating example of new power operating within an old power structure. When Francis was elected Bishop of Rome, he immediately enacted several symbols to represent a new relationship with power. He refused to wear the traditional papal cape, he did not ascend a throne, and he asked the assembled faithful in St Peter’s Square to be a blessing to him, rather than he to them.

Of course, here the Pope was following in the footsteps of Jesus himself, who humbled himself to serve humanity, in obedience to God the Father, and “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” It’s all in Philippians 2, a passage of Scripture that speaks directly into the new power discussion and has been going viral since the middle of the first century.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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