The need for a truly human definition of power


By Corrine Winter

I often like to take a stab at the crossword puzzle that appears in our local paper, perhaps because it is short and usually fairly easy. Several times recently, one of the clues has read “powerful group.” The answer each time has been “ins.” A preposition used as a noun tends to bother me on one level, but on a much more important level, the question and answer reminds me of some strange notions of power that often seem apparent and even prevalent in our society.

Corinne Winter
Corinne Winter

As the loooong Iowa political season continues, we often see among candidates and their supporters a very real desire to serve and to make a difference for others. All too often we see as well, what appears to be a need to win at any cost. A similar “need” can affect business operations, athletic competitions, personal and international relations. Individuals, companies, teams and nations operate, at times, out of a desire for power defined solely as being on top, having the most, or controlling others. Certainly, a degree of competition can encourage growth. We would hardly be interested, for example, in watching an athletic team that never seemed interested in winning a game or in working for a company with no desire to do better business. But when the desire to win is expressed through different forms of cheating, we are universally scandalized by the corruption. We recognize that the benefits of competition have been thrown under the bus of greed. It may be more difficult but even more vital to recognize the effects of greed for power, falsely understood, in relationships among individuals, communities and nations.

The documents of Vatican II and the encyclicals of popes as well as the works of other theologians challenge us to espouse a notion of power in relationship rather than one of power over another. A conversion to a relational concept is, in fact, our best hope for survival. An economy marked by the constant effort of individuals and corporations to top one another is not sustainable. Even more importantly, many, especially lower-paid workers suffer great losses when corporations strive for efficiency by demanding more work for less pay, increasing quotas or other expectations without providing for the human needs of laborers.


On a political level, “peace” maintained through controlling “enemies” through superior fire power can’t be trusted. Only by establishing mutual respect within diversity and by pursuing the common good through an equitable exchange of both goods and ideas can we move in the direction of a lasting peace. Pope Paul VI put it succinctly: “If you want peace, work for justice.” He referred especially to social justice: respecting the human rights and meeting the human needs of all persons. Pope Paul challenged the human community to examine our definitions of both power and progress in terms of that growth in true humanity.

Even individual personal relationships can be affected by a corrupted desire for pride of place. We laugh about sibling rivalry and some of that seems to be a normal part of development within a family. But the youngster who doesn’t learn that cooperation and communication are key becomes either the bully or the bullied. A marriage in which one spouse needs to earn more, to receive more praise, or to be right more often than the other is in deep trouble.

I am sure I am not the only one who can be moved by the commercial that shows a group of Special Olympians running a race. One of the racers falls, and the others, instead of running ahead rejoicing in their better chance of winning, all return and help their fallen “competitor” to his feet. They all link arms and cross the finish line together — true winners. It may be tempting to brush off the feelings as sentimentality, but we need to think about applying the truth we recognize in that scene of the children on a much, much wider scale.

Not long ago, I heard a well-known social analyst observe that he had seen peace treaties actually work in two instances. In each instance, he said, the treaty avoided establishing a vanquisher and a vanquished and, in fact, provided extra protection to the minority group. It seems to me that recent popes have called us as well to recognize that the ultimate “victory” for anyone is victory for everyone. There cannot be a group of “ins” and another group of “outs” if we are to live a truly human life.

(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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