This week, I have been reading Playing God by Andy Crouch. This is a provocative and thought-inducing book on the nature of power. The central premise of the book is that power is good and power is meant for human flourishing. When power is abused, it does not lead to human flourishing, but degradation.
In light of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five Dallas police officers, this section on from Playing God on Overlords and Underlords is something I wish every White Christian would read, understand and apply. There is much here that would help us. The remainder of this post is the excerpt, written by Andy Crouch.
OVERLORDS AND UNDERLORDS
When institutions are broken, three characteristic patterns of failed image bearing almost always occur together. The first is the broken image of the poor. The “poor” in a broken institution are those whose roles are so constricted by the institution’s rules that they are unable to exercise their creative and cultivating power. This loss of power is always multidimensional and, in the worst situations, total-not just the loss of the ability to choose and leave a job, but parents’ loss of ability to provide security and nurture for their children, children’s loss of ability to play and learn rather than merely labor, and the excruciating physical disempowerment of malnutrition and beatings.
The second failure of image bearing is the exaggerated image of those we might call the “overlords,” a name that captures both what they do-“lord it over” others, exploiting the poor in the quest for idolatrous godlikeness-and what they are. Overlords are overly lordly, distorted by their hoarding and misuse of power into an inflated caricature of the true lordship originally granted to image bearers and exemplified by history’s one true Image Bearer. And their power is overly dedicated to their own lordship, not to comprehensive flourishing but private benefit that comes at the expense of the image-bearing capacity of the poor.
But wherever overlords reign, you will almost always find another failure of image bearing, characteristic of neither overlords nor the poor: the neglected image of the powerful but passive. We might coin a name for these neglectful image bearers and call them the “underlords:’ They do not lack power-sometimes they may have a great deal-and they do not use it conspicuously in the service of their own self-aggrandizement. Rather, they simply, passively fail to play the role that they are meant to play; they are unfaithful not by abusing their power but by not using it at all. They are like a slothful referee in soccer, who can spoil a game by neglecting his duties to rein in the unfair power-grabbing of “overlords” on the field who seek to win by mere strength or stealth. It is not the referee’s calls that matter, and it is not that the referee seeks excessive glory or victories for himself. It is the calls he does not make that make all the difference.
Most failures of image bearing have vastly greater consequences than a game won or lost. The scandalous truths about the Roman Catholic Church that burst into the open in the 2000s were not just about “overlord” priests idolatrously abusing young people, robbing them of their imagebearing dignity while playing a hideously exploitative parody of the God they were sworn to serve. There was also the role of “underlords” in the church hierarchy who passively enabled the abuse by inaction or inadequate action. Many of these institutional actors were nominally more powerful than those they malignly neglected to discipline-up to and including bishops, archbishops and cardinals-and they were certainly greater in number than the abusers. But they failed to use their power to curb idolatry and to protect the vulnerable. The outrage was not just what some did, but what many others did not do.
So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power. In fact, the abuse of power may be quite concentrated among relatively few actors. What is widely spread whenever institutions fail is the failure to exercise power. The neglect of power, not the willful abuse of power, is what makes the difference between flourishing and failure in almost every institution. The sign of flourishing is when countless people exercise their power within the rules and roles of an institution; the sign of failure is when most people within the institution simply cease to act.
Gary Haugen of IJM observes informally that most public justice systems around the world follow a 15-70-15 principle. Consider a typical police force in a city somewhere in the developing world. More often than not you will find that 15 percent of the force’s officers are incorruptiblethey simply cannot be bribed or bought, no matter how meager eir own pay or the cost to advancement in their career. And 15 percent, the “overlords,” are pervasively and incorrigibly corrupt, bent on extracting rents and using their power for their own gain, no matter how wealthy and powerful they may already be. But the middle 70 percent, the great majority of those with some power in the system, are neither incorruptible nor corrupt. They are ordinary people trying to eke out a living in a messy world, beset by external and internal pressures, who can be swayed in either direction. Surround them with incorruptible peers and superiors, and they will probably carry out the duties of their office honestly. But surround them with pervasively corrupt overlords, and they will follow suit, perpetrating their own forms of petty corruption and never challenging the corruption they see around them.
The society is shaped not so much by the choices of the incorruptible 15 percent, nor by the corrupt 15 percent, but the wavering 70 percentthe “underlords” who forfeit much of their image-bearing and imagerestoring power to others. The good news is that if you can find a way to shift the balance ever so slightly between the fortunes of those who uphold the law and those who undermine it, loading the teeter-totter of corruption just a little bit more at the end of the incorruptible 15 percent, the 70 percent will shift as well. And in a relatively short time you can shift from an 85 percent corrupt force to one that is 85 percent clean. The bad news is that it is also possible to shift the teeter-totter just slightly toward corruption and end up with a system that is 85 percent corrupt. The sober truth is that the neglected power of the underlords is what often makes the difference. The underlords are not the poor, those who are at the mercy of the system and who may have learned the hard way that any move toward honesty and flourishing is likely to be undermined and punished by those with extra power. The underlords have real power in the system-if they will use it.
The dynamics that affect a citywide police force or indeed an entire nation also apply to institutions as small as an individual family. Like all institutions, the family distributes power unevenly. And very often our deepest failures as parents are not so much the abuse of power, the work of overlords, but the neglect of our power, the slothfulness of underlords. In my own extended family, and in my own home, the deepest violations of shalom have not taken the form of abuse. Instead they have taken the form of absence: the unwillingness to bear the pain of conflict or the vulnerability of intimacy, the flight into solitary life in a distant corner of the house or into travel far from home. And the losers from our rent-preserving, privilege-guarding, self-protective withholding of true power are the “poor”-our children and indeed each of us at our moments of greatest physical and emotional vulnerability, facing the world without the loving community and trust that are the bedrock of true shalom. We have not had many overlords in the Crouch and Bennett clans in the past few generations, but we have had underlords. If only I were not among them.
The role of the underlords, those who neglect their power, is a central concern of one of the great works of American and Christian history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King addressed his letter to his “Dear Fellow Clergymen,” white pastors who had questioned the “untimely” and technically illegal protests that had landed King and many of his fellow leaders in jail. King’s scathingly restrained response to these “white moderates” is an indictment of the passivity of underlords:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action:’ … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Here are all the elements of the passive 70 percent, “more cautious than courageous” in King’s phrase: those who will not act to bring justice and shalom, people of basically good will and substantial privilege who will not put their power behind their “lukewarm acceptance” of the relatively powerless who are claiming their image-bearing calling at great risk and cost. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King wrote. Silence is the underlords’ failure.
You can buy a copy of Playing God here.