“Ambition, Power and the Gospel”

Reflections on the race for London’s Mayor by Canon Dr Angus Ritchie

Candidates for London Mayor

Would you like to have more power?

The word “power” usually produces a pretty negative reaction, especially among religious people. Our immediate reaction is often to focus on the ways it can be misused, not its potential for good. But, at its most simple, power is the ability to act. How can anyone look at the world around them – its injustice, its brokenness, and yet its extraordinary potential for beauty and goodness – without wanting to act?

Each year, I teach a number of classes of ordinands and interns about organising for social justice. I used to begin by asking “what is your reaction to the word ‘power’?” The answers were usually negative. Now, I often begin with a different question: “How is the word ‘power’ regarded in the New Testament?” The answer to that question is almost uniformly positive. It is power that the risen Christ promises his apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1.8). The message is underlined again and again in the Epistles – perhaps most strikingly in 2 Timothy, where we are told God has given us a Spirit “not of timidity” but of “power and love and self-control”.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a redefinition, not a rejection, of power. In John Stott’s words, we are called to be ambitious for the Kingdom:

Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world?

Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God.

When I look at the changes happening to my East London parish – families uprooted from their neighbourhood because of the housing crisis; the growth of new forms of gambling which prey on the poorest and most desperate; the effect of poverty on life expectancy – I believe Christians need to rediscover a godly sense of power and of ambition.

If this is true of my local context, it is equally true of the wider political scene. The rise of politicians who feed on people’s sense of impotence (perhaps seen most disturbingly in the candidacy of Donald Trump) reminds us that powerlessness can also be poisonous. When people case to hope, when they cease to believe in the positive potential of common action, they all to often look for scapegoats.

Of all people, Christians have reason to be a people of hope. We follow the One who died to end all scapegoating. In the daily prayer of the Church, we celebrate the fact that, in Christ, God has “shown strength with his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.” As the Magnificat reminds us, the poorest and most marginalised are the agents as well as the beneficiaries of God’s power.

In my last column, I wrote of the Via Media approach being taken by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin. These two leaders have spoken passionately about the need for a church which is truly of as well as for the poor; of the role of the most marginalised people in the evangelisation of our wider culture. Here, for example, is Pope Francis addressing a congress of popular movements in Bolivia:

What can I do as a craftsman, a street vendor, a trucker, a downtrodden worker, if I don’t even enjoy workers’ rights? What can I do, a farmwife, a native woman, a fisher who can hardly fight the domination of the big corporations?… A lot!… You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labour, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels. Don’t lose heart!

It is not only in Latin America that communities are organising for justice. Here in East London, 6000 people will gather at the end of this month to hold the candidates for Mayor to account on these same three “L’s” – calling for affordable housing and a genuinely Living Wage. It’s no coincidence that the Bishop of London will open the assembly, or that many of the delegations there will be from inner-city churches. As this recent report shows, the methods and the platform of this organising alliance have deep roots in Christian social teaching. It’s an inspiring example of what it means to have our understanding of power and of ambition reshaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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