The Nature of Power

Posted on March 25, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger

One of our hunger volunteers, Mary, forwarded me a link to an interesting blog posting. It’s written by Brian Konkol, a missionary who has recently moved to South Africa. In his March 11th post, he talks about a class he’s taking with several African students from different countries. They are discussing power in the world, who has it, how they use it, etc. The Africans point out to Brian that regardless of its popularity, the United States holds great power and influence throughout the world. The discussion causes Brian to ponder whether “we Americans… have used our vast collective power wisely.”

Brian, in turn, has caused me to ponder. The word “collective” really got my attention. What is the role of an individual American in wielding American power? I have absolutely no data to support this next claim, but here it is: I think that most Americans feel pretty divorced from the actions of the government, and especially its foreign policy. Of course there are exceptions. Politicians, lobbyists and activists are obvious ones. But how many of us, our friends, our family, feel they have anything to do with the Farm Bill? With federal budget allocations? With diplomatic relations?

Of course many of us vote, and that’s important (though many of us don’t!). But it’s often an isolated act. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t usually feel responsible for the ultimate outcome. I pick the candidate that seems to most closely align with my values and then hope for the best. Or I vote punitively, selecting the opposing candidate, regardless of who it is, in hopes of getting rid of the incumbent. Either way, once the voting is done, many of us return to our lives and shake our heads if the news is bad. Outside of this occasional activity, I suspect most Americans don’t feel they have a role in how American power is used in the world.

I’ve sometimes heard statements like, “We don’t have anything against the American people; it’s the government (or policy, or administration) we have issues with.” I think this statement is meant to make criticism easier to accept, but I wonder if instead it doesn’t just further divorce us from our government and policies. “Oh. They’re not talking about me! I’m not part of the government. I’ll just get back to what I was doing.” But is that true? Don’t we claim a representative government? Don’t we claim it represents its citizens – us? me?

Like Brian, I don’t really have answers. If you do, I’d love to hear them – please leave a comment! But I will continue to ponder what it means for an individual American to wield American power outside of a career in politics. Because American power in the world certainly has a role in ending hunger, and if I can wield some of that, I want to.

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