What do we make of the groundswell of evangelical interest in social justice?

This opening question from the moderator was benign enough. The panelists fielding questions were several prominent evangelical leaders, anticipating the upcoming Lausanne World Evangelization Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

Several compelling theses were volleyed around. But the air didn’t thicken until a seminary professor had the gall to bring up a delicate subject. He surmised that lasting justice would not obtain until “majority culture” American Christians were willing to give up their power to be led by the marginalized.

Power. A dirty word had entered the conversation. A white pastor mentioned offhand that he didn’t care much for those terms power and authority. The professor instantly responded that one of the first things community organizers notice in working with the disenfranchised is how easily their conversations turn to questions of power. It’s the people who have power who tend to be allergic to talking about it.

The pastor’s position was certainly understandable. We American Christians are reflexively suspicious of power. Talking about power in the church seems impolite at best and downright unbiblical at worst. Didn’t Jesus counsel his apostles against lording their authority over one another?

Following these instincts, the pastor inadvertently tripped a mental alarm familiar to many minorities. For those accustomed to the margins, questions of power must crop up sooner or later in any honest talk about justice. Anything less is disingenuous.

At this point Andy Crouch cautiously offered an instructive model for the church. He noted that the most racially integrated institution in the country is not the church (depressingly far from it) but the U.S. military. Crouch observed that in the military, the rules of “moving up” are both codified and also visible. Where everyone’s rank is on his or her uniform, there can be no lack of clarity about where the power really lies.

He contrasted this sort of transparency with the opacity of country clubs -- societies notoriously cagey about the membership process as well as homogeneous in racial makeup. The illustration points an accusatory finger towards our churches. Do we tend to be evasive about who has power and who doesn’t? More like country clubs than the military on transparency and power?

In Samuel Wells’ Lenten meditation, “Power & Passion,” he suggests that in Mark’s passion narrative Pontius Pilate is no more innocent than the rabble clamoring for Jesus’ execution. Despite the showy display of washing his hands of the affair, Pilate holds power. His obscuring gesture is a stroke of political genius that lets him off scot-free while consigning Jesus to the cross.

Each of us holds some measure of power, whether related to our job titles, influence among friends, race, gender or financial status. It’s in our refusal to acknowledge this that power becomes domineering and oppressive -- all the things we point to when we’re loathe to talk about it. According to Crouch, owning up to power is the first step towards our using it well -- in creative, risky ways on behalf of the voiceless to bring them to the table.

Later, an African-American pastor in the audience stood up and observed that not one black representative was on the panel. An uncomfortable silence pervaded until one of the panelists invited the pastor to join them. The white pastor swiftly relinquished his spot, taking a seat in the audience.

This unscripted sequence actually felt more awkward than inspiring. But it brought to mind an important observation from Wells. Pilate’s notion of power is born of scarcity, believing there is never enough to go around. But Jesus’ power, resurrection power, presumes abundance -- plenty of space at the table and enough time for all.

On an evening when we were supposed be getting on with real business -- like strategizing about evangelizing the world and confronting the pressing issues of the day -- there was nothing more urgent than simply tending to the wounds of an aggrieved brother in Christ.

How wonderfully creative, risky, and powerful -- just like the Jesus we worship.