Three Years of Transparent: Reflections on Power and Vulnerability

When I moved Cities a little under 3 years ago I made the decision to start talking about my homosexual orientation as though it were common knowledge. I had spoken about this fixture of my life to several people prior to this but all of a sudden, I found myself running training on the Christian perspective on the subject with students I work with. I found myself talking one-to-one with same-sex attracted students. I found myself up the front of a local Reformed church sharing my story, recommending resources, answering questions. Maybe a year later I was speaking to larger audiences – between 500-2000 people.

I’ll be honest, it’s been somewhat trippy. Trippy and enlightening. And tiring. And rewarding. And a lot of pressure. But also quite liberating.

Look, unsurprisingly, it’s been a lot.

I’m about to wrap up my current job to move closer to family and so I’m at a point where I’m taking a step back from a bunch of things and am enjoying the perspective that comes along with that. I have a bunch of reflections I’d very much like to share with you over these next few posts.

Transparency is necessary because it disrupts people’s power and people’s vulnerability

It makes sense to start by commenting on the underlying thesis of this blog project. The central idea behind Transparent is to explore how openness effects people when they’re in positions of power and when they’re in positions of vulnerability. I started writing Transparent at a time when the categories of “vulnerable and powerful”, “victim and perpetrator” were locking in as central fixtures of how we interpret and form our society and culture.

Over the last three years, the powerful privileged have been dragged to light in droves and revealed to be exploitative. Simultaneously, racial minorities and sexual minorities have been spelling out to the world the nature of demographic victimhood, settling themselves in the middle of modern conversation, immovable, with an unrelenting gaze that demands you look them dead in the eye.

The centre of gravity has shifted rapidly, and most people have been caught off-balance. This new world vividly demonstrates that exposure is somehow our greatest fear, our deepest yearning and our sharpest weapon all at the same time.

Even though we, perhaps, have better tools with which to think about the power and vulnerability paradigm, I’d argue that our understanding is still lacking in structure and we’re therefore at risk of making the same mistakes we’ve always made. Andy Crouch says it well in his superb book, Strong and Weak.

“In a healthy world, every increase in authority […] would be matched by an increase in risk […] This is the pattern that should keep us dependant on God and one another, empowering others rather than hoarding our power, and discovering new dimensions of flourishing. But in the world as we know it, acts of authority frequently insulate us from risk rather than opening us up to it.”

We can clearly observe the aforementioned shift happening in our society and yet, of those that are gaining unprecedented cultural power (let’s think primarily about sexual minorities), we must apply the same rules that have been the undoing of many powerful people, otherwise we continuously allow exploitation to happen.

Andy Crouch talks about this trinity of being a good leader and communicator.

Do your homework – acquire the proper authority to address the topic at hand. Love your [audience], enough to need them, enough to know what they need – open yourself to vulnerability. And then be yourself – show up with all that you have and all that you are and all the truth of what you will never be.”

The now exposed perpetrators have often done a lot of the first, while those that are now gaining power are primarily doing the last part. But it takes all three. Without a vital balance there will be some abuse of power or (weirdly) an abuse of a vulnerable status, a victimised label – misuse of a perceived vulnerability is at the heart of manipulation.

As soon as anyone starts to gain power they must ask themselves (and we have to ask these questions of them): are you willing to relinquish power? Are you working on your motivations and character as much as you are working on building a platform? Are you setting up structures of accountability? Are you actually representing your community as well as your opposition accurately and graciously?

OR

Are you shutting off potential risk to yourself? Are you using your power to actualise your fantasies? Are you taking your authority and crafting an individualised world that suits your ideas and no-one else’s?

We must remember that flourishing comes, for us as well as for others, when we hold ourselves in tension between power and meaningful risk.

 

And yet…

 

I’m fully conscious of the fact that this imbalance and misapplication of the power/vulnerability paradigm will never go away because of a fundamental brokenness that Crouch describes this way.

“Something is warped in the grain of the universe, something that prevents us from turning authority into flourishing – we are bent in the direction of exploitation, privilege and safety. Such is the power of the lies that have insinuated themselves into the human story from the very beginning.”

Because of everything I’ve stated above (with a lot of help from Andy Crouch… seriously, read his work), I have been back and forward on whether or not I should continue in the vein of this blog and whether or not I should keep using my own sexual minority status to gain voice and authority.

From the get-go I resolved to test my theories about transparency in the realities of my own life. I’ve certainly had many opportunities presented to me to do so, both on a personal, relational, pastoral level but also on a larger scale within the Christian community. I’ve had to exercise, I think, a healthy kind of suspicion towards my motivations and goals.

As I’ve pondered and tested the dynamics of authority and personal openness, my instincts tell me that Crouch is on the mark when he describes real leadership.

“Make no mistake: transformational leadership helps people see and address real vulnerability. But leaders exist to match that vulnerability, as much as possible, with commensurate authority. So our job is often to increase others’ authority while gradually, in a measured and intentional way, alerting them to vulnerabilities (including our own limitations, foibles and blindness). In the meantime, we must bear vulnerability that others cannot see, and sometimes will never see. Hidden vulnerability is the price of leadership. Or as Max De Pree likes to say, “Bad leaders inflict pain. Good leaders bear it.”

I want to be a good leader.

Please God, may any power and vulnerability I wield allow for the flourishing of others.

(https://www.ivpress.com/strong-and-weak)

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