During the recent EU referendum campaign, one of the Leave campaign’s relentless mantras was the need for the UK to ‘take back control’. It sounds very attractive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be controlled by someone else?
There’s a link between control and power. If you have power over something or somebody, you can control them. So power is very attractive. It enables you to exercise your will and to have your desires satisfied. Without power, you are the mercy of others.
So by leaving the EU, have we increased our power? Have we taken back control? Are we able to exercise our will and have our desires satisfied?
Clearly not. If we lived in a self-sufficient bubble, able to meet all our own needs without looking to anyone else, then perhaps talk of ‘taking back control’ would mean something. But we don’t. We are dependent on our neighbours for so much: for people to do the jobs we don’t want or lack the skills to do, for the food we cannot produce and the goods we don’t make, for the mutual protection of our peace and security. The idea that we are independent is a myth. We are highly interdependent. And so, because we look to others to meet our needs, they have power over us. They are able to control us.
Of course, it’s a two-way street. We exercise power and control over them too. That’s how interdependence works. Human beings, whether as individuals or as nations, are built to be in relationship. It is not good for humans to be alone.
Mutuality of power and control helps to provide accountability. When power accrues in one set of hands, oppression and exploitation usually follows.
The extent to which the UK will be able in practice to ‘take back control’ whilst maintaining vital international relationships is therefore highly open to question. But even if it does accrue more power to itself, where will that power be located? Not, for practical purposes, in the hands of the millions who voted for it. It will make no real difference to the lives of those who already feel powerless and dispossessed, who are bearing the brunt of the recent years of austerity, the unemployed, the disabled who have seen their benefits reduced or withdrawn, the people living in fear of draconian benefits sanctions, relying on foodbanks and the kindness of strangers. It will be in the hands of the rich and powerful. And how will they use it?
Power, and the control it offers, are seductive and tempting. They are necessary, and dangerous. Without them, we can do nothing. But when we desire them, we are tempted to put ourselves in a place which rightly belongs to God, who is the ultimate source of all power. Handling power rightly requires great maturity and wisdom.
When we look at God, the source of all power, we see a picture of power given away freely. In soaring poetry, Genesis describes God using power to bring everything that there is into being – and then giving power over the created order to humanity. And when humanity screws things up, and continues to do so again and again, does God wield his power to sort things out? On the contrary. God divests Himself of His power, lays it aside, and comes amongst us as one of us. God is born as one of the most powerless of things, a human baby. And when the powers and principalities come against Jesus, he does not seize back control. Instead he allows himself to be put to death on a cross.
Painting on the wall of a cave on Davaar Island, Kintyre. Entitled ‘Christ on the Cross’ and painted by Archibald MacKinnon.
And when the power of sin and death proved unequal to the power of the resurrection, Jesus once again gave away power. He returned to his Father in heaven, and then poured out his power on his followers. It was power for a purpose – to enable them, and us, to witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. Not power for our own purposes. Not even a power recognized by most of the world. But a power that enables us to go out into God’s world, to tell and show people that God loves and cares for them deeply.