Janie B. Cheaney – Power through persuasion


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 22nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. How do you use your power? To destroy, or to build up? Here’s WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: My first year in high school, I felt unseen; just one of 2,000 other students who thronged the halls at every bell. With my one friend, I hatched a plan to sneak in with a couple of screwdrivers before first period and remove as many light-switch covers and other hardware as possible. Because those were the days before surveillance cameras, we got away with it. For the next few days, every time I passed one of those little acts of vandalism, I thought, I did that.

It was small and silly, but at the time I was also small and silly. Still, I wonder if I was motivated by the same impulse that causes spray-painted slogans and smashed windows.

That’s one form of power, exercised mostly by people who feel themselves unseen. Corporately, though, they can impose change by signs and slogans—or Molotov cocktails. Certain kinds of change may happen: the law and policy kind. But true change will come from the heart, not from law or policy.

Here’s another definition of power, from Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making: quote, “the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good.” Notice the verb. Political change must be imposed by law and threat. Cultural change can only be proposed, by persuasion and example. Imposition forces; proposition appeals. One breeds resentment, the other sympathy.

To take one example, the legalization of same-sex marriage came about not by vandalizing wedding chapels, but by persuading enough of the public that marriage was a basic human right. Though argued from the wrong premise, it worked.

When it comes to racial reconciliation, the worst thing we can tell people is that they are powerless. No one (except perhaps the very old, the very young, or the very sick) is powerless. Everyone has a certain degree of power and a platform for using it. Some will have a lot more than others, but all it takes is a voice, a mind, and a will.

The question is, how will you use your power?

The world proposes one way: get in their face, make demands, and break stuff.

Jesus offers another way: “He who would be great among you must become your servant.”

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. He could not impose his will on America, but he could persuade Americans by challenging our collective conscience, harnessing the idealism of youth, and reminding us of our own founding ideals. He invested his power in service, not violence. And change happened.

They say peaceful power doesn’t work anymore. I say it’s the only thing that works. Destruction squanders power; investment builds it. Whatever you have in your hand builds your power base, which grows as you share your knowledge, skills, and connections with someone else. This kind of power builds slowly and doesn’t always grab headlines. But it works. 

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


A protester kicks in temporary boarding at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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