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The Eclipse of Power

No impartial observer can fail to recognize the similarities between the underlying mentalities of the extreme right-wing, militant groups that have developed within the three world religions that trace their heritage back to Abraham. All three of these radical groups exhibit a fanatical intolerance for others, an inability to carry on meaningful dialogue, an almost sadistic inclination to the destruction of life and property, and above all a glorification of violence. One often speaks of the radicalism of such movements, but I object on linguistic grounds to the designation “radical”. The word “radical” is a Latin derivative and has the basic meaning of “being rooted” in something. In my opinion, the above mentioned movements do not deserve this designation precisely for the reason that they are not rooted at all. The violence that they perpetrate is not the result of their being rooted deeply in their own cultures, in their own religious traditions or in anything else; their unleased violence has no roots at all and therefore no limits and no boundaries. Violence has become a way of establishing their identity–an identity that has been hopelessly lost. In a healthy society, the identity of individuals and of groups is established through participation in various institutions of the culture such as religion. However, when religion in its true form no longer provides grounding for the individual, when it no longer helps the individual establish his or her self-understanding and self-identity, that is to say, when religion loses its contact with the divine, then the empty forms of religion become susceptible to the darker side of human nature and often develop into aggressive, hostile, violent movements. How this has happened in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a historically complex matter, and in the following, I will limit my comments to my own religious tradition, Christianity, because I understand it much better than I do the other two traditions.

Power is quite distinct from force. Whereas force compels and coerces, power persuades and convinces. Whereas the physical world is the medium of force, language is the medium of power. We speak of moving heavy objects by sheer force, whereby this force may be produced directly by human muscles or by machines designed by humans. In either case, the force is applied according to the laws of physics, and the objects are moved from one place to another. If similar forces are applied to human “objects”, then they too can be compelled to move in this or that direction. In general, we can coerce other human beings to obey our will either by the threat or by the actual exercise of force. The intensity of the force can range from a slap in the face to the explosion of an atomic bomb, but the principle remains the same. We coerce others to obey our will by the use of force. When such force becomes destructive of life and property, the boundary has been crossed from force to violence. Through violence, we not only coerce others, we destroy them. In contrast to both force and violence, power has the uncanny quality of changing people’s hearts and minds without the use of coercive means. A dramatic speech can have tremendous power. Properly conducted diplomacy can have a powerful impact. But power need not always be verbally expressed; we also speak of the moral authority of an individual or a group, und such authority can be extremely powerful. When I left the States many years ago to pursue my career in Switzerland, there were still signs of real power in our society. There was still some sense of moral authority in the society, and there were orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. who truly moved people with the power of their words. Today, I do not see such signs of power. The moral authority of the country is in shambles, and great speeches have been replaced by sound bites and advertising gimmicks. In the public mind, force is now understood as an expression of great power. “Powerful” nations exert their force on other nations and control their destinies, and as a “superpower”, the United States extends its armed “forces” across the globe, perpetrating violence in order to attain its ends.

Contrary to public opinion, however, true power does not require the threat or the actual use of force and violence. In fact, where violence becomes the standard of the day, true power has disappeared from the scene. In her book “On Violence” (1970), Hannah Arendt analyses the concept power, force, and violence and comes to the following conclusion: Power and violence are inversely proportional to each other. Where there is real power, violence is not necessary. Where violence is perpetrated daily, power has ceased to exist. Given these definitions, it would be more appropriate to say that the United States is a super-force, rather than a super-power. Our nation was the first to develop a nuclear weapon, the only nation to ever use a nuclear weapon in warfare, and is today the undisputed super-force in the world, capable of massive acts of violence through a simple mouse click. But power? The United States is still struggling to understand true power, and Hollywood has not been much help in the endeavor. One need only think of Clint Eastwood’s newest contribution “American Sniper”, the story of the most lethal sniper in US military history! One really does not know whether to laugh or cry. The simplemindedness and childishness of the attitudes expressed in this film would be laughable, if it were a parody. But it’s not. And it’s deeply saddening that our nation seriously considers a “lethal sniper” to be a hero. Have we nothing better to tout than our ability to destroy through acts of violence? Still, I cannot lay the entire blame for this absurdity on the shoulders of Hollywood producers.

The reasons for the eclipse of power in our time and the concomitant outbreak of violence on all sides are far more complex than Hollywood producers could imagine. In part, this development is due to the lack of existential meaning in our society and the emptiness of religious forms, which I mentioned above. It is no accident that these empty religious forms are now being filled with new content in order to justify violence. The rationale goes something like this: We are not really slaughtering other human beings, we are saving the civilized world from savages, just as “God” has commanded us to do. Yet, this abuse of religion would never have been possible, if other factors had not contributed to the eclipse of power.

In my volume on faith in the age of science (“Glauben als Ereignis: Selbst, Kraft, Zeit, Leben”, 2011), I have discussed at length the development of natural science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have shown how the new scientific concept of force eclipsed the older and more fundamental concept of power. We see the beginnings of a new concept of force in the writings of Johannes Kepler, but it was in the work of Sir Isaac Newton that the notion of force really began to replace power. In what became known as the “Newtonian World Machine”, the entire universe was thought to be moved by physical forces. Since nothing in this mechanical world could take place that was not caused by some physical force, God’s interaction with the world was also conceived in this manner. Whereas the theological tradition had always spoken of God’s omnipotence, meaning God’s attribute of being all-powerful, the mechanical world of physical forces led to the notion of God’s attribute of being all-forceful. With this, the power of God in the medium of language was concealed, and this eclipse of divine power eventually extended into all areas of society where force became the only means of dealing with relationships, whether these relationships were to nature or to other human beings. So today, the hallmark of our relationship to nature is force. Likewise, the standard of our relationship to other persons has become force, spilling over quite often into raw violence. In this context, power has totally lost its meaning. Power has much more in common with love and respect than it does with force and violence. Power draws people into agreement; force coerces them into obedience. I am not suggesting that force is never necessary, but it should only be used when power has clearly failed. That is to say, in human relationships, whether on an individual, a national or an international level, the use of force is always a tacit admission of failure. Had we been powerful enough, the force would have been unnecessary. As an American citizen, I am not ready to admit failure. I am not ready to concede that we are a powerless nation, that we have nothing left in reserve except raw violence.

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