I don’t normally think of myself as “an agent of change.” The problems we face today are so daunting that I often feel powerless to help bring about the kind of change our world so desperately needs.
I sense I am not alone in struggling with this sense of powerlessness. Yet I think there is something beyond the sheer enormity of the problems we face that provokes this sentiment. We in the West tend to identify power with control, and when things are out of control (as they seem to be right now), we assume we lack any power to make things better. But what if the power we possess is something other than such an ‘all or nothing’ affair, a capacity we might still exercise even in those situations where we have little or no control?
Hannah Arendt, a twentieth-century German-Jewish political theorist, teaches that humans are never powerless, even in those dark situations where we tend to see only impotence, futility, and impossibility. In her well-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she illustrates this point by comparing the stories of two Nazi officers, Peter Bamm and Anton Schmid. While both men were unsympathetic to the Nazi cause and its genocidal aims, each held a completely different understanding of the power they possessed to oppose it. Bamm, an army physician who witnessed the state-sanctioned mass murder of Jews in Sevastopol, argued in his memoirs that any attempt to resist the Nazis’ genocidal efforts would have been futile, because the German totalitarian state made certain that anyone who opposed it would disappear in silent anonymity, rendering all acts of resistance null and void. Unlike Bamm, Schmid used whatever means at his disposal, including procuring false identification papers and securing military vehicles for transportation, to help Jews escape the fatal end the Nazis had planned for them.1
Although Schmid ultimately paid for his efforts with his life, we miss Arendt’s point about human power if we interpret his action as a type of superhuman heroism. Before his execution for high treason, Schmid wrote to his wife that he “only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.”2 On his own, Schmid proved to be no match for the fearsome power of the so-called Third Reich, and certainly he understood his relative weakness in the face of the brutally oppressive Nazi regime. Yet that recognition of relative weakness did not prevent him from noticing and exploiting real opportunities for helping those in his path who came to him in need; he did not equate his weakness with powerlessness.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus answered them enigmatically, saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV) In this passage, I hear Jesus saying that the possibility of participating in God’s way of shalom, of embracing justice and peace, is always available to us if, like Anton Schmid, we have the imagination to recognize it and the faith to trust it. In this light, Peter Bamm’s claim to lack power amounts to relinquishing the power he in fact possessed. It scares me to think how often I do the same thing.
Jesus’s preaching about God’s kingdom asks us to trust that we will find truly abundant life once we embrace God’s call to follow the way of shalom. This liberating path will make us alive to the possibilities of healing and transformation all around us, which God has shown us we can make real as soon as we forego the paralyzing assumption that we must be in total control before we can exercise any power.
Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves, then, is not ‘what can I possibly change?’, but rather, ‘What might I become capable of once I trust that change is possible?’