Power and Greatness: Leadership without Violence

Rolland "Rollie" Smith
11 min readAug 15, 2020

Bernie and I have been meditating the life and meaning of John Hume whose funeral we just observed. His event comes quickly after the death and celebration of John Lewis. Both were community organizers, civil rights activists, and peacemakers in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela in our time. And many great souls of our past.

We are perplexed that, when we sojourned Ireland a few years ago, we didn’t learn about Hume. We had surveyed the murals and fence posters of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We traversed the places of O’Connell and the other republican leaders, many jailed and executed for their revolutionary activities. We visited the chancery of Jonathon Swift of Gulliver and A Modest Proposal and walked the streets of James Joyce. We learned how to drink Guinness and cheer for cricket but did not learn about Hume.

Now, in the wake of John Lewis, we ride the waves of John Hume. Hume was from Derry, a segregated Catholic area of Belfast which was quite poor and unserved by the City. Following the lead of Lewis and the civil rights movement in the US, he organized people left out of the power structure of Northern Ireland to push for better housing and services and end segregation. When people could not get credit for mortgages or for starting businesses, he urged people to pool their pennies and started a credit union and marched on the banks and city to provide access to money and education. He helped found and eventually became the head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). That changed when the Unionists forbad gatherings of over four people and after a large protest in Derry the British sent soldiers and killed seven unarmed protestors and interned many others. Hume, although a nationalist, formed and maintained relationships with members of the Unionists as well as the Nationalists and their allies, always encouraging and leading non-violent actions. Through these relationships, he established the basis for and helped broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland.

I wonder in this time of insecurity regarding our future what lessons Lewis and Hume teach us and our nations about the greatness to which we aspire written in our sacred documents or to which we nostalgically refer written on our hats. My conjecture is that power, how it is understood and how it is exercised, makes all the difference. To be most explicit I am proposing here that power and greatness are connected. I am also proposing that we often do not know how to understand and use our power the power we have. Reflecting on the lives of Lewis and Hume can help understand and use power to make make us great.

The decline of American power is the hot theme of best-selling books and the most read articles today. The evidence of decline is quite compelling for those of us who bother to consider it. The general consensus is that American power began to decline in the late 70s. And in the last few years has reached a state of no return. The American century is over. We scramble over the pieces of a crumbling empire.

Many factors have contributed to this decline including 1) the narrowing of the middle class — precipitated by the victory of the plutocrats in undermining workers’ unions, 2) a sequence of economic disasters from dot.com to mortgage speculation resulting in the Great Recession and lost wealth for the poor and middle class, 3) the globalization of an economy shifting from an industrial to an information base, 4) the overreaction to 9–11 and the invasion of Iraq, 5) the end of the Cold War and the tightening of screws on Russia, 6) the rise of China as superpower, 7) the American withdrawal from international institutions and lessening support for domestic ones.

And underlying it all, is the retreat from the modern enlightenment spirit of universal, rational thinking and behavior contained in the declarations of independence, the statements of universal human rights, the acceptance of religious and intellectual diversity regarding religion, sex, ethnicity, party, race. Or, as John Hume says, the spirit of humanity transcending identity and socio-economic class.

The great transformation described by Karl Polanyi put economy over politics. Humankind placed the the value of profit over the value of human dignity. Polanyi articulates that the foremost failing of modernity was subordinating political power to economic worth by making land, labor, and money “fictional” commodities to be bought, sold, and used like goods and services. Now the American economy is grounded in a religion and ethic that measures human worth and greatness by the accumulation of individual wealth. The greatness of humans and nations is defined by aggregate economic wealth.

With this criterion, the United States of America is the most powerful and greatest nation on earth. And the best thing you can do as a citizen is to augment your wealth — and support policies by which people can get richer through a self-regulating market. Power and greatness rest on the accumulation of wealth that includes land, labor, money, goods, services and the tools that make them. But do we make this our criterion for greatness?

Culture, including ethics and religion, apparent in ethnic narratives, philosophy, the arts, language, and science are the context and structure of meaning for our behavior as persons in communities. As a community organizer and educator, as activist and thinker, I inquire regarding the primary narrative, the symbolic structure, and the spiritual and thus invisible ground of our perception and behavior. It is that which gives meaning to who we are and want to be.

I believe that a consideration of power as the source of greatness is a way to tackle the meaning of human being in the world. My mentors are Lewis and Hume and many others who are their spiritual ancestors.

Our abhorrence of the decline of power and our desire to make America (or whatever tribe or sect or nation in which we identify ourselves) great again rises out of a will to power that is identified with the very thrust of our existence in our adapting to the world. Be honest, we want power. We want to be all we can be. And we get angry and we resent it when we and/or the people we love and most relate to are blocked in the ways to achieve it.

Although raised by parents who had risen out of the Great Depression and through World War II into the middle class, I encountered very poor people through my seminary training and became acquainted with leaders in churches and unions acting for social justice. I listened to Saul Alinsky and many of his early organizers and leaders who were trying to do something about it.

Power for Alinsky meant simply the “ability to act,” or in other words having agency, making effective decisions that made a difference. We learned that our job as community organizers is to “agitate,” which means stirring people from patience to agency, fanning their anger hot into action, from just accepting the way things are to choosing change that could make things right, and so meeting their interests. Worker power, black power, brown power, women power, citizen power, consumer power, People Power! And we learned from the experience of others and our own efforts, especially failures, how to do that first in neighborhoods and then in cities and metropolises.

There are two kinds of power Alinsky said. One is organized money which could buy what you wanted (the way a master buys slaves or a corporation buys workers). The other is organized people who could use what they had together (e.g. the vote, the ability to obstruct decision makers from getting what they want, relationships with other powerful people and institutions, or their own pennies) to demand what they wanted.

My own experience and education led me to refine and amplify Alinsky’s notion of power. Being in seminary I was attracted to the theological notion of power and mostly by the notion of power espoused by political thinker Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s definition adds two words to Alinsky’s: “power is the ability to act in concert.” Those two words signify that plurality is endemic to power, that power is ultimately a political concept, and that power is good. Power is not neutral as for Alinsky but is the highest good of humanity.

Arendt (following Kant and Aristotle) distinguishes two realms conditioning humanity. One is the realm of necessity where needs are met by hunting game, chopping tees, tilling the earth, digging wells, quarrying rocks to build living quarters and walls of protection, gathering produce and fabricating objects that can be traded, bought, sold in order to engender, maintain, and extend biological life. The Greeks called this the realm of the household (oikonomia) from which we derive the name “economy.”

The other is the realm of freedom where the household manager (oikonmous) who oversees the women and servants of the household can free himself of household care to order to appear with other freed men. Together they determine the contours and rules of the city or “polis” from which we derive the name “politics.” In the city the freedmen agree upon the rules of interaction to best protect and enhance the interests of each — e.g. the rules of the marketplace, of relations with other cities and each other to pursue their happiness. This “appearance” to each other is the distinguishing mark of the public realm in the polis from the private realm of the household. And the tension that perdures throughout the human condition.

And this grounds her distinction between power and violence. True power is the reduction of violence. It shapes relationships among men and women to end the need for violence. It brings people out of the realm of necessity into the space of freedom where they are searching and making decisions not only, or at least not primarily, for their private interests but for the common good. In other words, the place of politics is the place of power, freedom, and agency for humans. It brings necessary violence under control. It decides when and where it is necessary and who decides in particular cases when and where it is necessary.

Violence is force which humans exert on nature and each other in order to maintain, protect, and enhance life and their individual, private liberty to do that. In the private realm of necessity might makes right, strength means physical force, persuasion means manipulation, and someone wins and someone loses. But in certain moments and places when humans stepped out of the place of violence and private liberty, they experienced their action in concert and a much higher good. They appeared with one another as equals, honestly spoke their mind informed by thought and speech, and negotiated for a common result. They felt respect and the power that removes the need for violence. Power requires not unanimity. In fact, it requires plurality to get to collective agreement and consensus.

Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And, yes, it can and does. Arendt acknowledges that power can do and effect violence. But then it defeats itself. I think of Andrew Jackson, assembler of real estate, who subjected the Indians and Africans by rallying the white farmers and workers to consider only their economic interests. Of course, Hitler and Stalin used the public realm to destroy it as do many authoritarians are trying to do today.

Violence may be necessary but can never be justified according to Arendt — contrary to Augustine’s just war theory. And President Obama’s. Though it may be useful in setting rules for a necessary act of violence for the sake of peace. As Alinsky says: no permanent enemies. (I disagree when he says no permanent friends though it might be wise in diplomacy.) And I agree with Obama when he says “real power is getting what you want without having to exercise violence” though I would add that only happens when you shape your wants by listening to the other party’s wants.

Clausewitz is quoted as saying that “war is only a continuation of state policy by other means” — which BTW he didn’t say. Violence is the antithesis and the failure of power. A police force that employs force unnecessarily is diminishing its power and the power of the public it serves. Power is built on human relationships and the habits of behavior or institutions that are founded on and maintain those relationships, especially inclusion and trust.

This is why, when I read Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs, I understand why the US is a declining national and international power, not because its military or police force is waning, but because the US is withdrawing from its relationships, dividing people into winners and losers, and often acting unilaterally with an attitude of transactional quid pro quo. The business of government is not Business as the former head of General Motors said. Business is part of the economic realm of material self-interest measured in aggregated individual wealth. The top-down leadership in the private realm is not the leadership we need in the public realm. The US is powerful not when it puts American first but when it acts in a way of knowing that world greatness is power that fosters the power of all world nations.

This is not to say that there are not bad nations and people out there. There are! To stop a badass gang of aggressors and thugs, we do not encourage bigger, badder aggressors and thugs. We help build the power of neighborhoods, communities, and nations so that gangs do not have to exist in order for people to have power and respect.

Insurance companies call the violent acts of nature, like storms, earthquakes, or plagues “acts of God.” I disagree. Power is good, not neutral or evil. It is many acting in concert which means it is, at least in ambition, totally inclusive. As we act together to reduce the destructive effects of hurricanes and plagues, that is an act of God. When we defeat a tyrant, i.e. one who thinks his main job is to divide and conquer, to exert maximum force, to blame, condemn, and punish, and asserts that he alone can fix it, we are doing an act of God. Whenever we mitigate violence by agitating people to power, wherever we see humility overcome pride, meekness overcome force, peace overcome war, we are the act of God.

It is okay to want our community or organization or nation to be a power in the world. But we must recognize that our power requires everybody’s power. I cannot be powerful unless you are. And neither of us can be powerful if we do not share power with others. A good leader knows this. Hume knew that leaders to get what they want, to have maximum influence with another, is not to be able to exert more violence over another but to increase the ability to act in concert with one another. Unfortunately, that is not how US leadership is playing its role domestically or on the world stage at present.

I return to John Lewis, the organizer, and John Hume, the peacemaker, to commit myself in any way I can to assist, provoke, mentor, and agitate others to the way of non-violent, anti-violent action in concert. Was Lewis any stronger than when he was beaten up of the Pettis bridge? Was Hume any stronger when he developed relationships of humility with both Jerry Adams of Sinn Fein and David Trimble of the Unionists. Both Lewis and Hume were creating in their action with others a space of freedom beyond liberty, power over violence, humanity transcending identity which Lewis and Hume, following their mentor, Martin Luther King Jr called the Beloved Community.



Rolland "Rollie" Smith

Social Ethics U Chicago. Community organizer Chicago, Toronto, San Jose,ED nonprofits in California, Hawaii, Ohio, HUD Field Office Director, California.