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“Power Imbalances and Abuse Dynamics in Christian Conciliation”
In Christian conciliation, the goal is not simply to resolve substantive issues but to apply biblical principles to help people reconcile through the message and practices of the life of Jesus. At its best, Christian conciliation advocates not merely the absence of conflict but the presence of true peace (shalom) between parties. Such peace is achieved through intimate sharing, confession, and forgiveness.
Although Christian conciliation is a valuable tool in everyday conflict situations, I inadvertently stumbled into a limitation in 2013. The limitation was that it assumes a relational dynamic of mutuality, equality, neutrality, and joint responsibility. Yet, when significant power imbalances exist between parties, a good tool that effectively addresses mutual conflict can suddenly become an instrument of potential harm.
Take, for example, a surgeon bringing a kitchen knife to the operating room. Although this tool is helpful for cutting, it is not calibrated for the human body in a surgical setting; thus, a sanitized precision scalpel is required. Christian conciliation was like the knife that worked in typical everyday conflict situations, but the circumstances of abuse needed a different tool. A more precise instrument that was calibrated to power imbalances was required.
I have concluded that it is unwise to use standard Christian conciliation methods when there are significant power imbalances due to abuse. Due to the high emphasis on the interpersonal healing process, Christian conciliation can open vulnerable parties to harm if there are substantial power differentials, and these power imbalances are unaccounted for and unaddressed.
The conciliator’s professional responsibility is to grow their awareness of interpersonal power dynamics within a conciliation process and avoid putting vulnerable parties in harm’s way. To that end, I recommend conciliators educate themselves on the basics of power dynamics, develop an understanding of the implications of power imbalances for parties, and construct a wise trauma-informed strategy to account for such dynamics in their conciliation methods.
As a psychologist and expert in the field of trauma Diane Langberg notes, “The question is not ‘Do you have power.’ But “How aware of power are you, and how do you use it?” Each of us possesses a degree of power as individuals and as mediators. Power is always running like an operating system on a computer in the background of all relationships.
At its most basic definition, power means the ability to make something happen or stop something from happening. As power researcher Dacher Keltner explains, “it certainly can be measured by resource allocation, but at its most fundamental level, we are discussing power as the capacity for action and the ability to impact one’s world” (2007). Power has often been studied as a state of mind rooted in the individual’s perception of their influence on others (Galinksky et al., 2003). It is not static but contingent on personality traits and sociocultural factors (Anderson et al., 2012).
Because power dynamics exist in all social relationships, power inequities and imbalances occur all the time. These imbalances are often natural and morally neutral. Power is not inherently evil and can be the source of great good if motivated, focused, and constrained by love. Having equal power is not necessary for a fair mediation process nor is this entirely possible. Additionally, having a stronger party does not inherently mean they will abuse power (Green, 2005).
Yet there are power imbalances that can create a context for harm if left unnoticed or unchecked. Mediators can “inadvertently exacerbate an existing power imbalance by imposing impartiality on an unlevel playing field” (Turner and Saunders, 1995). Harm occurs when someone’s core dignity is exploited and a core vulnerability damaged or controlled by another.
In the most extreme cases, like abuse, it is not simply that there is an imbalance of power, but the intentional exploitation of a power imbalance to expand the control of the abuser at the expense of the victim. Abuse at its core is the misuse of power to control another person through unjustified force or coercion, whether this is psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually, sexually, or monetarily.
The litmus test for assessing power imbalances determines how it affects a party’s ability to self-determine (Gewurz, 2001). This can be observed by examining a party’s capacity for meaningful action in their negotiation interests (Dunlop, 2018). However, it also can be observed through a party’s experience of fear of retaliation, punishment, or threat during the conciliation process.
Although there is literature to support settlement negotiations and mediation as an appropriate tool when specific power imbalances exist, when those imbalances are a result of abuse or will result in a re-enactment of abuse, it is not advisable to utilize standard methods of Christian conciliation.
A proposed path forward
I recommend a three-pronged approach for Christian conciliators — and other religious mediators — in developing a helpful path forward to address power imbalances caused by abuse.
- Assess power dynamics wisely.
As a starting point, a conciliator must start with a foundational understanding that there are power dynamics in every conciliation. This includes their power, as well as the parties’ power. If these terms or concepts are foreign to you, seek further training and education. This may include CEUs on trauma, narcissistic abuse, spiritual abuse, domestic violence, workplace bullying, and sexual exploitation.
I also recommend having an assessment process for every case you work on that starts with a case conceptualization model that surfaces power dynamics. Such an intake process may include internal questions like:
- Who has power? What power do they have? How does this affect the capacity for self-determination?
- What is the level of fear in the parties? Who is most afraid and why?
- Who controls more of what the other party wants or needs?
- Are there abusive dynamics reported? If so, what type of abuse (emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.)?
Another recommendation would be to utilize consistent screening and assessment tools to help surface potential abuse. For example, for martial mediations, I now use a standard assessment from renowned marital therapist John Gottman. It screens for domestic violence while also providing a larger snapshot of health in the relationship. Another screening tool has been developed specifically for mediators called MASIC, which also screens for domestic violence.
- Accommodate power differentials gently.
If you identify a power imbalance that could re-enact an abusive dynamic, it is unwise to utilize typical conciliation methods. Instead, you must shift the approach to accommodate the power differentials with gentleness. The word gentleness in the Bible describes power harnessed lovingly. Power is surgically utilized in a self-restrained way for the good of another. It is not coercive or harsh.
Gentle accommodation of power differentials starts by identifying and seeing the vulnerability of the party most at risk. It means informing parties of the risks of participating in a conciliation process if an abusive individual or group does not acknowledge their abusive behavior. It means changing the format of the conciliation process entirely to reflect better the nature of the harm that has occurred.
For example, a usual practice in Christian conciliation is to have parties construct “a log and speck list” based on Jesus’ teachings about the priority of taking responsibility for our part in a conflict. However, using such an assignment or tool when abuse dynamics are present implicitly sends a message of mutuality for the abuse. Instead, the focus should encourage the victim to share an impact statement with the offender. The offender should be coached and prepared to enter the dialogue without justification or excuses for the abusive behavior. The structure of the conversation must tilt toward empowering healing through responsibility, remorse, and restitution from offender to victim.
- Advocate for justice lovingly.
Ideally, a conciliator remains neutral in the sense that they are unbiased, fair, do not demonstrate favoritism, and provide a consistent process. However, it is legitimate to consider that neutrality creates complicity to harm when injustice and oppression occur. Therefore, it is appropriate for the conciliator to weigh their role accordingly and ethically reflect on whether advocacy for justice would be more appropriate.
This begins by shifting the focus from conflict-oriented reconciliation to naming and identifying the abusive patterns and constructing a trauma-informed process. Healing for victims begins when abuse is appropriately named. It is vital to delineate that abuse is not conflict. Abuse is not a joint problem. To define it as conflict minimizes the impact and functionally silences victims’ voices. A Christian conciliator needs to name reality accurately and truthfully and use unequivocal language to bring to light the harm. This act of courageous truth-telling creates a proper context where healing can occur.
In conclusion, the topic of power dynamics is complex. Cases involving abuse will be challenging to navigate effectively. Hopefully, though, you will continue to move in a direction where you will be empowered to see unhealthy power imbalances and be ready to assess them wisely, accommodate them gently, and advocate for justice lovingly. ♦
Daniel Teater, President of Live at Peace Ministries, holds a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Master of Arts in Counseling from Covenant Theological Seminary. Daniel also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Missouri Baptist University. Daniel is passionate about serving people stuck in unhealthy relational dynamics find the path back to flourishing.
Teater, Daniel. “Power Imbalances and Abuse Dynamics in Christian Conciliation.” Canopy Forum, June 24, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/06/24/power-imbalances-and-abuse-dynamics-in-christian-conciliation/.