Hard power versus soft power

Ervin Stutzman
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA

By Ervin Stutzman

During this election season, when politicians are doing everything in their power to win elections, I find it helpful to step back and examine what kind of power we have as followers of Jesus Christ. Until recently, I’d not heard the difference between hard power and soft power. Because I find the distinction helpful, allow me to reflect on the differences from the standpoint of a pastoral leader.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye apparently coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s, and he has written extensively about the concept. Nye has shown, for example, that unless heads of state use the soft power of diplomacy along with the hard power of military strength, they will be limited in their effectiveness. If you wish to explore his theories further, you can readily find his work online.

In an election season where political hardball is the sport of choice, I must remind myself of the call to give allegiance to Jesus Christ, who taught us a different way to lead. We have much to learn from Jesus about the methods of soft power. Jesus instructed his disciples, by word as well as example, how to get what they needed, and to help others get what they needed.

In response to a dispute among his disciples, Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:24-26).

In the context where Jesus urged people to ask, seek, and knock as a way of getting what they needed, he ended by saying, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Some have called this the Golden Rule, or the royal standard, by which to measure our actions.

It’s not simple or easy to follow the Golden Rule—to do for others what we would have them do for us. It takes both wisdom and power from God to exercise that kind of soft power in the lives of others. But it is one of the most powerful forces in the world.

As leaders, we struggle at times to get people to do what they know is right. Perhaps we feel like President Harry Truman, who once observed, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them… That’s all the powers of the President amount to.” It’s amazing to contemplate that when Truman said that, he had all the hard power of the Pentagon under his command. But he knew that it’s better to use persuasion than force.

As followers of Jesus, we have given our allegiance to the most powerful leader in the universe. Jesus demonstrates his power through self- giving love for others. We are privileged to draw on that power to accomplish everything God has called us to do.

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One thought on “Hard power versus soft power

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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