The Inadequacy of the Transforming Power of Relationships

Something I’ve seen recently in churches is an insistence upon the Transforming Power of Relationships (TPR). The basic premise is this: change begins with being in relationship with others. Because human being care about one another, if you live in some sort of relationship with someone you’ll begin caring about them. Caring about them will compel you to change how you think and consequently what you do as an individual. If enough people follow through with the change in mindset brought on by TPR then the results will be a widespread, transforming change of a community, city, or even whole society. This is the Transforming Power of Relationships.

The TPR is typically invoked as a way to affect societal or communal change or to answer for its absence. Why has poverty grown over the last 30 years? Because not enough of us with money know a poor person. If we did, we might change our understanding of poverty, begin to make a difference in that person’s life, and work to alter the mechanisms of power in society in ways that alleviate poverty.

In my experience it is how most churches (liberal and conservative) understand how they practice missions. Giving up on actually doing anything materially for individuals or communities in need, the last 15 years have seen a shift towards “Relational Missions.” Relational Missions is a mobile version of the TPR. Instead of going on mission trips to build a home, feed the hungry, or tutor students, mission trips (or local mission opportunities) are now primarily devoted to relationships as the end goal. The goal moved from not actually doing something, to being transformed by the power of relationships with someone in need across town or across the world. That transformation then allows the person in power to use their power to effect larger change that will (eventually) result in the oppressed they serve getting the material things they need if all goes according to plan.

One problem with the Transforming Power of Relationships is it’s unclear that the oppressed actually want relationships with people in power or that they want those relationships more than they want actual, material goods. I could be wrong, but I just assume that given the choice between housing and friendship with me, a homeless person in my city wouldn’t choose hanging out with me. Just because I don’t have the power to offer the former, doesn’t mean the latter is a substitute.

Another challenge to this way of thinking is that it’s been around for about 40 years and hasn’t worked. Poverty, income inequality, racial segregation, and racial inequality have all gotten worse. TPR has been applied to poverty, racism, sexism, segregation, workplace disputes. Each time, its practitioners hope that authentic community can lead to a different way of arranging our society and alleviating the ills of injustice. For 40 years it’s been a failure as things have gotten progressively worse.

In his latest book, David Harvey argues that there are seven points of revolution or change: Social relations, daily life, mental conceptions, technologies, relation to nature, mode of material production, and institutional frameworks.

TPR fails because those that practice it treat it like a silver bullet for change. Somehow, one small change in social relationships will overcome the power of the other six ways that determine how we live together in our world.

For example, a white church encourages its members to participate in a tutoring program in an elementary school whose student population is black. Once per week, church members go to the school, pull a student out of class and spend an hour tutoring them, a slight change in their regular routine and the beginnings of a new Transformative Relationship. This relationship usually has two goals. First, improve the student’s grades. Because so many forces work to diminish the education of poor students, pulling a student from a classroom for an hour a week likely won’t do the trick. Because of this, often times, churches will declare that the whole “point” of such a program isn’t the actual tutoring, but Transforming Power of the Relationship formed between white tutor and black student. Once tutors see poverty and racism up close and personal, they’ll think differently about oppression.

With a change in their ideas, they then change their regular routine even further. Perhaps they work in a bank and make a motion that a percentage of the banks charitable donations go to fund something at the school where they mentor. Now they’ve changed something at the institutional level. If enough tutors from this one experience the Transforming Power of Relationships, and that leads to more of these kinds of changes, just imagine the effect it could have on that school and the lives of the students there.

The real issue with all of this is not what it changes, but what stays intact. The Transformative Power of Relationships as practiced above leaves in place a mode of production wherein one small group owns the materials necessary to produce necessities while the masses work for ever diminishing wages meaning that student will remain impoverished. TPR leaves in place institutional arrangements that unequally distribute power to the most historically advantaged meaning that student and her parents aren’t empowered to change the institutions of which they are a part. TPR doesn’t transform the mental concept that hard work leads to good results and that leads to a successful life meaning that student and their family will be continually blamed for the outcomes of their lives. And because none of those change and they work together to determine our collective daily routine, nothing about our collective lives will change. Poverty grows worse, segregation greater.

All of the above is true for using the TRP as a remedy to homelessness, sexism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, poverty or any form of oppression.

If anything, the Transformative Power of Relationships looks much more like a way to maintain the present system rather than a way to change it. It claims that if everyone makes tiny changes to only their social relations and their average routine like showing up to tutor once per week or volunteering at a shelter, the cumulative effect reduces poverty, racial inequality, and all other forms of oppression. TPR offers a way to offload the guilt we feel when we look at the depth of the inequality present in our society, but because it only offers minor tweaks to the system it’ll continue to fail on its own terms: transformation.

All of this isn’t to say that relationships don’t hold power. They certainly do. All seven points of change cohere into a system, a way of doing things, and that system has to be continually reinforced meaning at any point the system could be subject to radical transformation. Relationships with others, particularly the oppressed, could lead to a fundamental transformation. But only if the relationship with the oppressed leads to questioning our most deeply held beliefs that the poor deserve their poverty and that inequality is a matter of How Things Really Are. Our relationships as workers could cause us to ask why we have a mode of production where the few own so much, and the many have to work for ever diminishing wages just to provide what they need. And we could change what we do daily and begin to work together to collectively rearrange our institutions so that power to provide is more equally distributed.

But unless it leads to this the Transformative Power of Relationships will remain little more than the Stabilizing Power of the Status Quo.

I work at a church.

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