Human Power vs. a Higher Power

Nadia 3Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn is the better person we all wish we were. She spends her days not just running a school in a high-poverty area but also personally attempting to empower every “scholar” in her school. This is what she says about the school color being purple, the color of royalty:

I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.

I know about Ms. Lopez thanks to Vidal Chastanet, one of her students, who was featured last month in photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog. (Stanton asked Vidal, “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” and Vidal answered, “My principal.” And then Stanton went in search of her.)

Thanks to Humans of New York, in fact, everybody knows about Ms. Lopez—you (I’m guessing) and I and Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama. And thanks to Lopez’s own inspirational work and the human need to be inspired and then (once inspired) to act, Vidal has sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and Mott Hall Bridges has received more than a million dollars in donations.

For all of this, Lopez gives thanks to . . . God.

I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it . . . I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.

I don’t want to minimize the range and intelligence of her statements on education and community and poverty, or reduce her to a football player who believes God kicked in the extra point. She has much more to say than this. But I do think it’s striking that here, in a situation where cause and effect are transparent, God gets credit. It’s not like $1 million showed up on the doorstep, or that people started sending in checks for no evident reason.

To conclude that what happened to Lopez and her school was God’s work is to minimize not just what Lopez herself did but also what Stanton did, what people moved by the story did. I’m sure no one involved, least of all Lopez herself, feels the need to get credit. But minimizing the human role minimizes human responsibility. We may not want to admit it, but we have the power to save not just Vidal and Mott Hall Bridges but all the schools that struggle to keep kids afloat in impoverished areas. We have the power to end poverty. We have the money; we have the will; all we lack is the certainty that it’s our job. That what controls the circumstances of one human’s life is other humans—not just personally (that part we understand), but in the systems that we create together. If we as a culture believe a Higher Power is in charge, we’re simply not going to use our human power to its fullest. We’re going to think that poverty is His doing, not ours.

* * *

Other things that happened last month: Islamist terrorists shot twelve people at the headquarters of a Parisian newspaper. In covering the march that followed, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped Angela Merkel from the picture because, according to the editor,“including a picture of a woman into something so sacred . . . can desecrate the memory of the martyrs.” Meanwhile, here at home, Senator James Inhofe became Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has said, among many other remarkable things, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

I could write about these events to demonstrate the dangers of religious belief. Many people have. But the problem with using such extreme examples is that we can all be horrified, appalled, and disgusted by them without fundamentally questioning anything we—or non-murderous, non-sexist, non-stupid people like us—believe.

Today, on Darwin Day, it’s worth asking whether the good kind of religion can have negative consequences too. Whether religion that clearly means no harm and even inspires admirable people like Ms. Lopez to do good might ultimately still be holding us back as a society.

When we talk prayer rather than politics, we perpetuate the belief that humans are powerless to address deep-seated societal problems; that the future of kids like Vidal is in God’s hands. But it’s not. It’s in Lopez’s—and in ours.


  1. Totally. And may I point out that Satan is not using Katy Perry to lure children his way, in spite of the exclamations in an article that found its way onto my Facebook newsfeed.

  2. A rancher was proudly showing off his property to his pastor who reminded the rancher that he should not forget to thank God for His help. The rancher replied, ” Maybe so, reverend, but you should have seen the place when he was running it on his own.”

    When people pray, they don’t realize it, but they are doing what they rarely otherwise do, which is to clear their minds, turn off their electronic devices, and use their imaginations with confidence that they will find the answer. Clearly the answer is from their own intellects, but they are conditioned to believe otherwise. Like Kate, I wish we’d take full responsibility for our own decisions and actions. Until then, crazy people will claim God told them to do all sorts of stupid and despicable things.

  3. Excellent post, Kate! Taking credit away from the good deeds of people renders them powerless. That’s the last way we should be feeling these days.

  4. I’d be curious to know if the most secularized countries (I know, tough to define) are also the most aggressive in instituting social safety nets. In other words, if secularism equates with government action to solve issues of poverty, climate change etc. Also, every time I read about instances of individuals thanking god for their good fortune, I can’t help wondering why they don’t connect the obvious dots. Isn’t god then responsible for all the innocent people whom bad fortune befalls, all the kids who don’t have a Nadia Lopez or worse die from malnutrition or disease?

  5. Hey Kate!

    Interestingly, I just read an article for class this week that makes the argument that belief in a higher power/religion/spirituality may actually in fact be part of what allows people to work effectively for social justice and positive change. I think it’s important that the author clearly points to the belief as the operative thing, not any actual higher power:

    “. . . [S]ociopolitical development is largely a cognitive process focused on conditions in the material world. However, even a cursory examination of African American social change movements reveals that the inspiration, strategy, and courage for this struggle relied heavily on religious and spiritual belief (Brookins, in press)… At the psychological level, spirituality is also a bulwark against pessimism and disillusionment when the rational mind would conclude the cause is hopeless.

    “The idea of a power beyond human limitations and a belief in “nonmaterial causation” have long been a part of the African and African American world view (Jones & Block, 1984). To prevent asymmetry in the material world from leading to a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, African Americans and others have often turned to the invisible world of God and spirit. In psychology, spirituality is often seen as a coping strategy that puts events in perspective, yet it can also produce a sense of a higher purpose and a feeling of power and energy beyond what the material world can provide. Zeal when properly disciplined moves people to constructive action. Undisciplined, it can become authoritarian and fanatical.” (Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999)

    I’m not sure I agree, but I do think it’s worth thinking about. In particular, the idea of spirituality as a positive bulwark against hopelessness–and one that is culturally important as a strategy for empowerment–answers the question of maybe why Ms. Lopez credited God the way she did even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Her own belief may in fact have played a role in her ability to keep going as a principal long enough for all of this to happen, even if that’s not exactly how she sees it.

    1. I have to add my two cents to Cokey’s post above. The belief in a higher power helps people because it is a paradigm that serves the general purpose of providing hope. We can derive hope from faith in something else like our selves, our community, our family, friends, and rely on rational problem solving behavior. Religion and God are just the default for the average person and this is not going to change too quickly. But it’s changing as our society is becoming secularized and we are using knowledge rather than superstition more to guide our actions and attitudes. People are indoctrinated in religion, so their view of life and events derives from that mythology. But you don’t need religion to get the same benefits religion now creates for the believers. I hope they eventually figure that out.

  6. I really appreciate the thoughts everyone has expressed. Ultimately I think that religion makes people look up from their despair that can come from not righting wrongs quickly enough, from feeling helpless before the problems. That’s its gift to those who need it. But anybody could get that wider perspective without including God in the equation. A good affirmation/meditation session could bring you to realize that it’s ok to be inadequate to the task. I think of Martin Luther King and how he relied on something bigger than himself to keep himself strong and ultimately, and more importantly, connect with other people to effect change. (Like what Cokey said about Lopez staying the course.)

  7. I do think that the idea of God inspires some people–I even said that about Lopez–and religion has obviously been a force for good in liberation struggles throughout the world. And of course, the idea of an afterlife can help people endure the sufferings in this life. (Opiate of the masses, and who doesn’t appreciate a good opiate?) But it seems to me this can be a negative as well.

    When I was writing this piece I was thinking about all those countries with excellent social safety nets (Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden etc.) also being extremely secular. I thought maybe instead of relying on God, they knew they had to make their societies right themselves. But maybe it’s the opposite: maybe once you don’t have to fear hunger and poverty and neglect–once THIS life is reasonably free from suffering–you don’t need religion any more . . .

    1. Kate, you are going to love my book. I it all about this and more. It will be published soon on Kindle under the pen name Joseph D. Nehemiah and titled Cosmic Casino. I’ll let you know when it is available. If you like it, please tell your readers about it. They are all clearly people who will enjoy it.

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