Recent waves of investigations and indictments of people in high places on global, national and even local scales remind us of Lord Acton’s phrasing of the ancient concept – “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Responding specifically to the rule of despots in his own time, Acton’s expression echoes the thought of ancient philosophers and prophets as well as more recent interpreters of human experience.
The larger and more public expressions of power’s misuse for less than noble purposes can sometimes distract us from its more subtle effects on relationships and community on a smaller scale.
Over the years, friends in the business world, public service, the military and other forms of institutional life have observed that when a person is promoted to the role of supervisor, it often causes tension with former colleagues.
Power has changed the relationship.
Even the local church isn’t immune from this dynamic. A longtime mentor and colleague who was a committed and active churchwoman often pointed out what she called “preacher disease.”
You can guess what she was referring to: the pomp and priorities that can accompany the perks of authority in the ministerial office.
These examples of power’s negative influence are easy to see. What is perhaps less obvious is the way power can find its way into and infect the most basic of personal relationships and communities.
When the question shifts from, “How can we strengthen each other for the task we share?” to “Who’s in charge?” – whether the context is large or small – power is doing its corrupting work.
Power can lead us to point to a verse like Ephesians 5:22 – “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord” – without noticing the previous verse.
In modern syntax, this earlier verse – “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” – would be the topic sentence of a long paragraph emphasizing the mutuality of various relationships.
The corruption of power can wear many outfits:
â— A position that legitimizes control over others.
â— Celebrity status that claims an inordinate share of public attention.
â— Resources that lead to envy and dependence.
â— Emotional control that creates toxic relationships.
â— Successes and privileges that dull one’s sensitivity to the struggle of the less fortunate.
â— Knowledge that causes contempt toward those who think differently.
The biblical testimony of the faith pilgrimage suggests that power is one of the most basic and volatile of human aspirations.
The fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden story is the fruit of power – to know as God knows.
Eiljah’s interactions with Ahab in 1 Kings provide a vivid portrait of corrupt power and its confrontation by God’s prophetic spokesman.
One is using power and influence for the common good; the other for personal gain.
The reports in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ wilderness temptation clearly point to the temptation to use power for one’s own needs and desires at the expense of one’s higher calling.
But the Bible also affirms that every person is gifted with the power of being created in the “image of God,” implying creativity as well as the possibility of its misuse. It can be used to build up or to break down in large contexts and small.
Power’s creative possibilities appear most clearly when it is focused on the common good, often with the sacrifice of more narrowly limited objectives.
When it is focused on narrow goals to the benefit of self or at the expense of others, it can be most destructive.
Perhaps the ethical question, then, is this: Given that each of us has the power of our particular place in the human family and its interrelated communities, to what purpose will we put it?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.