|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
March 18, 2012
tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
These famous words were written by Lord Acton in 1887 and have been repeated many times since as a truth about the nature of power. A person otherwise normal and well-behaved, placed in a position of power will often become oppressive, untrustworthy, suspicious, or at least less humane than we experienced him or her before that person gained power. The colleague who becomes our boss suddenly becomes distant and unwilling to engage in friendly conversation around the water cooler. The teacher who was every student's friend becomes a strict disciplinarian when promoted to principal of the school. In the gospel of Mark, it is the religious authorities -- the scribes and Temple priests -- who lord it over others demanding places of honor at the synagogue potluck dinners and forcing long winded sanctimonious prayers on the ears of a captive audience.
If power resulted only in the preening and prancing of people suddenly full of themselves, we could probably endure it, but Jesus warns that the corrupting influence of power can lead to a more dangerous sense of self-entitlement.
"The scribes devour widow's houses," he says. Not only are the scribes strutting around the marketplace in their fancy clothes but they are using their connections to prey on the weak of their society which in the first century would have been widows. Women whose husbands had died had few rights in first century Palestine and were economically vulnerable. Time and again, we hear the prophets condemn the financial practices of the powerful that exploited the weakness of the widows for their own gain and we who have lived through the recent recession can't help but hear in the prophets words premonitions of our own housing market crash. In 2007, the New York Times reported, "The crisis... from the near collapse of two hedge funds managed by Bear Stearns stems directly from the ... the fallout from loose lending practices that showered money on people with weak, or subprime, credit, leaving many of them struggling to stay in their homes."
In the wake of our own economic recession, it became fashionable to condemn bankers and hedge fund managers as all morally corrupt people who were fundamentally different from the average upstanding morally responsible person, namely people like you and me; but I think its unlikely that Freddy Mac asked every prospective employee, "Are you willing to sell your soul for the almighty dollar?" and only hired those who rubbed their hands gleefully and said, "Heh heh heh. I'd sell my grandmother if I thought I could get a good price for her!" It is more likely that the culprits in the economic collapse were normal human beings who, because of their power and position, became convinced that they were entitled in a way the rest of us are not.
"I've risen to a position of authority," the CEO says, "because I'm smarter than my inferiors."
"I'm the priest," the minister says, "because I'm more spiritually enlightened than my congregation."
"I'm a Senator," our representatives think, "and if I make the laws, then I must be above the laws because how can a creator be restricted by that which he creates?"
Power corrupts because it leads to a sense of entitlement, a belief that you have risen above others by virtue of something inherent in your being that excuses you from the restrictions and expectations that normal people must live by.
Maybe few of us here have the power that the CEO of Goldman Sachs had, but we all hold and exercise power in smaller ways. Teachers have power over their students. Parents have power over their children. Husbands and wives exercise certain power over one another in their financial decisions, romantic interchanges, and in whether they choose to nurture or exploit the other person's dependency on them. Even in the smallest social dealings, we have a certain amount of power over our neighbors and colleagues which we exercise through the way we choose to interact with them or the words we say about them to others in our community.
Do you ever stop and ask yourself, "How do I use the power that I have? Have I developed a sense of entitlement with others? Do I ever wield my power in a way that hurts others?"
Imagine for a moment that you get into a fight with another person. You are bigger and stronger than he is -- in other words, in this situation, you are the more powerful person. In fact, you know that you could beat the guy to a pulp if you wanted to. You choose not to exploit your power over him, however, for one of two reasons. The first is that you have learned to have compassion for other people, even those who might anger you, and even if it might make you feel better to hit him, you know that inflicting pain on another is morally wrong, so you stay your fist.
The other reason that may prevent your slugging the guy is that you don't want to get in trouble yourself. You're afraid you'll be arrested for assault and waste a few years of your life in jail. Any momentary satisfaction you might get from hitting him is outweighed by the years of loss you'll face as a consequence. Let's face it; as much as we like to believe that we will always be good because we are morally upright people, sometimes we are good just because we're afraid of the consequences if we are bad. In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon six year old Calvin says to his friend Hobbes, "Do you ever think about the end of the world as we know it?"
Hobbes asks, "You mean a nuclear war?"
Calvin says with a grimace, "No, I think Mom was referring to it
if she ever catches me letting the air out of the car tires again."
The church works to help provide the first type of check on power by teaching compassion and empathy for others, but we often fail to realize that Jesus spent just as much time teaching and encouraging the second check on power. In effect, Jesus attempted to bring a check on the power of the religious authorities in his society by challenging and even reversing the traditional ideas of who was most favored by God.
"It is not the priests who will get into the Kingdom of God," Jesus said, "but the prostitutes and the tax collectors."
This was not just touchy feely nice talk -- this was revolutionary. If the Temple Priests were not ensured a place in heaven while the local prostitute was, why would anyone listen to the priests? Jesus undermined their authority with the people and in so doing, challenged their power by giving power instead to the oppressed.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. read the gospels, he understood that following Jesus' teachings could radically reshape a society. To challenge corrupted power, the oppressed must first equalize the power. They had to find a way to break through the mentality of self-entitlement and the isolating affect of such thinking so that the person in power has a reason to care about the needs of the oppressed group. The Civil Rights movement did that through marches, boycotts, and protests that made it impossible for the powerful to continue business as usual.
Effective social change requires a re-distribution of power. Jesus called his followers to create a more just society where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick made whole, and the poor satisfied. The church can work to create that more just society by teaching everyone to love one another and be nice, but when we in our human sinfulness fail to love as we should, which we inevitably will, we must have in place an additional external check on the forces that would oppress and enslave. The weak must be given equal power to the strong. The meek must be given an equal voice with the loud. The poor must be given equal footing with the rich.
When I went to Haiti with the youth many years ago, we spent two weeks
helping a local community build a house. Before we left, we all had visions
of going down there and bringing our American know-how to the poor people
of Haiti, gracing them with the gift of our superior skill and resources.
Instead, for ten days, we mostly hauled buckets of sand while the Haitian
people cut poles, plastered walls, and nailed tin sheetings on the roof.
Sure, we provided the money but they provided the expertise and most of
the hard labor, so that in the end, we not only built a house together
but we built dignity and community. They were not the "poor"
recipients of our benevolent charity but equal partners in work and faith.
May we each look as well to our own lives to ensure that we use the power
we have been given in ways that our relationships in our homes, in our
workplaces, and our community will be healing, just, and life giving.
May our love be powerful and our power shaped always by our love.