In the last century, Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts, while absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Is he right? Does absolute power always corrupt? As Andy Crouch pointed out to a group meeting I attended, there is a time in our life when we’re all subject to absolute power, when we have no control over where we go, when we eat, whether we escape our current environment; where we’re completely at the mercy of another human being. And yet, far from corruption, it is a context of the purest, fiercest love that we will perhaps ever know in this world. I am, of course, speaking about being an infant, and the power of our mothers over our lives.
While love-driven power is a beautiful thing, we often face the opposite. In fact, so much of the kerfluffle that divides our nation right now, in the wake of a divisive election, stems from the fear of power and how it might be abused. This depth of this fear and divisiveness, deeper than we remember it before, is really a measure of our rebellion against God.
Think about it: when we rebel against God, and act as if He doesn’t exist, or convince ourselves He doesn’t, we lose any foundation of truth, any final and infinite reality upon which we all can agree. Truth, then, is either relative to the person, or denied altogether. In the absence of truth, David Platt notes, ethics become illusory and arbitrary, leaving only personal preferences.
The problem with personal preference rather than absolute truth being the standard for the common good is that there is no common basis for persuasion. It becomes extremely difficult, absent the Holy Spirit, to persuade you that I am speaking truth when what you hear is simply my expression of a preference. If I tell you “abortion is wrong, and here are the reasons”, and to you it sounds like, “green is my favorite color, and here are the reasons,” you are not likely to be persuaded to adopt green as your color or anti-abortion as your stance. It is just a preference, and you have your preference, as well, which is different than mine.
At this point, the reference point for what constitutes “the common good” erodes. We then develop our own vision for that good, our own preference, perhaps with others who think like us, or a coalition of people who think more alike than others. Our only means by which to project that preference is through power. But, not love-driven power; power like Nietzsche advocated as the meaning of existence: “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to a union with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on…” In other words, it’s you or me.
That’s why those who feel they lost the election are so terrified of the result, and even determined to try to reverse it. That’s also why you’ve seen people in the news brutalizing Muslims, African-Americans, and others who they view aren’t like them, and who are now on the “losing side.” Those who lost fear the projection of power, and that they have no ability to persuade, while those who won feel vindicated and empowered to force their vision of the common good, their preference, on everyone else.
That is, until the next election, when the roles are reversed. Then the shoe is on the other foot. Again. To paraphrase Matt Chandler, this is a cul-de-sac of stupidity, brutality, and futility.
There is a better vision for the use of power. Crouch says that power can be used redemptively. It is a gift of God, used best to promote human flourishing. God designed life to be lived a certain way, and speaks to us in His Word about how to best live it. When we use power to empower others, stop treating it as a finite good to be hoarded and used against others and, instead, as an infinite good to be used to make still more, we help other people unlock their potential, the creative potential built into the creative order by a creative God: the absolute power of a mother using that power to raise her child as a godly man or woman, or the infinite power of a God using His power to lay it all down on a bloody cross to save a world.
You may not change the president or the Congress in how they use the power entrusted to them, other than the vote. But, you can wisely wield the power invested in you as an image-bearer of God and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. You have at your hands infinite power, power of the living God. I have friends who are immigrants and sojourners who are very afraid right now, have visions of being rounded up like WWII-era refugees and deported or imprisoned. It may be far-fetched, maybe not, but it’s a huge opportunity to comfort, encourage, and love them well. As God said, “you shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23).
God cares about the poor and the marginalized. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14). How well are we loving them? If the level of anger and disillusionment among the rural American poor and others is any indication, the answer is probably “not well.” We can love so much better, stewarding these opportunities we’ve been given well.
To pursue power for its own sake is futile; it leads to idolatry, increasing frustration and violence as we attempt to coerce our way out of others, and will ultimately never deliver on its tantalizing promise. But, we are our Father’s children, made in His image to play in His Garden: “Like Him, we are meant to pour out our power fearlessly, spend our privilege recklessly, and leave our status in the dust in the headlong pursuit of love…because, far more than we ever dreamed or feared, we are made like him, and like him we will rise.” Crouch, Playing God.