Written by Pastor Ed
The Seduction of Power
June 12, 2016
I Kings 21: 1-16
Luke 7: 36 – 8:3
Lord Acton, in a letter to Mandell Creighton, dated April 1887 said:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
We have undoubtedly heard one sentence from that letter; “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He actually had a lot to say about power, on another occasion saying, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”
And it certainly doesn’t take a lot of looking to find examples to bear out his statements, and remember that was back in 1887. Indeed it almost seems like it is the rare exception when a ruler or person power isn’t involved in some sort of scandal, although there certainly are those exceptions. Yet we constantly hear reports of fallen leaders; good people who when they are elevated to positions of power, whether formal or informal, fail to avoid the risk of abusing that power in one way or another.
The lectionary for this Sunday had the option of two different Old Testament texts, both of which illustrate the point. While Ahab was certainly no saint before this incident, Jezebel had a way of bringing out the worst in him. And the account of Nabal’s vineyard is a good example of an abuse of power, figuring that the rules don’t apply and one can take whatever one desires.
The alternate text was of Nathan’s confrontation with King David after he not only took whatever it was he wanted, namely Bathsheba, but then, as is often the case, worked hard to cover up his misdeeds and ended it all with the killing of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. While David is often held up in the Old Testament as a model of a king, he also serves as a prime example of Lord Acton’s statement that when one is in a position of power, there is a great risk of abusing that power.
In contrast, the story from Luke is of a woman, labeled a sinner, who comes and makes herself extremely vulnerable by entering Simon’s house and kneeling at Jesus’ feet. The contrast between the woman and the other guests at the table is acute, which is one of the reasons I liked the painting depicted on the bulletin cover. According to that fountain of all knowledge, Wikipedia, “Béraud’s paintings often included truth-based humour and mockery of late 19th-century Parisian life, along with frequent appearances ofbiblical characters in then contemporary situations.”
Also in contrast is the response that Jesus had to the woman. As I said, the woman has made herself vulnerable, and Simon, the host, was in a position to complain, have her thrown out, or at the very least, heap verbal abuse on her. And think what a person like King Ahab, or even King David might have done. But Jesus, who perhaps had the ultimate power in this situation, used his position, not to abuse the woman, but to dignify her act and raise her position in society.
“Look,” said Jesus to Simon, “you have a place of privilege and from that position you think it isn’t necessary to provide even the simplest of courtesies, but this woman, who has no standing in society, in fact is probably looked down on by all of you sitting here, has not only provided them, but has gone even further in showing her devotion.” And turning to the woman he forgave her and gave her a blessing, to the astonishment of the others.
Instead of abusing the power that he had, Jesus used his position and power to raise up the lowly and bring dignity to those most vulnerable in society. It’s a lesson each of us needs to learn, for while we may not be kings, or even think that we have positions of power, many of us indeed do.
Power, in the sense we’re using it, is a relational term. If you’re talking about trucks, or engines, you can talk in terms of how much power they have, and you’re really talking about physical strength. But power, as we’re talking about it this morning has to do with our position relative to someone else. One of the ways it’s been defined is as having access to resources. The person with the greater access to resources is in a position of power relative to someone with lesser access. And that can change depending on the situation.
So, for example, when I walk into a hospital here with my rather official looking badge around my neck, I am in a position of power relative to most of you. I have access to information and places that most of you wouldn’t have. But, if I’m a patient, as I was a few years ago, I lose all that status. There are many things that grant power and privilege in our society, many of them simply inherent, built into society as it’s developed here.
Male vs. female
White vs. people of colour or aboriginal
Heterosexual vs. homosexual or transgender
Christian vs. non-Christian
Adult vs. child or elderly
We can’t get away from being in positions of power, even if we don’t feel like we have any. I have often talked about this with pastors, who will often deny that they have any power. But, I tell them, as a white, male, heterosexual, Christian pastor, I am in a position of power in society and in relation to my parishioners that can all too easily be misused as we see happening all too often. Anytime we are placed in positions of power and privilege we are at risk of abusing that power, like Kings Ahab and David did.
That applies to teachers of children, to leaders of youth, to anyone placed in such a position. But those positions can also be used for the good of others, as Jesus demonstrated. We can use our positions either to lord it over others and put them down, or we can use those positions to build others up, to encourage and empower those around us, not in a patronizing way that only serves to keep them in a vulnerable position, but by giving up some of our position and power and making ourselves vulnerable as well. It’s the difference between a “power over” concept and a “power with” model.
The first step is to recognize and acknowledge when we have power. All too often it is when we deny that we are in a position of power that we begin to abuse it. Power is not a bad thing. If there weren’t people with power in society, nothing would get done. When pastors say they don’t have any power, I ask them what the point is then. Why would you put yourself into a position where you didn’t think you could accomplish anything or bring about some change? So acknowledgement is the first step.
And then we need to be clear that our power is for the good of others, and not to take advantage of others or be abused. Fortunately, most of the time that is what happens. Most people use their power in society for the good of others, and most Christians follow the example of Jesus. Unfortunately, that’s not true of everyone, and from time to time we learn of those who abuse their positions of power and in so doing abuse others. In those cases we need to be clear that such abuse will not be tolerated, especially in the church.
Jesus provides us with the ultimate example, who, as the early church hymn says, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and in so doing used his power for our good, inviting us to also become sons and daughters of God through him.
May we follow his example, giving of ourselves for the good of others, and like him, using our positions of privilege and power to empower those around us who are the most vulnerable in society.