More than likely you have heard Lord Acton’s famous quote, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” We are often susceptible to catchy quotes that elicit effortless answers... I know I can be. Lord Acton’s quote is one that I have mindlessly repeated due to its usefulness in dismissing behavior that was difficult to fathom. However, when reflecting on that quote, I was startled to realize it shifted behavioral responsibility from the actor to an indeterminate force (power) tending to devalue the significance of actions.
Psychological research has presented us with an opportunity to view this from an entirely different perspective and see that Lord Acton’s words may not be entirely true. Placing the onus on “power” discounts the human variable of personality and choice in the equation. Research suggests what you may already believe, “power doesn’t change people as much as it accentuates what is already there.” Stewart Slack, the founder of a Fortune 500 company made a statement that was reflective of many CEO’s interviewed for a recent research project. “Power doesn’t make you a/n [expletive] it just makes you more of what you already were.” I don’t share that for shock value, rather to suggest a different way of thinking about our world and more importantly, ourselves.
In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul reminds us, with self-effacing humility, that he struggled with many things (sin) in life that he could not easily rectify. He talked about an undisclosed “thorn-in-the-side” in 2 Corinthians that caused him much angst, that persisted and never was extinguished but was made right through the grace of God. I have often reflected on this passage and wonder what that “thorn” may have been. Undoubtedly, it was something which was visible to others, possibly causing an inconvenience or disturbance, needing confession.
We all embody inherent qualities that place us on a continuum of “good — to — not — so-good.” Our entire country has now witnessed what conflicting power needs can mean when functioning at the “not — so — good” end of the continuum. As research suggests, power is not intrinsically bad when used to further just outcomes... no need to look further than WWII. However, as Christians, we need look no further than the trial of Jesus to see that power can be used with ill intent and “intended” outcomes.
It appears we may be at an inflection point in the history of our country... have we outlived the effectiveness of our Constitution... does it still have an intrinsic moral strength to protect us from ourselves? For those of you who have had the pleasure of witnessing the outrageously popular Hamilton, you may recall the lyrics sung by King George (the colonial tyrant). These lyrics were recently brought to my attention by an insightful friend. Here are the lyrics from the second verse:
You'll be back, soon you'll see
You'll remember you belong to me
You'll be back, time will tell
You'll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!
As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787 someone shouted, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin reportedly responded with wit and menace: “A republic if you can keep it.” Our Founding Fathers did everything they possibly could to protect us from our own varied and selfish needs for power; and, that “document” has brought us through nearly two and one-half centuries of challenges. They firmly believed that without extensive checks and balances, focused specifically at that one, singular human drive, “POWER,” we would simply fall victim to the next King George. Jesus was shamefully and savagely subjected to the powerful “King Georges,” of his day, Romans and Jewish leaders... the coalesced political and religious powers of his time. Are we not susceptible and is it perhaps not inevitable that we too may succumb? Power is a surreptitious human drive when not recognized and submitted to a power much greater than ourselves. Our Power source is the Adhesive of the universe, the perfect, loving, just and personal Power that will give us wisdom while navigating these complex times. May we call on Him and “lean not on our own understanding.” May His power be the source of energy unifying the Body, His church, and all of us in wisdom, love and truth!
God grant us your wisdom,