Some Thoughts on Power

I tmAoFLcgend to think about power as a neutral thing.

That is, in its pure form, power, defined as the ability to influence others in some form or fashion, is morally neutral. It’s neither good nor bad, it just exists. Like money, power is something with a whole lot of potential that’s wholly dependent on the whims of people for its use.

This isn’t to say, of course, that power remains morally neutral. Indeed, power often (always?) has morally significant results, either for good or for ill.

I realize that not everyone shares this notion of power being morally neutral. 19th century British moralist Lord Acton, commenting on the state of the monarchy, was famously quoted as saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Another British politician, William Pitt, was quoted as saying that “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. ”


I was reading this article the other day, about how power affects the mind, and I came across this insightful quote, from New York University Professor Joe Magee:

“What power does is that it liberates the true self to emerge,” he says. “More of us walk around with kinds of social norms; we work in groups that exert all pressures on us to conform. Once you get into a position of power, then you can be whoever you are.”

For me this quote captures a core truth about power:

How power is used depends on the character of the user.

In other words, once placed in a position of power, a person’s character is given a platform for expression. Who we are comes out when we have access, control and influence.

And maybe this is where Acton and Pitt come in. Because outside of the “Word made flesh,” nobody is morally pure. At least I’ve never met anyone, including when I look in the mirror. And so it could well be that power is a potent enough force to expose the subtle flaws in even the most pure person’s character, resulting in corruption.

What is clear is that due to the complexity of the human soul, there exists a million ways that power can be used.

And, no doubt, power can be used for good. When a mayor uses her political capitol to improve the lives of the homeless, power is used for good. When a painter manages to stir the heart of a nation to embrace the unity of all people, power is used for good. And, sorry Tertullian, but when a male pastor advocates on behalf of the leadership gifts of women in his congregation, power is definitely used for good.

On the other hand, too often power can become abusive. Politicians, reflected in the allegations against San Diego’s Mayor Filner, use their power to sexually assault women. Or, Hollywood takes the influence we give them and offers us an image of a world marked by mistrust, violence and broken relationships. And, yes, citing selected Biblical texts, male pastors too often shut the door to women serving in their congregations, particularly in authoritative teaching roles.

All of this ought to compel us to embrace the caution expressed by Jesus in Matthew 23, as he spoke to the power brokers of his day, the Pharisees:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May those of us with power indeed be humble, in our statehouses, marketplaces, houses of worship and in our homes.

Want more thoughts on power? Last December I blogged on “Christmas and Power” here.

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