Lord Acton’s famous phrase “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” rings in our ears in the English-speaking world. Latent within that expression is that power makes people evil or bad, such that power is an evil thing; this skepticism of power goes back to Athenian democracy, vigilant against tyrants who bring great harm and destruction. The danger of power has expressed itself in the American form of government in the three branches of government serving as a system of checks and balances to governmental power. The question we as Christian thinkers are often tempted to ask then: how can we reconcile power in the Church? If it is evil and corrupting, how can provide such power in the Church? If it corrupts us, can the Church or people in the Church ever be morally pure and yet act power with at the same time?
But the perspective within the New Testament isn’t a skepticism about power, but rather about the people who wield power. Jesus warns about false prophets, not against the power of prophecy. Paul in 2 Corinthians suggests there are “super-apostles” who are disguised as angels of light when they really are servants of the devil; he doesn’t criticize the role of apostleship. Jesus doesn’t castigate his disciples for wanting to be of great status, as if there is something inherently evil about that ambition, but that they do not truly understand what greatness is when it comes to the kingdom of God. Paul in the pastoral epistles is encouraging of people desiring to be overseers, but then gives a set of qualifications about the character of that person. If we were to express something that tracks with the NT’s views about power, it would be along the lines of “power is sought by the corrupt, and absolute power sought by the absolutely corrupt at all costs.”
In the social psychology literature, the latter is more accurate than the former. Rather than power making people corrupt or evil, power tends to give corrupt people the ability to act on their corruption. Galinsky, Rus, and Lammers observe in their chapter “Power: A Central Force Governing Psychological, Social, and Organization Life” in Social Psychology in Organizations that: “With power the aggressive become more fierce, the generous more magnanimous, and the flirtatious even more amorous.”1 Why? Because:
The possession of power frees the individual from the shackles of normative constraints that usually govern thought, expression, and behavior. The domineering press of the situation recedes, allowing a person’s true nature to emerge. Essentially, power increases the correspondence between individual traits and behavior, with their personalities being better predictors of their thoughts and behaviors than are the personalities of the powerless.2
In effect, empowerment operates to unmask us as the people we really are, whereas powerlessness places masks on other people. Of course, this masking process isn’t absolute, because insofar as our power and authority is contingent upon other people’s views of us, then this form of powerlessness and vulnerability will lead to masks, as there is more to lose for those who value power, either as a personal end or as an instrument to other personal ends. In fact, in more democratic societies there is a paradox that is true: the powerful are powerless, and the powerless are powerful. Similarly, Galinsky, Rus, and Lammers observe that power makes us more like your true self and yet at the same time, more like your culture, suggesting the power are more and less like themselves.3 In a way, democratic societies, along with the institutions that are susceptible to other authorities and powers, have institutionalized a reversal of power that the Bible talks about, although the nature of the reversal may not be in lines with God’s will. But how this gets instituted win the Church fosters a form of covert action that I have talked about in a few previous posts on conflict: Christians with power can mask their real intentions and actions, but what in way the enact and seek their true intentions is done in such a way to, on the surface, to appear as good and true.
However, there is one exception to this pattern of covert action and arrangement of appearances and justifications: if the true self is also in line with the hearts of those who have power over them. If people who are simultaneously powerful yet powerless want what the others who have power over them want, then there is no mask and appearance, but an expression of who they truly are.
But this “true self” isn’t some idealized vision of who think or wish to be as persons; this “true self” is what truly determines our actions in specific, concrete circumstances and situations. The “true self” isn’t some abstraction of our identity and personality and wishes that we think behold ourselves within our imagination, but it is the aggregate of our wishes and goals across a vast array of time and circumstances. It isn’t something we find by going to retreats and conferences that celebrate and valorize some ideal virtues and persons. Businesses, non-profit organizations, and even religious organizations can have their “liturgies” that tell us what kind of person will succeed and move up the ladder, and so we can begin to idealize these traits as our own and manipulate our public actions and portrayal to be in conformity to these expectations. But rarely are these espoused values of the organizations who we truly are, unless one has experienced some sort of repentance-like event where one has seen one’s previous way of life as being fundamentally mistaken, which can put us on a formative process where we take on those values as our values, those desires as our desires. The “true self” coming into (comm)union with the values of those who have power only by the work of change that typically occurs over the course of weeks, months, and even years.
But those who are already powerful rarely go through such a formative process after empowerment. The way they pay attention to others and the world hinders that. Those with power tend to see the world in terms of abstraction,4 where they fit people and events into specific categories they already have in their mind, and the categories they use about people and events tend to be in alignment what they find most important, whether it be what they truly value or the categories and labels they can instrumentalize for what they value. This process of abstraction hinders paying attention to the specifics and nuances that can alter how one thinks and feels. Instead, the predilection towards abstraction makes the powerful project themselves onto the world.
This predilection towards the projection of themselves onto the world leads them to create large, vast, expansive visions of what can happen in their (over)optimistic future.5 The world is a malleable material for them to form in their imagination if only certain things are done. What gets overlooked at the concrete realities of diverging needs, desires, and interests of people along with the complexities of the way the world functions. Their tendencies to abstraction simply wisk this all away as overlooked or irrelevant. Their opinions and plans don’t tend to change based upon learning new information that challenges these labels, but they expect others to change into their plans and ignore this new information.
Therefore, they have a tendency to instrumentalize, if not even objectify, people. People with power pay attention to others in an instrumental fashion,6 where what they hear and recognize in others are the things that are relevant for themselves, not necessarily others. As a result, people who do not go along are commonly treated as problems or roadblocks and summarily labeled as troublemakers, resistant, unrighteousness, etc.7 Such labels mean they will not change their values.
The net effect is that power hardens us into the person we most deeply and truly are. If we are truly a generous person, it will “harden” us to make us more generous. If we are truly an aggressive person, it will “harden” us to make us more aggressive. If we are truly a self-absorbed person, it will “harden” us to be more self-absorbed. If we are truly community-oriented persons, it will “harden” us to be more focused on community. If we are truly a paranoid person, it will “harden” us within our paranoid. If we are truly oriented towards peace, then it will “harden us” as persons of peace. Thus, the change of people becomes next to impossible8 when they feel empowered; the question then is what their true self really is.
So, the concern for the Church isn’t that power corrupts us, but rather that it makes us into who we truly are. Jesus’ response to the false prophets who did great things in their name is not “you went astray,” but rather “I never knew you.” The necessary repentance and transformation had never occurred; these persons were taking on the form of the godliness which they used, but didn’t know its true power. Much as the Pharisees and scribes manipulated their appearance of righteousness through visible prayer, charity, etc., Jesus warned about false prophets who marshaled the practices and power of the Gospel with other goals in mind. Hence, great care is taken by Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church as a whole to pay attention to what people are having authority and power bestowed upon them.
In summary, then, power makes us resistant to change, looking for the world around us to change instead. Formation becomes next to impossible at this point, sans a powerful work of God or a fall from grace, leading to the question: who are they? are they who we need? Such people may not be perfect and will make mistakes and have sins, such as King DAvid, but the question comes down to this: what is it that the powerful most truly value? This will determine the aggregate of all their actions in various times and circumstances. David was a man after God’s own heart, which moved him to repentance when his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah was powerfully and prophetically brought before his eyes. These actions, including our actions of repentance after we realize our sins and failures of integrity to the things of God that we ourselves value, are the fruit that John the Baptist tells the religious elite to produce and what Jesus calls attention to when it comes to false teachers.
So, I would say the early Church in the New Testament has a much more realistic view of power, and the relationship it has with the people who wield it, than the common demonization of power that the West oversimplistically endorses. The New Testament expresses a view of power that is much more in line with the concrete, complex realities of a powerless people, who sees things more in the concrete, looking for God’s power to be realized within the world through human agents, rather than the Western abstraction about power that was used by powerful people to determine how power is to flow, thus is more of an abstract and less complex view on the matter that reinforces the specific arrangements of power and the interest of the people who have them.
- De Cremer, David; Rolf van Dick; J. Keith Murnighan. Social Psychology and Organizations (Series in Organization and Management). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
- the one exception to this would be when people’s true, end value is used to help people, thereby making such problematization of persons less likely as it would be more inconsistent with what they want; although this isn’t absolute as the anger that comes from other people’s resistance can even lead the most loving of persons to problematize.
- Change isn’t impossible, but if Pharoah in the Exodus narrative is any indication, along with hardness coming from within, what possibily for change may be meant with God further hardening. The narrative implies that those with great power will really only change because God does it, but that God commonly uses such people for other purposes.