“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton has a point, but I disagree with him. I say, “Power does not necessarily corrupt, but the temptation to be corrupted by power is exceptionally strong.”
Only God has absolute power, but we humans are responsible for our use of the relative power we can exercise. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God … unto salvation for all who believe!” (Romans 1:16)
I want both to invite you to think about power with me and to encourage you to pour your own unique content into the fascinating, vital subject.
John Kenneth Galbraith in his classic book, The Anatomy of Power (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1983), suggests three basic categories of power that are rich in details. 1) Some few are elected by organizations to exercise limited power defined by constitutions, standing rules, regulations, and procedures. Leadership is expected and required. The extent of power and the limits of power are well defined and understood by leaders and followers. Power has many faces: military, corporate, police, criminal, media, political, economic, organizational, social, religious, cultural, moral, etc.
2) Crisis situations often provide leaders who rise to the occasion and assume proper power with the consent of those directly affected. The numerous spontaneous heroes of 9/11 are examples of those who recognized desperate needs and put themselves in harm’s way to meet those needs. They have the skill, knowledge, and experience to analyze a crisis quickly and accurately, so they have enormous power to help or to hurt. A real leader assumes this critical power and uses it well.
3) Everyone has some personal power. The open secret is to realize at least partially the capacities and limitations of our personal potential. Many sadly underestimate their capacities and tend to settle for much less than they could reasonably achieve.
Personal power needs to be tempered with self-honesty and awareness that challenge human capacities and recognize human limitations. Thank the Lord for those brave hearts who seem to rise to the occasion and provide the necessary leadership in time of crisis that surpass the personal and affects the group.
While the many neglect their leadership qualities, the few seem to neglect their leadership limitations. Some misuse their power in wasted efforts and futile destruction. Others deliberately and consciously abuse their power for ulterior motives of self-interest, ego, false status, money, more power, etc.
Restraining those who insist on abusing power calls forth our continuing best efforts. Effectively dealing with evil has always been difficult. Responsible use of force is sometimes necessary. However, many kinds of restraints and persuasive methods deserve a fair chance of working. True self-interest requires true self-honesty. True courage requires true humility.
It is especially dangerous to speak a word of disagreement to a leader who is abusing power. A whistle-blower’s fate is often disgrace and dismissal. To criticize a national policy is to run the risk of being called unpatriotic. To differ with a church stance too often evokes a harsh censure or threat. Those who consistently abuse power tend to demonize those who object. To ignore the message and to denigrate the messenger is far too common.
I encourage you to think about power from your own perspective, for your own reasons, and be aware of your own challenges. The potential and limitation of being human continue to beckon us to discover for ourselves our own self-honesty, awareness, and understood motivations. We need power. We use power. Let us determine to use it for good.
Ralph D. Bucy is a retired Presbyterian minister living at Massanetta Springs, Va.