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All Power Corrupts


"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

--John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834–1902)

This quotation from the 19th Century British historian and moralist, John Acton, has been one that has interested and followed me all of my life. As a young adult, I felt that it was too cynical, and it did not allow for the goodness that is in people. One reason for my rejection of the quote may have been that I never realised that the words "tends to" were part of the quotation, and so I had assumed that it was an absolute statement (as expressed in the title of this article).

However, as I have grown older and observed, not only others, but also myself, I have come to see that the saying, even in its more extreme form (i.e. "All power corrupts") is fairly accurate, and it is consistent with the doctrine of the "fallen nature of man". We human beings have a tendency to mess everything up without desperate prayer and humble dependence on God.

The most common way that this happens (in my experience) is that when we do something good, we receive recognition for it, which translate as "authority"... authority, based on experience. The more good that we do, the more authority/power that we receive. And that "authority" can easily be taken as license to ignore our own faults and focus on the faults of others. People will allow us to do that if we have been fair in our dealings up to that point. And the more fair we have been, the more authority/recognition/freedom/power we will have received and thus be capable of abusing.

If there is any part of the quotation at the start of this article which I would object to, it would be the last part, the part that is usually left out: "Great men are almost always bad men." It would be better to say that we are all "bad men" (whether generally regarded as "great" or not). For some of us, that badness comes out very quickly; others see it; and then they cease to give us the recognition that they go on to give to those who are more successful in taming their corruption. So in many ways, the "great" leaders are those who have been able to overcome this "fallen nature of man" for a little longer than the rest of us. It is just that when they do fall (if they are going to) they will have more opportunity to do harm because of the increased power that they have received.

We need leaders, at the same time that we see leadership abused every day. But if we see this as a problem that all of us (whether leaders or followers) are struggling with, then there may be more hope for us all.

Religion has often been accused of preying on the guilts of others in order to maintain control over the masses. There is some truth in this, but there is a dilemma as well, in that true spiritual leadership does need to confront those guilts and it needs to fairly represent God's position. Both the love of God and the justice of God need to be communicated to the world. But they need to be communicated in ways that are not biased toward the "voice in the wilderness" that a true spiritual leader needs to be. As John the Baptist (the original "voice in the wilderness") once said, "He (Jesus) must increase, and I must decrease."

The prosperity preachers and other calvinistic ministries have achieved a lot of success and popularity for themselves by telling people what they wanted to hear about the "love" of God, i.e. that God wants only to make them healthy, wealthy, and popular. This, to me, is a corruption of the truth. But by the same token, the hellfire and brimstone ministries appeal to people's desire to be righteously superior to others whether or not we really ARE superior in God's eyes. Condemnation, whether it be of the congregation or of the clergy, represents, to me, yet another form of corruption.

So, whether we are taking a soft line ("God loves you.") or a hard line ("God is not happy with what you are doing.") and whether we are talking down to the masses from the pulpit of leadership, or responding to leadership from the congregation, we are going to encounter opportunities to corrupt the power that we have. Flattery and condemnation both are abuses of power. If we ignore this, as so many of us do, then we do so to our own spiritual detriment.

Having recognised that we all have power, and that we are all prone to abusing this power, the big question is how do we reverse this tendency? I think it can only be reversed through prayer. By that, I mean that in the secret place, between ourselves and our own conscience, we need to resolve to confront abuse in our own lives whenever we see it, with God's help. If we can see that yesterday's success at confronting our own corruption only increases our freedom to be more corrupt today, that may be of some help too.

Ever vigilant.  Ever faithful. It is a never-ending battle, and it is one that can only be fought in the secrecy of our prayer closet, where we ignore everyone else's faults except our own.
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