Money, sex, and power are the three sins to which people in power seem most prone to fall. Money, because it is tempting to allot extra to yourself, to permit yourself another dip in the bucket, and to make use of the fiscal resources at your disposal to illicitly advance your agenda (i.e., bribery). Virtually every politician in history has had some connection to the misappropriation of civic funds—and in my home state of Illinois three of its recent governors are serving prison sentences for just this. Sex, because power is attractive, and the allure of power appeals to people who want to be near power, possibly to influence power, and who consequently mold themselves to appear more attractive and appealing to your desire. They prostitute themselves to the powerful in exchange for power, whether real or perceived. The list of examples for this is quite long as well—Bill Clinton, David and Bathsheba, etc. Lastly, power itself awakens its own breed of temptations. The allure of getting your own way, the desire to exact vengeance on your enemies, the pleasure of achieving something for your own name, no matter how you damage others in the process, the allure of justifying improper means with appealing ends. In recent news, we might point to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill church, who is on record saying that “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Do the ends justify the means?
These thoughts trundled through my mind when I recently read N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s book was a compelling story, portrayed an interesting world, and did these things with above average execution. But after I had finished the book I was troubled by a fundamental flaw in the book’s logic. The premise of the story is that a group of gods walk among humans, imprisoned and unable to access their full divine power. The main character, a human, is unexpectedly jettisoned into a position near the apex of earthly power. As the story unfolds, Jemisin makes an explicit point that the humans have been made in the gods’ image, and that this explains their immorality. The humans are capricious and cold, violent, vindictive, acting according to whim and fancy, and are profoundly immoral (or possibly amoral)—just like their gods. But as the heroine acquaints herself with the imprisoned gods she discovers that they answer to a moral code which, because of their power, is inscrutable to human minds. This shows up in capriciousness, violence, and, especially (in the novel) sex—these gods are permitted to sleep with whomever they like, each other, without boundaries, consequences, gender differentiation, or limits.
As I hope you can see, Jemisin has taken a common assumption—that power mitigates morality—and simply extended it to a divine level. We humans assume that the more powerful a person is, the more immoral he or she will become. If this is the case, then how much more will a god be immoral by extension? Look, for example, at the Greek gods, who are essentially personifications of human emotions and whims—war, sex, creativity, love, thought, power. The Greek gods are essentially human figures boosted to levels of incredible power, and with the freedom to exact that power on any human figure they desire.
The flaw within Jemisin’s book is fairly simple, if essential, because all actions, whether they are divine or human in origin, are moral actions; all choices are moral choices whether the actor is powerful or weak. The strength of the heroine’s position is that she maintains a moral centre within the chaos of the immoral world she inhabits. She judges the actions of others. But if Jemisin’s world really is a place of shifting morality, shifting especially as you achieve more power, then her heroine has no viable perspective from which to judge the immorality of her compatriots. Furthermore, assuming the logic of the world is accurate, then we the readers have no position of morality from which to consider either the heroine’s actions just or the divine actions unjust. To remove morality is to remove the judgment of any motive entirely. The plot falls apart because there is no reason for concern, growth, or change.
What troubled me about Jemisin’s book was not the immorality of her characters, but rather the assumptions about morality that she made in writing it. We seem to believe that circumstances have power to mitigate our morality, that power causes morality to blur. When President Bill Clinton was being investigated for his illicit sexual actions while in the White House, there was a strong move, at that time, to excuse Clinton’s actions precisely because he was president. I even remember one person suggesting to me that one of the perks of being president ought to be sexual access to whomever he liked at any time—after all, this person reasoned, he’s got other things to think about.
Whether the issue is money, sex, or power, with each indiscretion there is a temptation to blame immorality on power. As if by identifying the fact of power we have at the same time made full excuses for its abuse. “What did you expect?” we reason, “It’s power we’re talking about, and don’t you know that power corrupts?” Thus we are given permission at the same time to both excuse and blame those who have power.
But something else bizarre happens—not only do we mitigate the circumstances of the powerful because of their power, we also mitigate the circumstances of the powerless because of, ironically, their powerlessness. In recent news, (some) protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have rioted and looted local businesses—their excuse for this behaviour is their powerlessness. Against the militarized perception of the police, some have reacted with (un)civil disobedience. And so, in either case the problem isn’t that power corrupts, it is that we use both the presence and the absence of power as excuses for immoral behaviour. It seems that whether power or powerlessness is involved, we are eager to throw off the yoke of our morality.
Ironically, we do this with the Christian God as well. We make a deduction from our perception of power, then apply it to His character. We assume that power mitigates morality, then we conclude that because God is the absolute apex of power His morality must be of a different order than ours. Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil. It seems our perceptions of power have changed little in the past 500 years.
There are a few things to say about this. First of these is a clarification about power itself. Our widely held perception that power is essentially a corrupting force has been given cultural strength by a famous quote from Lord Acton—one that we famously misquote. The actual quote is as follows: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” (Note the missing word in bold.) Today we take Acton’s sentiment as axiomatic, but I think it fair to ask if it is even true. Does power corrupt people, or are people natively corrupt, and power only magnifies their inherent corruption? The latter, I hope, is self-evident. As humans we have wickedness within us. It can be small wickedness of petty words, spiteful actions, tax-fibbing, or little lies; it can be great wickedness of murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. We can commit our wickednesses in the quiet of our homes, or we can commit them on stages of public viewing. It is the same wickedness in both cases—the only difference power makes is that of the amplification of the wickedness. David sins with Bathsheba, and the wickedness is common enough—the consequence, however, affects the whole kingdom. Clinton sins with Monica Lewisnky and the sin is common enough—even banal and stupid—but the consequence drags a whole nation down. Driscoll sins with power and the sin is common enough—doing anything to get one’s way—but the amplification by power affects the reputation of the church catholic.
So, to begin, let’s be clear about something: power is neutral. It is neither evil, nor good, but can be used by humans for either good or evil purposes. It is a magnifying, amplifying force, one that projects the inherent faults in the human creature onto a canvas both visible and large. It is not that people in power sin more, it is that their sins are visible for everyone to see.
That being said, there is a real danger in power—the danger of trusting in one’s power. It is a very slight, subtle shift from the sentiment of, “I want this” to the belief that “the power that has been allotted to me means that I deserve this.” The temptation of power is precisely in its ability to turn our wants into deserves. I want to get my way—am I appealing to power in order to force my way? I want to enjoy the benefits of illicit relationship with person X—am I appealing to power in order to permit myself that illicit relationship? I want this benefit, this reward, this advantage—am I using the excuse of power to claim that I deserve it?
Again, however, it is not just the visibly powerful who have this temptation. The man who feels powerless in his relationships may turn to pornography to feel the illusion of power, to experience some relational control where he has none. He, quietly, is also sinning in his power. The woman who uses her words to put others in their place is also appealing to the power of her language to dominate and control. She also, quietly, is sinning in her power. And this is one of the dangerous misperceptions of power: that only the visibly powerful—presidents, celebrities, megachurch pastors—have power. In fact, each and every human is endowed with incredible power—power to bless or curse.
But, you may ask, does divinity mitigate morality? Are things different at the apex of power? That this is impossible ought to be clarified by a simple illustration. To the human mind, an error in measurement of .01cm would seem irrelevant—one not worth considering. Is it an error? Certainly, but other circumstances (among them the impossibility of perfection) mitigate the mistake. But imagine making a .01cm mistake in plotting a journey from one solar system to another. .01cm magnified by a distance of four light years has become an enormous error in magnitude. It is the difference between finding your mark and missing it completely. The point of the illustration is that at the level of divinity—which is comparable essentially to a measurement of infinity—the small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential. At the apex of power morality is not ambiguous but absolute—the heights of power demand a perfection beyond anything humans have conceived. Therefore God’s power makes morals explicit. When Isaiah beholds a vision of God’s power, his first response is repentance for his unclean lips. Visions of absolute power convict us of our moral imperfections. Holiness and ethics are foundationally inseparable.
It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means. We cannot calculate costs and conclude that injustice in one area is permissible if it achieves a separate justice elsewhere. Especially at the level of divinity, this is absurd. After all, our arguments for ends and means each depend on an assumption of time and temporality. We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply—injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.
But the lie of ends and means continues. In the church it takes the form of a kind of unholy expediency. We place volunteers in positions of authority because we have a perception of their qualifications and choose to overlook the significant flaws in their character. We resolutely refuse to acknowledge the bodies under the bus by pointing at the successes of a ministry—people saved, ministry accomplished, churches planted. We spend our funds on unnecessary building projects while the church catholic struggles, suffers, and starves. And we excuse all of these with a perception and apprehension of power that, ironically, we lay at the feet of God Himself.
But the place where, perhaps, we sin against power most is the way that we militate one kind of justice against another, particularly when we pit morality against ethics. “How can you care about Driscoll when there are people suffering in Ferguson?” “The focus of the church shouldn’t be on homosexuality, especially when there are suffering people overseas.” Or, as Tony Campolo is famous for saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Can we at the same time pursue God’s character for Justice while repudiating His moral character? Can we pray “Thy will be done” while ignoring “make your name holy?” In each case we have missed an important reality—that a justice which compromises with injustice ceases to be justice. Or, theologically, a Christian justice that compromises on the character of God is no longer Christian. Morality and Ethics cannot be separated.
And yet the narrative of the world says something different. Our world’s narrative tells a story that grants license to immorality because of injustices experienced, whether perceived or real. A person in poverty cannot be blamed for his moral indiscretions. A person suffering under an unjust regime cannot be blamed for her immoral behaviour. Riots are permissible because of the imbalance of power. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sexual indiscretions are overlooked because of the good he accomplished and what he stood for. The ironic twist remains, and both power and powerlessness are used as mitigating circumstances. In the process morality is rendered meaningless—but then again, so also is justice.
In the end, power does not diminish, but rather magnifies the need for morality. The book of James says that not many should presume to teach, because we ought to know we will be judged more severely. Each week I stand and speak before a group of gathered Christians. I will answer for the incautious, misleading words I have spoken. You also will answer for your own misleading and incautious words to your friends, family, children, parents, and people online. But the Scriptures teach that my judgment will be more severe for the simple reason, I suggest to you, that my power has amplified my influence. If you sin, it affects you. If I sin, it affects my whole church. And as with me, so also with every human on earth—as our power increases, as we gain more access, more influence, a bigger platform, then our need for absolute morality increases as well. Power in no way mitigates morality; it only enhances our need for it.
Lastly, we cannot defer the need for moral growth to people in power and authority—each and every person is endowed with incredible power, and each and every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for his use of that power. And that means, from small to great alike, that it is essential for us to develop and grow our moral fiber. We must reject the myth of mitigating circumstances, resisting the urge to excuse our indiscretions through appeals to power in whatever form. This will create integrity, so that when we are presented with access to power, what is projected out to the people around us is an image of the Christlike moral core we have labored to build. Amazingly, from such a position even our failures become opportunities for leadership, because our confession and repentance are also projected by power to a wider audience. In this way the individual grace of God allotted to you can be magnified by the power of your position. In this way, Christ’s power is made perfect even in our weaknesses.