The Corrosion of Power
Another day, another name. In what is already being called the “Weinstein Era”, every day brings an additional name (or names) to the list of those facing accusations from a growing number of alleged victims, no longer content to be silent against the power they once feared. The old adage that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to be too often the ugly truth, in any of these cases where the allegations are true.
While I hope that none of us are guilty of such horrid behavior, our Christian faith never allows us to stand in a place of moral superiority smugly looking down on others, no matter how low their behavior. Even if we are not guilty of harassment at the level seen in these numerous case, we should ask ourselves, “How has power corrupted me?” If absolute power corrupts absolutely, how has the minimal power we all enjoy corrupted us, in great or even small ways? Power is tricky and a little insidious. We can operate on it, as the prayer says “with knowledge or in ignorance.” We can do so in ways that are obvious to us and to others or subtle ways. These ways can vary. As parents, “because I said so” can be a lesson in the proper respect of one’s elders, or it can just be a little power trip. As coworkers, the absence of a “please” or “thank you” or sometimes even simply the sharpness of our tone can betray the sense of our own perceived superiority. Whether at the grocery store checkout stand or buying our preferred coffee at Starbucks or Biggby, does our outward demeanor (or even our internal attitude) display an unspoken sense of our own relative power with regard to those who are are paid to serve us?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we will notice the evidence of the “rust” present in our lives, showing the corrosive effect of our own perceived power. Not surprisingly, the solution to this problem – like the solutions to all problems – is to follow the way of Christ. He was, is, and forever shall be the most powerful Being. Ever. Yet even calling Him “powerful” or even “the Almighty” is insufficient in quantifying His power, in relation to our own. And yet, He exercises His power by becoming powerless, for us and for our salvation. The pinnacle of His self-emptying was seen most clearly on the Cross. But was first seen in his appearance on Earth as a helpless baby, being born in a donkey’s feed trough. The way of salvation that He paved for us was not by the execution of His power but in emptying Himself of it. And our way of obtaining that salvation will be the same.
In all the ways, both large and small, that we have let even our limited power begin to corrode and corrupt us, the solution is to follow the way of Christ. We must emptying ourselves of whatever little power we have and become what Jesus called the greatest any person could be: the servant of all. Finding the corrosion from power in our lives might be difficult due to our reluctance to see it, but it’s not hard to see. And the test for it is simple: in every relationship we can think of, from close family to distant acquaintances, to strangers we meet, ask yourself the one question that will manifest the hidden corrosion of power: Do I serve others, or do I see them as serving me? A servant always serves the master. And the master has all the power and the servant has none. Why else would so many victims now coming forward each day in scandal after scandal have suffered so long in the silent shame of their victimization? Listen to them and the answer is simple: They thought they had no choice. They needed the “goodwill” of those who they saw as so powerful that they felt they had to serve, as any servant serves any master.
We will only see the rust which manifests the corrosion of power when we accept any and all instances where we imagined anyone as existing to serve us. In the Christian life, we serve a God who lived—and died—to serve us. If we choose freely to call Him Lord, His only expectation is that as we have been served by Him, we in turn live our lives in service to others. When we see others as existing to serve us, we claim a power He does not grant us and that power corrodes.
In this season of revelation of so much abuse of power, let us let a different Season—that of the Birth of our Savior—challenge us to see the truth in ourselves. We celebrate His Birth and the salvation He brings by imitating in our lives the emptying of power He taught by His.
If we’re willing to see the rust from power’s corrosive effects on us, the good news is we’re not stuck with it. Through the Sacrament of Holy Confession, we can have this rust removed simply by bringing it to God and asking for its removal. Many times, we’re not sure what we can confess. We could fill many good Confessions with the truthful answer to the question: Do I serve others or do I see them as serving me?
As we approach another Thanksgiving Day, let’s be thankful for a God who saves us by serving us. Let’s be thankful for those whom we have been entrusted to serve. And let’s thank Him for removing the corrosion of power through Holy Confession and restoring us to the incorrupt life that He created us to live.