I recently read an interesting piece by Brennan Manning, a recovering alcoholic who wrote some fine Christian books marked through with 12 step wisdom. In it he said that most of our personal battles are about us seeking security, pleasure or power. Whilst I willingly plead guilty to the first two, it has taken me a lot longer to recognise that I am also guilty of wanting power – the speck in other people’s eyes is always much easier to see than the log in my own. Most of the time I do a fairly good job of convincing myself (and maybe others) that I am a fair and benevolent person who shares what power I have and only wants a little power in order to add to the greater good. Which is true. But there is a less comfortable side, because power is always about control – control of what I want, what I do, what I experience, what I have. The corollary of this is controlling others so that these and perhaps more hidden needs of mine get met. It is very hard to see where the cross-over between wanting to do good and benefit others becomes a justification to satisfy my personal needs for power and control.
The reason I can get glimpses of my interest in power through the cloak of innocence that normally hides it, is that other people come clean about their own relationship with power and I see myself in their stories. Sometimes too, people close to me have the courage to shed a spotlight of objectivity onto my actions and self-perceptions. The reality is that I do want power and when I don’t have it, I’m envious of those who do, whether through their schooling, their jobs, their connections, their political positions or through their income, wealth and resources, especially when they seem to misuse it – measured of course by my yardstick of what’s right and wrong. Even as I write (and perhaps because I am writing on this subject) I am wrestling with a decision about my continued membership of a group which has moved away from doing the things which first got me involved and which I no longer really believe in. Do I leave and move on? I am beginning see that it is the power and prestige of membership which is the biggest attraction to my remaining. And of course the silky voice of temptation provides me with a number of very reasonable justifications for doing nothing and staying put.
We cannot get away from the harmfulness of power. Power does change us, and power can corrupt us. Where there is abuse, it always exists in the shadow of power; power that is misused, deliberately and through ignorance or weakness. Physical and sexual abuse, racial abuse, exclusion of individuals and groups who do not fit in, the creation of actions and behaviours to gain compliance are all based on power dynamics. Power structures underpin the Church, and the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse of countless individuals over the centuries bear witness to the damage that misused power can cause. Power inflates our egos and self-importance – research has shown that individuals rise to positions of authority by being collaborative and selfless but once they reach a high rung on the leadership ladder, many become coercive, impulsive and self-centred.
In the 12 step fellowships, there is a strong recognition of the damaging nature of power. The grounded checks of the 12 traditions have helped to safeguard the programmes from the excesses of power. As tradition 2 says, “our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” There are no chiefs in AA or NA, no central directives or authority, no managing group or Board. No opportunity for power to be misused. Group conscience decides what individual meetings will do and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most people would say that this is a recipe for anarchy and yet it works in 12 step fellowships – the core principles of AA remain as they were 80 years ago and it is because it is uncorrupted by power that it remains as effective as ever with no agenda except to carry the message.
Jesus had a unique take on power. He saw the abuses of power, he declined to accept the trappings of power and many of the accounts of his life in the gospels relate to the verbal duels he had with the religious authorities who held enormous power, in spite of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Eventually he was killed because he challenged these powerful and influential men who saw him as a threat. In the account of his wilderness temptations early in his ministry, he rejected power as a way of being, let alone how he would communicate his message, and he consistently rejected the offer of power over the three years that he taught and healed. Even in the days and hours leading up to his death he refused to buy into it. Towards the end he rebuked Peter for using a sword, he did not try to ingratiate himself with the High Priest, Pontius Pilate the Governor or King Herod, and he accepted the nails and the hours of dying agonisingly on a wooden cross. Jesus came into the world to share a new type of power – power based upon compassion, honesty, sharing and transparency that the world has never really liked. He was the Servant King. And sadly, in spite of this example, Christianity has yet to redefine power in the way that Jesus showed us.
None of this is to say that power in itself is inherently bad or indeed that any society has ever existed without a power structure of sorts, but if power corrupts as it surely does, then institutions and individuals need to create safeguards to prevent the harm that unchecked power will cause. So how do we build in actions, checks and systems to prevent us misusing the power we have? Firstly, since a sense of power is associated with a growing urge to gratify our own desires, an easy starting point is to question whether we ever use our positions of power to feed the other two areas of indulgence (security and pleasure) identified by Brennan Manning. As a starting point, resisting the temptation to gratify our desires would massively reduce the destructive impact of power in every context, personal and institutional. Building in some sort of system of review and reflection on our actions is useful. We are more likely to abuse power when we don’t have anyone who will constructively criticise our actions, so having someone outside our positions of power (a mentor, sponsor, spiritual director) who we are honest with and accountable to and who is not afraid to give us honest feedback is so important. As Anne Lamott bluntly says, “Since we can’t heal our own sick mind with our own sick mind, we need to consult somebody else’s sick mind to help us.” It is undoubtedly true that when we have to explain our actions to someone else, we will think twice about what we do. (so long as we can manage to avoid trying to manipulate or control them to give us the answer we want!) External checks are necessary too for large organisations. Finally, and possibly most important of all, we need to be servants in everything we do. Whatever our position but most especially if we hold a position of power, serving others with compassion, consideration and kindness will help to stop us becoming self-absorbed and seeing other people as objects to use for our own ends. As Jesus said to his disciples on the evening before his death, after he had taken on the role of a common servant and washed their feet, “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Power based on service that is shaped by compassion, honesty and sharing becomes benign and the power of love overrules the love of power, making the world a better place.
Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Montesquieu
Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. Anne Lamott
Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. Carl Jung
Good people tend to be naïve about power; bad people aren’t – they know it’s all about power. Richard Rohr
The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again. Power corrupts, and when you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not. George Lucas
Power always thinks that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws. John Adams