Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 324
December 7, 1998

Power Tends to Corrupt

My luncheon companion expressed concern over his church's exceptionally talented minister and the genuine adulation of church members: "What might this be doing to him?" His concern was not unwarranted. Power over others, even if uncoerced and even if used in genuine compassion and service, places a person in perilous straits.

The British historian Lord Acton gives the reason for such peril: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (written to a bishop regarding the 1870 promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility).

Power is so pernicious because its corruption of good intentions is so subtle and its consequences so destructive. Obtaining a position because of talent or knowledge easily leads to a person thinking all exercises in judgement and performance are right and obviously superior to that of others. A compliment feels good, but abundant compliments easily skew one's self-judgement, making even a friendly nay-sayer easily dismissed. The protective shell around a powerful person thickens steadily--an office behind secretarial staff, additional professional staff, those attaching themselves to the coattails of a rising star, and finally security--isolating the person from others. Of Jim Bakker, it was written that he had manufactured a business with an adjustable moral compass; if the ministry did something, then it must be ethical.

Power corrupting is not limited to the leader of a country, the president of a corporation or the preacher of a multi-thousand-member church. It is evident in parents' attempt to dominate in power struggles: "You do this (only) because I tell you to," and when children are used to meet parental needs.

There is the subtle corruption that is seen even in the members of church committees. Given an important task, one's own judgement, or the judgement of the group, takes precedence over organizational consensus because others just "don't understand things the way we do."

All along the spectrum of human endeavors, Lord Acton's dictum is at work. The reason is that we humans are inveterate idol-makers, making idols of ourselves and idolizing others, an activity that infects church folk as well as national politicians.

Still, Lord Acton wrote that power tends to corrupt (only absolute power corrupts absolutely). Maintaining humility about oneself and avoiding arrogance toward others keeps corruption from slipping into automatic.

This is why those in power need our heartfelt prayers along with our accolades.

--Robert H. Tucker
7 December 1998

© Robert H. Tucker, 1998.
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