Power Failure

by

 

David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!”
~2 Samuel 23:15

This passage reminded me of “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The quote attributed to Henry the II of England in reference to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 CE.

Imagine my surprise when I read to the end of the Mission Clare entry for Friday’s daily office and found that December 29th is the day of commemoration for Thomas Becket.

I find it interesting that both David and Henry II call out wishfully for something difficult, impossible, or unwise and a select few of their followers take it upon themselves to act upon that wish.

It further reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Kissinger,

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
~NYT 1973

I think it is more than that. I think power can induce a state of euphoria and a feeling of being invincible, not only in the wielders of power, but in their circle of sycophants.

I saw the movie “Becket” (1964) when I was a young teen. I only retain two impressions of the film. One was the murder of Becket and the other was the idea that Henry II had wanted the death of Becket but was only able to hint about his desires due to his own sense of the constraints on his power.

In the Old Testament reading I see a warning of how the euphoric nature of being near to power could be abused, but how David tries to check such abuse in his response to the warrior’s self-appointed quest.

Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, “The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.
~2 Samuel 23:16-17

The warriors risked their lives to bring David the longed-for water and instead of drinking it himself he gives it as a sacrifice to God. To drink it himself would be to encourage other ‘warriors’ and people around him to take his every wish as a command in the future. This would force him to watch every word he spoke and would constrain him from asking for advice in the future. If every wish or question was turned into action by followers all would descend into chaos. At the same time by making the water a gift to the Lord, David acknowledged the sacrifice and risk the warriors had made.

Power wielded by humans is fraught with the the possibility for abuse both by the person in power and by people near to them who want to benefit from that power. In everything from money to sex, from power for its own sake, to a desire to control power and relationships to power can spiral out of control if those who would curry favor take action whose only purpose is to please those in power.

It is short-term thinking at it’s worst and does not allow leaders to be fallible humans. Any time one person holds power over others, we need both sides to be accountable for their actions.

Those in power need to set a watch on themselves and be careful what they ask for and what favors they accept.

Those near to power need to be able to say ‘no’ to requests by those in power and society as a whole needs to be able to back them in their right to say no to people who are on the path to being corrupted by power

In our own society now we are finally seeing the damage the powerful can do. We have seen vulnerable populations abused by powerful (mostly) men. This abuse, while frequently sexual in nature, always had at it’s heart power and control over others.

We will never know how many promising lives and careers were cut short by powerful abusers and their caretakers. How many people were damaged by contact with power that was out of control.

It is never just the one powerful person that does the damage. It is the people around them who feel they can’t say ‘no’, is is the people who wish to be that powerful who find ways to say ‘yes’ to enable the abuse, and it is the person who doesn’t believe ‘their friend’ could ever do this because ‘their friend’ never did it in front of them. All of these people conspire to silence victims and perpetuate the cycle of abuse and some of those people are us.

It is tempting when in proximity to power to become wrapped up in it, to see that power as the only way to achieve one’s ends and to accept the idea that to have access to that power one must curry favor.

There will always be people who are willing to exploit this tunnel vision to gain power and control over others. The only way to stop it is to call it out when we see it– especially when we see it manifesting in ourselves.

“My friend would never do that.” “The organization will fail without him.” “He is the only one who can get this done.” “That person is a genius so we have to put up with them.”

These are are warning signs that we are getting too close to power for our own good and too wrapped in in there being only one way forward (that includes sweeping abuse under the rug).

Power can corrupt absolutely but it can also corrupt slowly. Prayer and ritual can be a bulwark against the slow poison of power. The ritual of confession and communion can pull us back from the temptations of power if used mindfully. We can measure our own changes against the unchanging nature of God.

As one of Martin Luther’s hymns goes:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.

Power and the abuse of it by both the powerful and those who would curry favor, is certainly a human failing. May God be our bulwark against it and may forever see our own true weakness and guard against it with God’s grace.

 


 

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

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