The two sides of Power


In staff meeting today we listened to a Tim Keller sermon on political power (I wonder how many private practice psychology staff meetings do something neat like this!) from the text of Jesus conversations with Pilate. In talking about political power, Keller quoted Vaclav Havel on the topic. You can find Havel’s quote herewithin a speech he made after receiving the Sonning Prize in 1991. This speech was designed to answer these two questions:

“Why is it that people long for political power, and why, when they have achieved it, are they so reluctant to give it up?” 

I don’t have it exactly as either Keller or Havel said it, but both were making this point:

1. We want to use power in the service of all that is true, good, and right. We want to use power to better the world. While some may use power from the get-go for evil purposes, most do not.

2. But we also wan to use power in the service of self. Havel talks about use of power for self-affirmation. Self-affirmation, Havel says, is not “essentially reprehensible” but human. But without suspicious self-examination, a slippage happens–something like this, it makes sense that my important work means I get special privileges in order to do my work well. But then I begin to lose the difference between being enabled to do my job better and the self-affirmation that I so desperately crave.”

Regardless of how pure his intentions may originally have been, it takes a high degree of self-awareness and critical distance for someone in power–however well-meaning at the start–to recognize that moment [when we stop caring about the state and start only caring about self-affirmation]

I see similarities outside of power. When I counsel someone long silenced through abuse and neglect, I see someone who is readily aware of the impact of abuse of power. When that person develops their voice, they begin to exert power for the sake of truth, goodness, and all that is right. They say no to further abuse; they raise their voice so as to be heard. They learn to use power to draw proper boundaries. But like all, it is easy to use the power for self-affirmation and self-protection. It is easy to argue for its goodness and rightness and to become blind to the demanding side of self-affirmation.

Power is good, but humans with power must be vigilant to avoid the corruption. Vaclav Havel recognizes the need to stay vigilant. John Adams recognized the inherent corruption of power as he designed the separation of powers for the USA. And we look to Jesus who willingly gives up his right to power but uses his power to sacrifice himself for our sake.

Good to think about in this season of elections. Pray we have leaders who will question their tendency to self-affirmation. And pray that each of us uses power for justice and not for self alone.

3 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Cultural Anthropology, Great Quotes, News and politics, self-deception

3 responses to “The two sides of Power

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    How one uses power (of any amount, or in any situation) is a reflection of both the dignity of being made in God’s image, and the depravity resultant from the Fall. Power of any sort (defined as efficacious influence over others) is a stewardship, originally given to Adam and Eve to rule over creation. Power once was a tool with which to glorify and serve God, and (like everything else) became a means to an end to achieve equality with God. Apart from the intervention of God, power acquired will always eventually degenerate into a ploy to establish personal godhood and the illusion of independence from the true God. I see it plainly in the abused and neglected children with which I work. Their rage and resentment toward those who abused them gives rise to all sorts of irrational and immoral ploys to achieve the illusion of power today (assault, sexually using others, lying, manipulating others, etc.) to somehow assuage the nagging sense that they’re powerless. I think the pathology that presents so clearly in those we treat is just a more magnified form of depravity that haunts and hounds all of us, particularly those in governmental politics, who (like all of us) continue to carry the legacy of a fallen Adam in their being wherever they go.

  2. I do not see power as being good or evil in and of itself; it is the way it is used and the ends to which it is put that make power good or evil. Power is not only restricted to those who find themselves in positions of political leadership, but is an inevitable part of any human relationship. In your role as a psychotherapist you are in a position of power over your clients, but your intention, I am sure, is to use that power to help your clients and to empower them.

    I work as a nurse in a forensic psychiatric unit. My clients are in the unit because of their behavioural disturbances. For safety reasons the freedom of the clients is severely restricted. Thus I find myself in a position of power over them. The challenge for me is to use that power in a constructive way, to keep both my clients and members of the public safe.

    The history of psychiatric institutions is littered with stories of abuse where staff have used the power given to them by the state against those of whom they were suppose to look after. In my work I am aware of this history and also the temptations to misuse the power given to me, especially when dealing with a difficult interaction. Self-awareness and self reflection are critical tools that keep me safe and ensure that I use the power given to me in a constructive way.

  3. deluxe says : I absolutely agree with this !

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