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.