Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 18, 2018

Power and its abuses

Recently, Hillary Clinton gave an interview in which she was asked if President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was an abuse of power. She responded, “No.” And, “She was an adult.”

I’m not surprised that the former first lady wants to defend her husband and his legacy, but this answer is just plain wrong. The abuse of power is when a person in leadership uses the power of the position to gain something inappropriate.

By that definition, when someone in power takes advantage of the trust of a person who doesn’t hold as much power, even if the person being taken advantage of consents, then that power has been abused. The leader of the free world having a consensual affair with an intern is the very picture of power abuse. So is a religious leader (imam, rabbi, priest, pastor) having an affair with a member of the congregation, or a CEO sleeping with an office worker, or a politician who has sex with a staff member, or a college professor in a relationship with a student.

Sex is one way humans abuse power, there are many others. Power is abused when a child is ripped from a mother’s arms by a government official, then the same five-year-old child is coerced into signing away her rights on a document she can’t possibly understand. Power is abused when senators refuse to accept a credible story of assault, while the person accused of the assault—an already powerful man—is praised for his abusive language toward both the accuser and members of the Senate, then given an even more powerful position. Power is abused when a religious leader lives a lavish lifestyle with the funds provided by congregants, or tells those congregants they can’t think for themselves. Power is abused when a person prohibits a life partner from expressing a point of view, or causes that partner deep emotional trauma and pain. Power is abused when elected officials refuse to provide clean water and air, or access to reasonably priced healthcare, for their constituents. Power is abused when the current leader of the free world lies generously and without impunity, or brags about committing sexual assault.

Why am I talking about this topic in a faith blog? Jesus talked about power’s abuses more than you might think.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [From Mark 10]

Power is a thing. There will always be people who have more power than others, as it has been in every society. From military leaders to elected or appointed officials. From bosses to social workers. From religious leaders to executives of non-profits to police officers. From parents to educators. Yes, power is honestly important to the ordering of human society. But how we use power is more important than the power itself.

I haven’t stopped being amazed that many people who love to quote Jesus also support the abuse of power in many of its forms. As long as they get something they want (an end to a woman’s right to choose, personal elevation, a tax cut for the wealthy, reducing health care coverage for someone else, etc.), they will excuse anything. And I mean just about anything. Financial misconduct. Abusive language and lying. Separating children from their parents. Deep racism and exceptionalism. Nationalism. Sexual misconduct or assault. Neglect of the poor. Misogyny. Outright hatred.

When James and John approach Jesus, they ask to have the kind of power he has, the kind of power they assume he can give away. “You don’t know what you’re asking. You haven’t yet figured out where my power, my leadership, originates.” “It’s okay,” they say. “We can do whatever you need us to do. Just give it to us.” “Well, okay then,” says Jesus.

What they don’t understand—indeed, what’s difficult for any of us to understand—is that Jesus’ power comes from the cup of suffering and the baptism of death. Are they willing to give up what most people see as power (prestige, money, doing what you want, coercing underlings to do things they may not wish to do, privilege, being above the laws and norms of society) for the kind of Jesus power they’ll soon see? That power is shown in weakness, suffering, death, being with and elevating the status of the poor and sick, elevating the status of women and children.

Jesus power—real, effective power—lies in being a servant. We exhibit it when we act like Jesus, not when we act like abusive leaders.

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

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