Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Power Corrupts"?

If you had asked me a year ago if I agreed with the popular saying "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," I would have said no: the Bible teaches that all of us, from Pharaoh on his throne to the slave girl at her hand mill, are born corrupt; the thoughts of our hearts are only evil continually, and our hearts are so evil that we can't even know how evil they are (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Jer 17:9); what power does is remove the barriers to the exercise of that corruption.

That much is true, but there is more to it. I've become convinced that earthly power, especially the politial power spoken of in the aphorism, is like the power of the Holy Spirit: it enables us to conform our lives to the desires of our hearts.

Sanctification, the process by which God makes us holy and fit for his use, is the reversal of corruption. The biblical view of sanctification is that there are two sides to it, what a layman might call the legal and the practical. When I became a Christian, God declared me not only justified and righteous—that is, legally forgiven of my sins and a citizen of heaven—but also sanctified, delivered from the domination of my sins. My standing before God in all respects is that of Jesus Christ.

Since then, of course, I have sinned. I have even committed sins since becoming a Christian that I had not committed before becoming a Christian. But "God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction" (Gal 6:7-8). One thing that keeps me in the Christian camp when I have such deep and passionate disagreements with what I see Christians doing is seeing for myself that while forgiveness is indeed easier to get than permission, it comes with maintenance costs that make permission preferable.

And this is where the second, practical, aspect of sanctification comes in: God works with us to get us to hate our sin, at least at a basic level because we see that it is not profitable, but later and more importantly because it grieves God and keeps sinners who need the grace of Christ from turning to Christ. As he works in our hearts, we become practically what we are legally: like Christ, soul mates with Christ.

If the effects of political power on the human heart are not plain to you from looking at the history of our nation, maybe an analogy will help. This analogy will concern influence, not power, but the dynamics are the same. (Before doing so, let me remind those readers who do not equate extramarital sex with corruption that the common "barnyard" terms for such are also used to mean "to mistreat" and suggest that the synonymity is grounded in fact.)

Think of a teenage boy on a date. For the first few minutes, all he wants out of life is to hold his girl's hand. But after a few minutes of that, he wants to put his arm around her. But after a few minutes of that he wants to kiss her.

Of course, he may have asked her out in the first place because he wanted to kiss her. So so far, there's been no change in his attitude. But what happens after they've been kissing for a while? Even if other activities hadn't been on the to-do list before he asked her out, they will certainly be on it then. And the likelihood of his attempting to engage in them will be directly related to his perceived chances of success, and for each milestone successfully passed another goal will present itself.

It is this desire, which was not there previously, that I consider corruption brought on by successful influence. Put another way, we will do whatever we can get away with, if we think we'll benefit from it.

So what?

The impetus for this post came from an exchange with a Christian brother who writes, "How does the world’s only super power hide [by being like the Swiss]? ... I don't think a superpower can prevent itself from being attacked by staying home."

If Christians believe that power corrupts, is it not reasonable for them to ask if "the world's only super power" has a problem with corruption?

I would suggest that like that teenage boy, "we" are doing things today that weren't on the to-do list years ago: "just following orders," torturing innocents, imprisoning without trial, groping children at airports, bombing civilians, starting colonial wars to control natural resources, and saddling the unborn with debt. Why? Because, also like that boy, we've been getting away with doing these things in smaller doses for so long we consider it our right to do more. And most importantly, who's going to stop the world's only superpower?

"We" are becoming practically what "we" are legally: rebels against God and enemies of all that's good.

At least the teenage boy in the analogy is not using force. If his girl says no, that's that; he can get out of the car, lift up the back end until his hormones return to default levels, and get on with life. And if she decides that a guy who would even want to exceed the limits she has set is not for her, she can end the relationship.

Not so those who want to end their relationship with Uncle Sam.

If we as Christians have little sympathy for the teenage boy, how much less sympathy should we have for Uncle Sam? And if we don't want our sons to emulate that boy, how much less should we want them to be Uncle Sam's agents?