It’s been said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This statement was first penned by nineteenth century British historian Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton. The fuller written statement was this: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence instead of authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
The suggestion that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” was not a new idea or concept when Lord Acton first penned it, but he was the first person to make it famous.
Political power and authority (in particular) have often been in question throughout the history of western civilization. One of the guiding convictions for constructing the three branch government of the United States was in fact that too much political power in the hands of one political body, entity, or person often tends toward being oppressive toward its citizens. This has been the assumption for most western democracies as well over the last few hundred years.
Absolute power will corrupt absolutely.
But is having any power or authority, political or otherwise, a bad or evil thing to have in and of themselves? Perhaps something even to be avoided?
Your answer to those two questions say a lot about how you approach and view leadership in our world—on the political scene, in the work workplace, at home, and in our faith (church) communities.
Questions of power and authority touch every facet of society and church. Whatever we believe about leadership in our world will also reveal how we think leaders should or shouldn’t behave in our world.
Including, how they should or shouldn’t express their influence over others…
Their power over others…
Their authority over others…
Resolving whether or not “power tends to corrupt” is not entirely what I’m interested in this blog post, though an important thing to consider and discuss with others. What I am interested in is how power and authority are used today. I am also interested in how Jesus demonstrated his leadership and spoke into (and to) the leadership of his day.
Because the way people lead in our world affects others.
It affects you and it affects me.
Not only this, but regardless of how others lead, you and I (whether or not we are always consciously aware of it) also lead in some way or another. You may not have a position with political influence (but perhaps you do). You may not have a position with religious/spiritual influence in the lives of others (but perhaps you do).
If leadership is understood as a position of influence in the lives of others, then this topic is relevant to us all at various points.
Some might be asking, “What in the world does this have to do with Jesus?”
Simply put…a lot.
Contrary to contemporary popular church opinion, Jesus was a leader within a particular political, cultural, and religious context. His leadership cannot be understood apart from the context he lived and breathed in on a daily basis. In addition to this, both his lifestyle and his teaching spoke into (even confronted) those in power who held positions in both the religious and political spheres.
Let’s first look at how Jesus led as a leader and then touch on how he dealt with and spoke to people in power. You may notice as we go through them that these two seemingly separate categories are closely linked together.
Jesus the leader
1. First of all, Jesus was a servant leader. The way Jesus led was demonstrated by the way he served others.
Jesus both viewed himself as a servant leader and he lived this way. For example, Jesus said of himself “The son of man did not come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:45). One of the best examples of how he lived what he taught was the occasion he knelt down on the ground to wash his disciple’s feet. This is somewhat hard for most westerners to appreciate because many of us don’t know people who have jobs that include washing other people’s feet. Not in Jesus’ day. The servants, who were usually house slaves, would wash the feet of their masters and their master’s guests’ feet when they got home from a long journey or day’s work (historical point: the disciples and Jesus walked a lot from town to town on ancient dusty roads; paved roads did not exist). It’s clear that this was not Jesus’ job in his day (meaning he was not technically the house servant) because of the reaction he got from at least one of his disciples (John 13:1-17), but he did it anyway. There was no job too lowly for Jesus to do.
The second example I want to mention brings us back to the Mark passage already quoted. Read it again, “The son of man…came…to give his life as a ransom for many.” The ultimate or climactic way Jesus served was by his willingness and choice to serve his own people and the wider world by his death on a Roman cross.
2. Jesus taught others who wanted to follow him and his way to lead as servants too.
For example, he said “You know how it is in the pagan nations. Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave.” (Mark 10: 42-44). For Jesus, to follow his way of life meant not leading like everyone else, including the way both known political authorities and religious authorities led others. This is an important point because it is often neglected and missed by today’s political leaders (who BTW often claim to be Christians, at least in the US) and today’s Christian preachers.
According to Jesus, the way you lead should be demonstrated by the way you serve others.
Jesus the leader… confronts people in power
Jesus was not a communist, nor was he a capitalist. In fact those systems of thought did not exist in his day as much as people today would have you believe Jesus is or would have been one or the other had he lived in flesh and blood in our world today. In terms of his politics, Jesus was in some sense both a conservative in his day and in some sense a liberal in his day. He was both deeply rooted in the God of his forefathers and yet was also moving the story forward and reshaping it around his lifestyle, teaching, and death.
1. Jesus led by confronting the racism of religious “leaders” that was religiously–and to a large degree, socially–motivated. In fact, he went into neighborhoods he wasn’t supposed to be in and spoke with people not of his race when others of his community said he should not be talking to them (John 4, Mark 7:24-30).
2. Jesus helped restore the health of sick people on days that certain religious people deemed so “holy” that even God would not heal (Mark 3: 1-6), and he rebuked them for their actions that that supported their assumptions.
3. Jesus spoke against his own religious leadership for being hypocrites for a long list of hypocrisy they practiced regularly. He criticized them for prioritizing certain religious duties that he deemed not as important (and often exaggerated) to the neglect of helping and supporting the wholeness and well-being of others (Matthew 5:20-48, 6:1-7, 6:16-23, 7:1-5, 23- whole chapter).
4. Jesus spoke against the character and manner of leadership of the Jewish political authority in Galilee, King Herod Antipas (Luke 13:31-35).
In the Luke passage, some Pharisees warn (or perhaps mock) Jesus that King Herod Antipas is intending to kill Jesus, and Jesus responds to them saying, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Look here: I’m casting out demons today and tomorrow, and completing my healings, I’ll be finished by the third day [speaking of his resurrection]. But I have to continue my travels today, tomorrow, and the day after that! It couldn’t happen that a prophet would perish except in Jerusalem.'” The metaphor “fox” could hypothetically mean a number of things, but based on the very things Jesus says next in this passage (that the suggestion Herod is out to kill him would not deter him from continuing his work), calling Herod a “fox” seems more likely a way of calling him an impostor. In ancient Jewish thought, one of the metaphorical uses of the word “fox” was in comparison to lions. In other words, if a person was a fox and not a lion, they were not the real thing; they were an impostor. Jesus, then, would be saying Herod is in some sense an impostor ruler and his authority will not deter Jesus from finishing his work.
5. Jesus spoke against the method and manner of leadership of the Romans (Mark 10:42-45).
Now it’s true that Jesus may not have made a regular habit of speaking out against the Romans explicitly (meaning verbally). In fact, there are historical grounds for saying that he didn’t as a rule primarily because he knew that doing so would speed up the process for when he’d be crucified. You couldn’t speak out against Rome as a political or religious figure for any long duration without feeling their wrath. Neither is that to say Jesus was weak and afraid of the Romans. It simply means that he was calculated when he did so. He spoke out against the method of the Romans leadership implicitly at least on a couple recorded occasions (as I showed above). We could add that his very lifestyle itself confronted the way they demonstrated leadership. Whereas Jesus practiced servant leadership; they practiced oppressive, violent and manipulative leadership.
The larger point though that I am making is not that Jesus confronted authority. Although, yes I am making that point too—and Christians today need to recognize that if there was a place in Jesus’ life and theology for confronting both religious and political powers (who BTW are sometimes in bed with each other) appropriately and non-violently, then perhaps followers of Jesus should take a serious look at how we might also do the same in today’s political and religious climate. Not as “Conservatives” or “Liberals” but as followers of Jesus and his way of life. With humility and forthrightness–which is often not the case today.
My larger point, however, is that Jesus led people by serving them. And the central way for understanding his servant-hood is by his brutal death on a Roman cross. He did not lead people by bullying them, bossing people around, or leading an all out war against them (as many political powers do today–yes, even in my own country). In fact, part of his critique of the governing authorities (both religious and political) was that they were not leading people in this way.
Jesus would rather love, pray for, and die for his enemies than lead a violent revolt and kill them.
Let me be clear though; Jesus was not a people-pleaser enslaved to every whim of his fan club. Rather, Jesus did things that were for people’s ultimate good and for their sake, not simply because they asked him to do something for him. He brought people to health—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Yes, it was in God’s name and for God’s glory.
But according to Jesus, God’s glory and kingdom is (or should be) about serving people.
Jesus was for people
“The son of man did not come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many.’”
Scripture passages are taken from The Kingdom New Testament translated by New Testament scholar Nicholas Thomas Wright (Harper One, 2011). The information on John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton was taken from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Emerich-Edward-Dalberg-Acton-1st-Baron-Acton (last updated Jan. 6, 2019) and https://acton.org/research/lord-acton-quote-archive (2019) both retrieved on February 13, 2019.