The Game of Power

Due to last minute demands in getting my new book to press, I have been somewhat remiss since posting my last article. I apologize for this delay and hope you will all be anxious to peruse that forthcoming work titled Word Without End: The Mass ~ Splendor of the Incarnation which should be available by the end of April. The sub-script on the cover of the book, “How the Power of Love conquers man’s Love of Power” leads us directly into today’s topic. You may ask, “But what connection is there between the Incarnation and a discussion of human power?”

First I would propose that the most intoxicating substance known to man is neither alcohol, nor any drug, nor even money or pleasure. Enticing as those things can be, I still suspect that the most addictive intoxicant around is power, because power represents the ability to bend other things, and even persons, to one’s own will. And the desire for power can become a great hook that lures us in to any number of transgressions. Human beings at every level worship power, whether it be technological power (bigger SUVs, smarter computers, more powerful weapons), social and political power (fame, popularity, influence), economic power (lots of money), or even the power of a gang able to instill fear and terror. We tend to hold people with any kind of power in adulation and try to imitate them.And it is not just corrupt or bad people who are enamored of power but good and decent people as well.

Many good people are equally mesmerized by the desire for fame, money, or perhaps intellectual superiority because they feel that they could do so much good for others and for the world.with these forms of power. St. Thomas Aquinas called these predictable human appetites “concupiscence.” He named four of these appetites: wealth, pleasure, honor, and power – but the greatest of these is power. And it’s not just billionaires and ambitious politicians who crave power. We all share that very-human lust for power to one degree or another. Helicopter moms busy controlling their kid’s every movement, the micromanaging boss at the office, the obsessively jealous husband, or even the little nun trying to run her convent like Stalag 13 are no less addicted to power than a Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. There have surely been moments in which all of us have tried to exert our own power over others, and that is just as true of good Christian folk as any other group of individuals.

That is not to say that every use of power is somehow tainted with malevolent design or self-interest. God, after all, gave us certain powers to use as wisely and well as we should. Not every use of power is an abuse. But we are reminded that power, like our sexuality, is something that must be exercised discreetly and with much forethought, otherwise we may seriously damage other people and even ourselves.Even keeping this in mind, the proper use of power can be like trying to steer a yoke of mad bulls in a straight line. It’s easier said than done, even for the wisest man. A famous Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, “Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power.”  Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned by the easy willingness of Christians to defer to secular power, whether it be economic, social, or political. Even today it is hard not to notice how often clerics and even bishops prefer to hob knob with their wealthiest parishioners, celebrity academics, and various politico types. Sometimes the Church more resembles a country club than a refuge of sinners. This fact reflects basic human nature, because there are some things that putting a collar around one’s neck rarely changes.

Bonhoeffer, who lived in Nazi Germany, observed this very trait among his fellow clergy. Eventually martyred by Hitler’s S.S. for holding fast to his Christian convictions, Bonhoeffer was appalled by the apparent indifference to the horrors of Nazism by a majority of Germany’s Christian population. How was it that people who had been raised Christian were so unwilling to resist Hitler’s Satanic regime, much less to actually risk their lives for the truth – as many ancient Christians had done in pagan Rome? In fact, many people admired Hitler for no other reason than that he commanded virtually limitless power.For Bonhoeffer the answer to their apparent indifference was what he termed “cheap grace.” Always having lived in a Christian culture, their inherited Faith had cost them little to acquire in the first place, and so they held it cheap.

In ancient times people had lived in darkness for countless millennia so that when Christ finally appeared with his redemptive grace, a tired pagan world was thereby revived. After the horrors of a dark world dominated by brute force, idols, demons, and even human sacrifice, the Christian message of hope and salvation was able to resonate widely. The Power of Love which the Incarnation represented actually had the power to change human hearts. (It still does if we will only let it.) Christianity eventually replaced the barbarism that had too long been the common lot of men who could only love and respect power. Christianity established a new norm, the love of God and neighbor, wherever it was allowed to spread and acted as a civilizing agent. Gradually mankind crawled out of the abject darkness of sin into that brilliant light which is the light of Christ. In time this light fomented a Christian civilization that became the world’s envy.

Today the tables have been reversed. We now live in an age of social, economic, and technological innovation. The power of the intellect has been unleashed. Then again, many Christians have wearied of the old Faith even as mankind masters the manipulation of nature. Power has again become the new “grace” as it had once been in the Roman world. The former grace of Christ may now seem “cheap” to many because it was freely inherited, whereas this new grace called “power,” hard won through mankind’s scientific and technological prowess, is held in higher esteem. Modern man has thus become inebriated with political, military, and economic power; even his power to manipulate nature. Yet this ultimately represents little more than a return to man’s old pagan roots.

But that kind of power cannot save us from our sins, nor can it restore one’s life once death has claimed the body. Human power could not preserve the Roman Empire, it did not save Nazi Germany, nor will it insure that today’s masters of the world maintain their control indefinitely. Corruption always sets in over time to bring down all worldly powers. Our self-absorbed civilization is no different. We may soon expect to again experience those murky depths of depravity which history has ever shown mankind to be frightfully capable; that is if we no longer appreciate the true and inestimable value of God’s grace.

We have already received the greatest of all possible graces, which is God’s Incarnation revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. What Christ proved to the world through his Crucifixion and Resurrection is this: the Power of Love is the greatest of all powers because Love is God and God is Love. His power alone is capable of elevating man to eternal life. The Power of Love in fact defeats man’s love of power; and the Cross is the supreme manifestation of that reality. Incarnate Love has forever transformed a fallen world and now brings it to its completion.

There is nothing “cheap” about God’s love for mankind ─ and the Incarnation is proof positive of his enduring love, which we may experience personally through that most visible sign of love which is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we behold the Incarnation ─ and the Power of Love ─ which alone is able to cure mankind of its insatiable lust for power, and all the misery which it entails. The Mass continuously offers us the divine help we so desperately need to conquer that dark side of our nature. It manifests Jesus, the true Word Without End, and in doing so it reveals the true Splendor of the Incarnation.

Fran Pierson  +a.m.d.g.

1 thought on “The Game of Power

  1. Brilliant! I can’t imagine anyone reading this not facing the love of power in their own lives. This is the first time I’ve ever thought about the need to balance these two irreconcilable forces. Thanks.


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