We were in the Pergamon Museum in East Berlin, just a few months after the fall of the wall. The young woman with us was walking around, enjoying the artifacts, but bottle-feeding her baby at the same time.
Bolting from the corner of the largely empty room, a small but sturdy East German security lady hurried across the room to inform our friend that under no circumstances could she walk around the museum and feed her baby at the same time! When we asked politely what the problem was, she just simply repeated a little firmer and louder that it was verboten!
rather, I suspect this was a person with a little power using it against Westerners who had been their enemy for her whole life. She was making a statement with the power given to her!
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” isn’t that the way the common wisdom is stated! We’ve all seen the little Napoleons or the church leader turned despot. The distrust of people in power creates chaos eventually as the avoidance of power almost becomes a virtue.
A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and authored by Katherine A DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, argues that the abuse of power is not inherent in the power itself, but correlates more with the “moral identity” of the person with power.
As reported in the Smithsonian (October 2012), the researchers asked two large groups (173 & 102) to rate first how important they thought the following attributes were to their sense of self: caring, compassionate, fair, generous, and others. Those who counted such attributes more important were defined as those with a high moral identity.
Then each group was asked to perform a task: the first to recall and write about an incident or activity when they felt powerful. The second group was asked to write about an ordinary day.
For the final activity to test the use of power, the two groups were told that they shared a pool of 500 points from which they could take zero to ten points for themselves. The more points each person took, the greater was his/her personal chance to win a $100 lottery. IF, however, they took too many points, then all the points would vanish and the lottery would be cancelled—no one would get anything. But no one knew how many too many points was!
The people who had written about an ordinary day took an average of 6.5 points each, while those who had been asked to think of themselves as powerful took 7.5 points, probably about what the researchers expected to find.
Those in the group, however, who had the highest moral identity scores only took 5.5 points on average.
The rest of the study goes on to show that those with the high moral identity scores took the effect on other people into consideration and let it influence their own choices more than those with lower moral identity scores.
The “power” group with lower moral identity scores also said they were more likely to have cheated at work than the passive group OR the power group with high moral identity scores.
What the study seems to be saying is that power must not corrupt, but that if you are inclined to be corrupt, power will corrupt you! If you have a strong sense of moral integrity, then power can actually be a helpful and positive tool.
So in ministry and church leadership, we probably should NOT focus on Power itself as the work of the devil, but on developing a more Christ-like heart in potential leaders, then looking for those with a strong sense of caring and compassion when we are searching for leaders.
Power did not corrupt Jesus—who has ALL authority. He exercised power in harmony with God’s will for the good of all. He also refrained from exercising power for the good of all.
The more Christ-filled we are, the more we may understand that power does not corrupt. The lack of caring and compassion—very unChrist-like traits—corrupt.