We’ve all heard Lord Acton’s oft repeated quote –
‘All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely’
Power is a tricky thing. We all covet it, yet very few of us know how to wield it and not let it get to our heads. How often have you come across examples of people in positions of power abusing their offices and exerting their influence when they should not? How many times have you come across a situation when you have exerted your power over someone inferior to you in some way, because you felt you had the power so you could do it?
Power is a word that has both positive and negative connotations. When it is exerted for a larger benefit, it becomes a tool for victory, like in the case of the public exerting it’s power over a government for certain reforms. Yet when the same government exerts its power to crush and demoralize the public, it becomes a tool for oppression. It’s in such instances when exerting your power wrongly and unfairly becomes a sin.
Consider these instances from everyday lives –
- A boss exerting his power over his employees to push them into working harder or longer.
- A teacher punishing her students for misbehaving.
- A parent forcing a child to do their bidding.
- A police officer exerting his power over a prisoner.
- The owner of a gun threatening an intruder.
Some of you may say that exertion of power in such instances is justified. Aye, it is. But there is a very thin line between justified use and power abuse. In all of the above instances, one unwarranted step could lead to abuse of power.
But I won’t just give you random examples of how exertion of power in the wrong instances is a sin, I’ll give you an example from my own life.
I must have been 11-12 when this happened. My Grandmother owned a building where she used to rent out rooms. In one such room stayed a family of two boys, and their parents. The older boy was a couple of years older than me. He was an absolute tyrant and bully. He would go around the village terrorizing children of my age, beating them up, or calling them names or using them for catapult practice. I hated him because he used to pull my hair and call me ‘Pootna‘ (a mythological demon in India).
But I hated him most because he killed a bird with his catapult just to prove to me that his aim did not suck! And the worst part of it was, I goaded him into doing that because I wanted to prove him a failure. That incident is seared in my memory. I don’t know if the boy had any guilt over the sparrow’s death, but I did, heaps of it. And possibly that was why I was horribly sick for a few days afterwards.
But no sooner had I recovered than he was at it again, calling me names, making faces at me. My guilt and the anger I had for him was mounting. My 11 year old pride was taking a beating and I did not like any of it.
So while he was playing in my grandmother’s courtyard, I let loose my Alsatian dog on him. The dog bit into his forearm and left several painful scratches. It let go only when I told the dog to stop. I still remember feeling all mighty and powerful at the time. But when his parents came to take him to the doctor, that’s when it dawned on me that I had wronged him. His parents did not say a word to me, but the look on their faces told me just how unfair I had been. They could not have said anything to me because I was a child, and also because they were tenants of my grandmother and respected her. But now I find it reprehensible that I misused this bit of knowledge and my ferocious dog, to exert my power over someone, even if he was a tyrant and a bully.
This incident taught me that I abused the power I had, whatever little I had of it. It taught me that one could go quickly from using their power for good, to using it for being a bully. And that’s when it becomes a sin.
When a person gains power over others in some way, it is obvious that the subordinates will be in a disadvantageous position. It is also obvious that with the gain of power, a moral weakness develops in the power wielder, where they tend to veer towards using their power for personal benefits or self-aggrandisement. It manifests not just in the human realm, but in the animal realm as well. Like when the leader of a pride of lions exerts his authority over the females and the cubs in the pride. But this is when a power wielder must understand that they must maintain a balance between rightful use and abuse of power. Most positions of power occur over monetary reasons or in positions of trust. An abuse of power in such situations is not just a sin, it also breaks the faith of the subordinates who look to the power wielder for support, guidance and leadership.
This is also when the subordinates must realize that they have power over a power wielder. We must always have a foolproof system of checks and balances where any abuse of power brings serious repercussions for a leader. Most authority figures tend to keep misusing their positions because there is no check on their abuse of power. This is where the power of the masses comes into the picture, and the masses should not condone an unwarranted abuse of power. At some point, the sheep must turn on the wolf masquerading as their shepherd.
We all have relationships in our lives where we may be in an authoritative position over others. A parent, a father or mother in law, an older brother or sister, a boss, an employer, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a politician. There’s no end to such positions where one can wield power… and abuse it.
An authority figure must remember why he’s in power –
- Because of the faith and trust reposed in him.
- Because people look to him for leadership
- Because he has the responsibility of protecting or providing for a group of persons
Breaking the trust of your followers and subordinates takes seconds, but good-will takes an age to earn, and regaining broken trust, takes even longer.
I think this quote from the Bible sums up what we must all remember when we exert our power, for good or bad:
1 Peter 5:2-3
“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”