By Canon Chris Palmer
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”
These famous words were written in 1887 by Lord (Baron) Acton to The Revd Mandell Creighton. The latter was, at the time, a professor in Cambridge and later became Bishop of London. The Revd Professor disliked the tendency to be over-critical of authority figures. He felt the criticism didn’t take into account the pressures and demands of office. His correspondent, by contrast, believed that those with power tended to abuse it, that they ‘got away’ with things others would be condemned for, and that it was right to condemn them:
“You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice…”
Lord Acton included Queen Elizabeth I amongst those he would hang. She allegedly asked a jailer to murder Mary Queen of Scots clandestinely so that she, Elizabeth, wouldn’t have to sign the death warrant!
Well, questions of integrity in high office, how we judge powerful people, and where blame lies are very contemporary issues. We see challenges today around the awarding of government contracts, the factual accuracy of information, and allegations of bullying by government ministers. The Bishop would be lenient; the Baron would condemn.
The aphorism ‘power tends to corrupt’ came to mind when I was thinking about the words of Jesus, ‘all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’, and the church’s earliest creedal statement, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ As Christians, we believe that Jesus has received ‘absolute power’ from God. We celebrate this on Ascension Day, this coming week. We proclaim it in our creeds. We sing it in our hymns.
But Jesus reveals ‘absolute power’ that doesn’t corrupt. Jesus exercises his ‘authority’ not through manipulation, pulling rank, or deploying state-sanctioned violence, but through self-restraint that seeks to win allegiance and risks suffering abuse. When his disciples take up swords to fight, Jesus says to them: ‘don’t you realise that I am able right now to call to my Father, and twelve companies—more, if I want them—of fighting angels would be here, battle-ready?’ [Matthew 26.53 The Message]
Jesus doesn’t do what he’s able to do. This is power that doesn’t corrupt.
Of course, often we’d love Jesus to exercise power in a worldly way, righting wrongs and victoriously striding the world stage. We might even vote for such a Jesus. But would we trust him, would he encourage us to grow into mature and responsible faith, would he unite and reconcile enemies to God?
St Paul heard God saying to him, ‘power is made perfect in weakness…’ [2 Corinthians 12.9]. And so St Paul says, ‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities… for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’
This is the deep truth of the cross – and it is how we know and love the risen and ascended Christ by faith today. Jesus shows us that power need not corrupt – but only if we are willing for power to feel like weakness.