“Power is not owned. At best, it is merely borrowed…”

On January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I noted that the biggest story in the media seemed to be about the controversy over why there weren’t more black Americans nominated for the Oscar Awards this year. According to some celebrities, it appeared the two movies featuring black actors that were snubbed the most by the Academy were about forcing children to murder others in Africa and gangster rap coming out of Compton. I thought to myself, “I’m not sure that’s what Martin had in mind.”

Mind you, I’m moved to tread lightly here for a moment, and offer a quick caveat. In today’s world, there’s a legion of accusers standing ready with a big bag of placards that read “racist,” “homophobe,” “anti-Semite,” etc., who love to pass them out willy-nilly. Now, before I go on, let me say the controversy I’m referring to may have less to do with race than with the notion of “power.” So, if you will, let’s muffle the alarm bells for a moment and look at this objectively…if possible.

Consider this…another movie that got some attention in this apparent rift in Hollywood was Concussion staring Will Smith. Although I heard it was a good movie, it apparently had marginal success at the box office and critics were lukewarm. Smith’s wife had a lot to say, however, and attempted to instigate a boycott of the awards show. Lamenting what she considered disrespect…not just to her husband, but to all black entertainers…Jada Pinkett Smith stated, “Here’s what I do know. Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity, and diminishes power, and we are a dignified people, and we are powerful, and let’s not forget it.” I heard this on the radio, and it’s hard to relay the theatrics with which she made the statement by merely presenting it in print. It may have been worthy of Academy consideration in its own right. But I thought, “Hey, it’s their industry and if they think it’s in need of improvement, fine.” It may be hard to gin up a lot of sympathy for those who make a ton of money at make-believe, but it’s their gig and they command a lot of attention. Sadly, it seems all the fuss did less to assert the influence of celebrity in the industry than it did to betray a questionable role they played in shaping it in the first place.

Power is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.
-Margaret Thatcher

But, what got my attention was the way Smith equated nomination for an entertainment award with power. At first, I thought it was pathetic that anyone would hang their self-esteem and sense of personal power on the vagaries of an industry so dependent on subjectivity and make-believe, even if it’s where they made their living. And then I realized it was the value we put on personal power that was the most to be pitied. Martin Luther King Jr. had his own take on the subject that perhaps would have been more worthy of commentary on the day devoted to his memory:

I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was obviously more concerned with manipulating his influence for the betterment of mankind than the boost it could give to his ego. Perhaps it’s more important to consider what power does than the status it brings to our reputations. That makes the possession of power a heavy responsibility for those who have acquired a considerable amount of it. It amplifies our intentions and, vicariously, our true character. Power then becomes just another tool…for good or evil.

Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.
-William Gaddis

Boy, ain’t that the truth? History is full of examples of powerful people who were saints and others who were villains. And, since most of us are a mix of the two, power can be a terrible liability if we’re not careful.

Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.
-Edward Abbey

Perhaps.

Although, I can think of a few who managed to do quite a lot of good with their power and influence. I’m sure you can, too. We all have our favorites, depending on our preferences. But, power itself is so fickle…and fleeting. I can tell you that I exercised a significant amount of power via my authority as a police officer. But even that was tentative, conditional and at the discretion of those I served. It was certainly not without significant responsibility and liability. It also evaporated upon my retirement. Like many others, I wasn’t aware of the size of the burden it represented until I set it aside and got used to its absence.

Still, it can be intoxicating…especially for those who first acquire it. It can be a drug of sorts. Violence is attractive to some people, because it exemplifies power despite all the negative consequences…the suffering, the death and the long-lasting fear it leaves with the survivors. True combat veterans rarely brag about their exploits, because they’ve experienced the overwhelming horror carnage leaves in its wake…even in victory. But, violence continues to be an integral part of human existence and the exercise of power…unfortunately.

Not necessity, not desire—no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything—health, food, a place to live, entertainment—they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

If we gain power, someone else has to give some up. Either obtained voluntarily by concession or involuntarily by force, power is a finite resource that is gained only through someone’s loss. That seems to be it’s nature…if I have it, you don’t. If our power is equal…if we both can leverage the same amount of influence…then there is a stalemate and actual “power” no longer exists. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were then no longer relevant? Not needed or desired? Dare we call it harmony?

Doesn’t this bring us to reconsider the true meaning of “power” and its value? Has anyone really understood, let alone accurately defined, power? As a Christian, I turn to the Bible and the Word of God…and here, again, I find an enlightening answer.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— =just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20: 25-28).

St. Paul discovered the essence of real power. He initially persecuted early Christians with passionate gusto under the authority of those in power at the time. He gave it all up and submitted himself to similar persecutions for the sake of the Gospel after a dramatic conversion. His personal suffering was considerable and was certainly not a reflection of what most people considered the fruits of power and prestige. In one of his letters, he revealed he was tormented by a severe ailment he attributed to the devil and asked God to take it from him. In his words:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Power…bequeathed by man or by God…is not owned. At best, it is borrowed and therefore shouldn’t be valued beyond what good it can do while we shepherd its potential. To make it the focal point of our endeavors is as futile as packing a suitcase full of money for our trip to heaven…don’t you think?