A long time ago, in a conversation with a mentor, I was struggling with choices that were before him, the parish and their relationship with the Diocese. It wasn't a BIG issue. In fact, it was a small thing; but that was his talent: to take a small thing and magnify it into a great teaching moment. Basically, it was a struggle over power-who had more of it-and the direction that the parish would go in the near future. I was feeling perturbed. The exercise of power we were experiencing felt capricious and I was reacting out of a deep-seated distrust I have authority in the first place.
He took all of that and framed a simple, guiding thought that thas stayed with me throughout both my adult life and my exercise of priesthood. "Power is morally neutral. It is simply the ability to create and affect change in a system of relationships," he said. "What matters is what you choose to do with that ability."
Simple enough, right? Just be reflective. Take some time before you act in, or react to, any given situation. Am I using my power toward good? Toward being a co-creative influence with others? With God? Am I just working to "get mine" instead? Ah, if only it were thus...because all of that assumes that we will always have the time to think before we act...that we can make choices outside of relationship with others...that our different roles in the systems that we live in will actually allow us to be free-agents of that sort!
The reality is different. My experience has taught me that the more power you have in this world, the more authority you amass, the more you are connected to, even mired in, the systems that grant such boons. Any institution can give you influence and authority to make change in the relationships of people around you, and yet even as that power is given it comes with a requisite need to subscribe to the culture it comes from...
Yes, we live in a "free" country...but in order to enjoy that freedom we have to be willing to pay taxes and obey the constitutionally ordered laws of both the State and the Union. Yes, we can choose to help others...but in order to to that effectively it requires us to be in relationship with them in the first place. What USE is it, and what sin results, when "help" is proferred not to the benefit of the other but instead to our own satisfaction?
Power is morally neutral, and yet is is an incredible thing...it makes change happen! So, as Christians, what does it mean to make our power subject to Jesus' will for us...and to take the world and its agencies with more than a little grain of salt?
Pray first, then communicate, then reflect, then act...Jesus modeled that way of being and the examples of the early Church support that model. When mediated through that powerful witness, power and discernment align and there is just the most tantatlizing of chances that the Kingdom of God will be in evidence in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Why am I on this idea of power? Of faith being an essential component in its application? Today is the feast commemorating Cornelius the Centurion. He was a "God-believer" who in a vision was guided to welcome Simon Peter into his home. This was God opening the gate between people in the name of the Gospel: between Jew and Gentile, between tradesman and soldier, between a commoner and an agent of the Roman Empire....and it was the moment when the Church was opened to ALL people. "Then Peter began to speak, saying, 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him..." (Acts 10: 34, 35)
What significance that this encounter should happen in the house of a Centurion? Officers of the Roman Armed Forces, they wielded influence and, yes, power. Throughout the Gospels, there are encounters between Jesus, his followers and Centurions. To a one, they provide for us examples of how the compassionate and considerate exercise of power can create and foster relationships that heal both the involved parties and also the others who witness the encounters. They also show how power can be abused and twisted for the furtherance of repression, the aggrandizement of self and God knows what else.
Since that conversation, I have seen power used, by myself and others "above" and "below" me in "society." When power is expressed in faith, it builds up, invariably. When power is used faithlessly, it invariably tears down what is built up, and rends apart that which was once whole.
Power may be morally neutral, but we have a long way to go before our uses of power are truly in alignment with God's will for us and for the world. May there be many more powerful people like Cornelius who can model its right use for us. We need the coaching.....