Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Power’s Chronic Struggle

Culture, Politics — By on March 22, 2010 at 12:03 am

Power is said to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. It implies that if a person doesn’t have power, she won’t be corrupt. But power does not cause corruption; it strips away the social structures that often motivate a person to do good. Power doles out responsibility, but takes away some of the authorities that hold the a person accountable to her responsibilities. The powerful person is free to manifest themselves more as they wish, and less as expected.

The freedom that comes with power is a terrible freedom. A leader is a human being with personal human desires, but she has to constantly balance those with her dutiful responsibilities, be it to students, disciples, citizens, etc. For example, in political power, a leader may face the decision to either act to benefit her nation or to satisfy her personal desires.

Shakespeare portrays this burden well in his play Henry V. At two key points, King Henry V of England must, against his personal wishes, put people to death. In the second act, three nobles (Cambridge, Grey, and Scoop), previously King Henry’s friends, are revealed as traitors. After they beg for mercy, Henry regretfully condemns them while personally forgiving them:

Touching out person seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you…

Act III repeats the scenario: Henry orders that Bardolph, a former friend from his days of youthful roguery (seen in Henry IV), be executed for petty theft. Notably, although Henry voices no laments, he responds to the execution by immediately asserting it as a ‘moral example’:

We would have all such offenders so cut off…that in our marches through the country there be…nothing taken but paid for.

Like a parent, spanking her child in order to establish healthy discipline, Henry, the nation’s guardian, also lays aside sentiment for duty.

It gets worse.

Aside from legal punishments, leaders also have the burden of sacrificing individuals for the nation’s general good and being responsible for those decisions. Shakespeare nearly drops this weight upon his viewer in King Henry’s pre-battle soliloquy about the burdens of power and, in particular, sending his soldiers to potential death:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition…
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages [i.e. sleeps].

Trying times offer a leader no escape. Three options are possible: relinquish the power, renounce it by failing to do one’s duties, or live with emotional strain. Present day leaders provide examples similar to Shakespeare’s King Henry. President Obama has written personal letters to every family who lost a son or daughter in the Middle East since his inauguration. Last year, President Obama wrote something quite different: an order to send over 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The dichotomous psyche of a leader must balance both things—they must walk the narrow line between ‘leader’ and ‘individual’.

Simba, in the Disney classic The Lion King, famously sings, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!” If he had understood what he was saying, he would have sung differently. Leadership is glamorous, but it is also treacherous…and hard. Abraham Lincoln said of power, “…if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lincoln’s word can be taken in two ways, both of which are true. In the most obvious sense, leadership tries a person’s character because they can do evil things without fear of punishment. In a second understanding, leadership tries a person’s stamina and fortitude: it is exhausting to exist in two worlds simultaneously, especially when neither is an apparent ‘wrong’.

Once, in elementary school, my mom was substitute teacher in my class. Being a saintly child (ha!), I didn’t get in trouble that day, but if I had, she would have faced a decision: show personally instinctive grace, or punish me in order to maintain order. The position is wearying.

Nearly everyone has some sort of leadership role, be it familial, professional or relational. Most of us aren’t a monarch like Henry V or President Obama. Still, our choices affect those around us, and we should remain conscious of those effects. To make wise decisions as a leader is difficult, but errors of judgment are better than dissolving or defaulting on responsibilities. And power can find a peace in that. ‘


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  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Lindsay Stallones

    Great analysis. I saw the Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V long before I read the play, and I was shocked at the difference between the two interpretations. I like the idea of the play as a meditation on the burden of power – and I think Branagh’s and Olivier’s interpretations (and others) gain depth as different perspectives on that question.