Power that Corrupts – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

I Kings 12:26-33; 13:33-34

Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  These are the words of a famous 19th century English politician named Lord Acton, who was considered one of the most learned men of his time.

What Lord Acton was speaking about was the tendency of people who gain power over other people to succumb to moral weakness.  Such people not necessarily innately evil.  They may well begin as honest men and women whose motives are honorable and altruistic.  They may want to “do good” for their people.  But, over time, as they gain more power, as they experience its benefits, and as that power becomes more and more essential to their identity and self-esteem, the risk of corruption grows.  Many will fall prey to its seductive influence.  Their desire to maintain or increase their power will lead them to compromise their values and to sacrifice their integrity.  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Despotic power,” Lord Acton warns, “is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” (italics mine).[i]

Power can be addictive.  The more power people are given, the more they crave it.  If they stay in power long enough, their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient can be diminished.  The lines become blurred.  They do what benefits them politically, even if it means compromising their integrity and their moral standards.  They may lie or distort the truth to get and keep their power.  We don’t have to look far to find examples of this in our own political landscape.

We have an example of this in our first reading today.  Jeroboam is the King of Israel, the northern territory that seceded from Judah and became its own nation.  Rehoboam is the King of Judah, in the south.

In the opening verses, we learn that Jeroboam is anxious because he fears losing his power over the people if they continue to travel to Jerusalem (the capitol of Judah) to offer sacrifices at the temple.  He consults with his advisors, who are no doubt sympathetic to his claims and themselves compromised by their desire to stay in the king’s good graces.  They support his decision to make two golden calves, one to be set up in the city of Bethel and the other to be placed in Dan.

Jeroboam commands his people to worship and offer their sacrifices at one of these two sites, both located in Israel, thereby eliminating the need to go to Jerusalem.  He also takes it upon himself to appoint priests for his two temples, not from the designated tribe of Levi, but anyone who shows interest (perhaps by offering something in return for the appointment).  He has wandered from the core of the Jewish faith: the worship of God alone, the ban against any kind of idol or image, the tribe appointed by God to serve as priests, and the abandonment of the temple at Jerusalem.  He has gone his own way – all this to preserve his power and his control over his people.

We may have to ask ourselves today whether the allure of power or popularity or influence or success has taken hold of us.  Is there some disordered attachment in our lives that has become so essential to our happiness – or so it seems to us – that we cannot live without it?  Has this attachment in any way shaped our response to others, our goals, or the methods we employ to accomplish them?  Have we in any way compromised our values, distorted the truth to our advantage, or sacrificed our integrity?  God’s punishment fell on Jeroboam, and we too may suffer the consequences of our actions, once they have been cut loose from the moorings of our most sacred values.

The passage stands as a warning to us, and to our leaders, that God is not mocked.  We will reap what we have sown.

[i] Quotations from Lord Acton taken from the website: http://www.acton.org/research/lord-acton-quote-archive

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