The great Catholic historian Lord Acton observed that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This is confirmed by turning the pages of any history book, or, for that matter, the pages of the newspaper. Most of the evil and bloodshed of the last century resulted from the corrupting influences of absolute power. This is evident in governments, but it is also abundant in businesses, educational and religious bodies, and organizations.
The tribes of Israel governed themselves in a loose alliance centred on the shrine at Shiloh. They had no king. Only in times of great peril did God anoint a ‘judge’ to lead them on the battlefield and to settle disputes. There came a day, however, when this was no longer enough for many of the people.
They were impressed by the power and pomp of the kings of surrounding nations. They wanted a king too, but when they asked Samuel to approach God on this matter, he was horrified and stricken. In Samuel’s subsequent conversation with God, it was made clear to him that the people were in effect rejecting God by making this request.
The people did what many in our own age have done: in exchange for order, black-and-white surety and easy answers, they gave up their God-given freedom to authority figures. In a classic case of being unfortunate enough to get what you ask for, Saul was anointed king, then David, then David’s successors. It was not pretty.
Centuries of intrigue, civil war, moral and spiritual corruption, and royal oppression were the result. Very few of these kings were good moral examples or great leaders, and they led Israel to ruin.
The Bible continually insists that all sovereignty belongs to God — any power exercised by an earthly leader is valid only insofar as it reflects God’s will. Many claim power, and some even cloak this power with religious rhetoric, but the proof lies in its effect on other people. Justice, mercy, generosity and care for the weak and vulnerable are all signs of legitimate power. Inequality, poverty, human misery, injustice and callousness towards the poor, weak and vulnerable are all signs of selfishness and power stolen from God.
What is the answer? For the author of Colossians, Christ Himself is the centre and ruler of the universe. All things came to being through Him, all are reconciled and held together in Him. Since God is love, Christ is also.
Love powers the universe. That is the only ruling principle or king that we need, but unfortunately human sin seldom allows Christ’s universal rule to be exercised without interference. Humans continually try to wrestle control of the world away from God, and as always, disaster is the result.
The greatest contribution humans could make to a better world is to let go of our selfish egos and step aside. God does an incredibly good job when we don’t get in the way.
From a human point of view, the sign on the cross was laughable — King of the Jews indeed! The crowd at the cross taunted Jesus and challenged Him to display the usual signs of kingship and power. Save yourself, come down from the cross, if you are who you claim to be. They wanted Him to match their expectations of kingship, but Jesus was not playing their game.
He showed them the source of genuine and legitimate power by His response. First, He refused to respond with violence and hatred. Jesus forgave those responsible for His crucifixion, and He responded to the penitent thief with forgiveness and mercy. Finally, He submitted Himself totally to the divine will and trusted in God absolutely.
This was the source of His power and His subsequent exaltation, and it represents the Way of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus challenged people to walk this Way with Him. Throughout history, however, people have rather consistently walked a different way. Despite decrying the world and its ways, people have made predictably human and worldly responses to the challenges that life brings. Jesus governs by love and all that love implies.
If we want a world that is different from the disheartening and scary one that greets us each day, we can learn to do the same.