Recently, at work, I was accused of abusing my power. This individual said I had misapplied a company policy, held her accountable for it, and had thereby wielded my sword of management to inflict a wound. I was duly reported to the Human Resource department. The complaint was investigated and found to be invalid.
But it sparked a chain of thoughts in me.
Abuse of power. Those are strong words to use. Words that should not be volleyed like a badminton birdie. Ones that ring with consequences and burn with menace.
Abuse indicates harm has been caused to another person, perhaps repeatedly. Abuse is a misuse of something.
Power equals strength, ability, influence. A person with power can direct the course of a team, a company, a life.
So, an abuse of power is quite an accusation. One that must not be lightly discounted. My brain fired on all cylinders as I thought of my practical definitions of abuses of power.
Misapplied company policy where one person is held accountable but another one is off the hook.
Embezzling funds from your employee’s retirement accounts.
Tax breaks for richer people.
A pastor informing his congregation that only his views of Scripture matter.
Belittling a child.
A husband hitting his wife
A woman lying to a man.
Spouting out words without empathy.
Big kid bullying smaller kid.
Bigger nation bullying smaller nation.
When I was 12 years old, my family and I were guests at a church in Memphis, Tennessee. My dad was to be the guest speaker for the Sunday morning worship service. We met the pastor at the church on Saturday evening, and were invited to his home for the evening meal. We entered his house through the kitchen, greeting all the strangers as we came in. The pastor looked at me, grabbed my arm, and produced a razor blade in his hand which he held to my arm. I stood in shock, unflinching, because I was afraid of the blade cutting into my skin. He said some words to me that are blurred from my memory, since fear has clouded it. He suddenly laughed raucously, and pulled the blade away. I remember thinking then that I wanted another adult to stick up for me. To call out this leader on his weird “joke.” I couldn’t understand his motive in pretending to threaten a vulnerable, young girl, other than he wanted to exert power over me.
The older over the younger. The strong over the weak. The experienced over the innocent.
Why is it that these actions spark anger inside us?
Why does the internet explode with vitriol when true abuses happen?
Because we willingly give power to other people in our lives. To our spouses. Our friends. Our employers. Our religious organizations. Our government.
Because we trust them to work on our behalf. We want our leaders and key influences to forge a path, carry the light, be the example. We trust them with more because we expect more out of them. When the trust of these relationships is breached, we feel anger. When they abuse the power we have granted them, well, we want to hold them accountable.
Or at least, we should.
We should ask the tough questions of our leaders and each other. We should probe a little deeper. We should understand that behind each person’s front, whether tough or weak, lies a flawed human being. We must acknowledge our common humanity, and approach the topics with empathy and compassion, even as we hold onto the rage of the injustice of their misdeeds. It’s a delicate balance. The apostle John wrote, though, that “God has not given us the spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.” All these things in conjunction with each other form the balance that we need to take action.
If we allow the abuses of the power we see to continue to only make us angry, real change won’t happen. But if we are motivated by the injustice that we see to take a stand against it, that is the change we need. Beyond merely giving constant power to authority figures, or even stronger personalities in our familial and friend groups, we must recognize that we have a responsibility to each other, as created beings from God.
This is another reason why the life of Jesus continues to fascinate me. This Jewish Rabbi, the Son of God, could have taken his popularity, his power, and his influence and worked to overthrown a corrupt government. Instead, we see him coming as a helpless baby in the beginning. Then we watch him hanging out with the lower end of society all the time. He’s constantly healing lepers, forgiving prostitutes, and talking about the Kingdom of God.
He goes to the down and out, and says, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Essentially, he acknowledges the abuses of the empire in power, and then he empowers people to live in love and grace and peace, thereby subtly subverting the power of Rome. After He ascended to Heaven, the Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus did not think that “power with God was something to be grasped, but rather humbled himself to be a servant.” Serving each others–taking action in the face of abuse–subverts the abuser’s power. It weakens their ability to maintain absolute control because we are too busy responding with grace to those who need it instead of spending our time lashing out.
Congress can fight over tax breaks and tax cuts. We should have fights about that. But, meanwhile, I’m giving to the Food Bank in my neighborhood to make sure poor families can feed their kids.
Bigger kids will always taunt the little kids. But meanwhile, I’m bringing up the topic of bullying and its roots of pain. I’m teaching my son to speak up on behalf of kids and for himself.
Unequal wages may exist widespread across our country, and once again, politicians will continue to debate the ramifications. But, meanwhile, I’m bringing up the topic in my own company and challenging my executives to look at wages fairly and equitability, based on performance, not gender.
When we give power to people, abuse can happen. It’s the risk we all take. Instead of sitting down, and letting them continue to wield the power, we must act. We must take some of the power back from those who abuse it. We must hold them and ourselves accountable to use any power held for the good of our communities, our families, and our world. We have to talk about it, not as a sentiment or a slander, but as a response of love for each other and our shared lives together. We have to stop blaming authorities, or our friends, or our annoying uncle. We have to look inside ourselves to ask, “What is my power? Who am I giving it to?”
To quote the Apostle Paul, a lead writer of the New Testament, “God did not give us the spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind.” The true power lies in the balance of love and grace. We extend love while setting boundaries. We show grace while asking questions. We acknowledge that, if change is to happen in our world in any way, it starts with ourselves.
This past week, I attended a small church in Lawton, Oklahoma. At the end of the pastor’s sermon, the entire congregation sang a hymn. Standing there, so far from home, I realized the compelling power of community, shared faith, and common good. The words of the song resonated in my soul. These words ring loudly of ownership, accountability, and the realization that I can make a difference.
May you know, deep in your soul, that you are not powerless.
Not now. Not ever.
The abusers won’t win, as we rise up with truth and justice on our side.
Here are the words we sang:
“Let there be peace, let it start in me.”
Photo: Painting by Laura Shreck