I was in 3rd grade when I decided to try my hand in politics. Along with two others, I was vying for the position of elementary school treasurer. My campaign took a turn for the worse when I observed one of my opponents taking down a poster of hers–to relocate it–and I decided to start a rumor that she was dropping out of the race. I thought that would make me a shoe-in for the win.
Despite my best efforts, I still lost.
That’s when I decided I wasn’t cut out for politics. Not for any morally compelling reason, but because I was a sore loser, and also because I’d learned the hard way that politics makes you do funny things–like spread untrue rumors based on faulty reasoning. Maybe politics, in and of itself, wasn’t to blame, but rather, power was, the thing at the very root of the quest for elected position.
When I look back, I see that’s what the position for school treasurer was really about, what the draw for power allows us to attempt to get away with. What the lure of power makes us believe. What the attraction of power does to our conscience. It was a tempting game to play as a 3rd grader. So imagine how the higher stakes contort the game as adults.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.” I think one look back at 2016 would confirm that. Power, it would seem, as much as we may want it, sometimes turns us into people we never thought we would be.
History tells us this is true.
There were a lot of reasons Jesus was so disliked. The religious elite found His inclusivity troubling. The government found His allegiance to an authority greater than them threatening. So the religious leaders worked in cahoots with the Roman government to manipulate the emotion of the masses and rally around the crucifixion of a local, travelling rabbi. How?
Actually, Jesus did it for them. Under the thumb of the Roman government and in the clutches of greedy religious leaders, the people, who for centuries had been mistreated and overlooked, were hungry to be the ones in charge. The people wanted power.
And Jesus wouldn’t give it to them. He wasn’t interested in being a political Messiah or a governing Savior. And when the people tried to make Him that, He recoiled. He withdrew. He said things like, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” and “take up your cross and follow me,” and then washed the disciple’s feet encouraging them to do the same for each other.
The people wanted nothing to do with such a powerless leader. So they killed him.
Jesus shows us power’s temptations aren’t new. Its promises aren’t unique. And real power looks far different than we can imagine.
Like nearly everything He said, it’s a paradox. Power is best used in serving. Greatness is found in humility. The last shall be first. And on and on it goes, making no sense to the rulers of this world–or those aspiring to be the rulers of this world.
Power is most pure and most helpful when it’s given away.
January 20th marks Inauguration Day, the day we, the people, observe the peaceful transfer of power from one elected official to another. This is the day we watch with solemn attention as the baton is passed. This is when we get to show the world what power–gaining it, or losing it–looks like.
For those excited and hopeful for what January 20th brings, it is a reminder that though that power is now in your party or on your person’s shoulders, the real test of character is just beginning as we observe how it is treated and who it serves.
And for those discouraged and angry about what January 20th brings, it is the reminder that the people are not without power themselves. That the power to create the world we want falls more squarely on our shoulders than any legislation, nominee, or governing official.
In other words, no matter who you are, January 20th is a reminder that power is not what it seems. That going after it and attaining it affords possibilities and potential, but no guarantees about who it will make us and what it will accomplish. And that losing power and mourning its loss are sometimes the greatest incentives to make the biggest changes in ourselves and our small world around us.
January 20th, the world will lean in and they will watch. How will the United States handle power as it moves and it shifts? How will we, as citizens, respond to this symbolic day?
We will, if we are wise, do what we did today, the day before, the month before, and the year before that. We will realize power is a tool, but it’s not the thing. That the ones in positions of power aren’t the only ones with the power to do the work we believe needs doing. We will hold loosely to what promises power offers, and we will use what power we do have to love, to serve, and to build our character, even against all odds.
We may not be on the platform this January 20th, but we are in as good a position as any to learn to practice power–both the acquiring of it and the loss of it–well. Let Jesus show you how. Give some away. Serve all you can. Love all you come across. And believe there is a better end than power at the end of the day. There is dignity. Integrity. And character. And those are an end worth fighting for Election Day, Inauguration Day, and every day following.
Photo by Sarah Anderson.