“He should resign”, I proclaimed – loudly, in the hallway of the church where I served. It was a proclamation I issued with an energy and conviction that surprised me. And which, no doubt, surprised the people who heard me. I had been a strong supporter of President Bill Clinton for the first five years of his presidency; but as information dribbled out over his affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1997, my support evaporated. I was not as much concerned with the level of sexual engagement between the two, whatever that may have been, as I was over the blatant misuse of power. Power of a President over an intern; power of an older male over a young female; power of a supervisor over an employee. “He should resign.”
And, of course, he didn’t resign. Other wielders of power emerged — spinning the story, arguing over legal semantics, mustering political and financial support; and he was able to continue in office.
Now we have an ex-president who is not hearing calls to resign, but is facing indictment. “It’s a witch hunt”, some cry out in response; “Political brinksmanship”, others howl, as Stormy Daniels has become a household name. “No one is above the law”, is the mantra chanted by people on the other side. Political polarization in our country has entered unchartered territory.
Lost in the political accusations and critiques of the indictment is yet another display of power. The power of money to buy someone’s silence. The power of cronies who have a position to “catch and kill” certain stories. The power of a famous person to pull certain levers of power to get what he wants – or doesn’t want. The legalities of the case will be argued, and have been argued, in the media and around kitchen tables – and sometime next year in the courts. But, to me, the ethical dimensions of the cases of two ex-Presidents are clear – and loom larger: each demonstrated a misuse of power.
All of which is often hard to understand. After all, it is often said that the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the most powerful nation on the planet. We tend to think about power as force, and influence – and being on the winning side of transactions. Presidents are embodiments of power; and they exercise and execute that power dozens of times on a daily basis. They are powerful. We are inclined to be in thrall of that power.
On April 2, much of the Christian world observed Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Some scholars maintain that as Jesus was coming through one gate with a crowd shouting hosannas and spreading palm branches along his route, a legion of Roman soldiers was entering the city through another, more prominent gate, with a full display of armaments, chariots, and trumpets announcing their arrival. Rome was deeply invested in impressing – and enfeebling, its subjects with its demonstrations of power. Theirs was an external power: ruthless, efficient and cruel. By Rome’s reckoning, there could not be misuse of power, because they would squash anything that dared to stand up against it.
Which is what Jesus did. He didn’t bring an army. He had no money. His power was in his ability to convince people of their worth, and of their importance. And that they were loved. His was an internal power, which had – and has, the capacity, to orient hearts and minds to this invisible and abiding love. A power that has, over the centuries, stood up to visible – and violent, demonstrations of power. His was a different way. Rome could kill Jesus – and they did, but the power he embodied lives with us still.
More than anyone I can think of, Martin Luther King spoke of love as power: “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice; and justice at its best is power correcting anything that stands against love.”
Rome was afraid of love’s power. The world still is. That is not enough reason not to use it.