Essay

The Paradox and Peril of Power

By April 17, 2012 One Comment
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First, sorry for the overly alliterative title.  But for this post, those words really are the apt ones to invoke!  Like many people, I have been eagerly awaiting the next volume in biographer Robert Caro’s series “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”   Caro is flat out one of the best biographers I have ever read–his work rivals the majesty of William Manchester on Churchill and is at least as good as Donald McCullough’s great work on Truman.

But as a New York Times Magazine profile on Caro pointed out this week, as much as Caro’s volumes on LBJ (three so far with #4 coming out May 1) are about the man, they are also a study in the uses of power.   Whatever else you want to say about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man was a master at using power to get things done.   Sometimes his ability to wield power was perilous and used in nefarious ways, as when his campaign stole the 1948 Senate race in Texas (an election without which, Caro contends, LBJ might never have become vice-president or president) and as when on any number of other occasions LBJ’s mastery of arm-twisting was likewise used for selfish gain (and sometimes at the cost of humiliating an opponent).

Yet LBJ was also a man of great compassion.   His early years of teaching exceedingly poor children in a remote and impoverished part of Texas always stayed with him, giving the otherwise crusty Texan a soft spot in his heart for the disadvantaged.   Often in his life LBJ’s compassion took a backseat to his ruthless use of power.   But in 1957–for perhaps the first significant time in his life–Johnson managed to get his power and his compassion running in the same direction.   As Caro details it in Volume 3, Master of the Senate, in 1956 Johnson narrowly missed being nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention when he was written off as a “regional candidate.”  And since the “region” in question was the South–with all its associations with Jim Crow laws and racism and slavery–Johnson became determined never to be so written off again.   So in 1957 he used his compassion for the underprivileged and his world-class ability powerfully to manipulate his fellow Senators to ram through the first piece of Civil Rights legislation in almost 80 years.    Here was a paradoxical incident where the same power that could corrupt and humiliate was put to good use.   And it would not be the last time LBJ would so use power–as Caro will detail in the forthcoming volume, as President, Johnson did something similar to get his Great Society rolling with astonishing speed following the assassination of President Kennedy.

As Robert Caro knows and as readers of his books know, power is fascinating.  It seems that very little gets done in this world without it.  I have been to Washington D.C. only twice in my life and actually stayed in the city only once about 2 years ago.   Since I was traveling alone, I spent time in lounges and restaurants just observing what was going on around me, eavesdropping semi-shamelessly (but also quite easily given the volume of most nearby power conversations).   The presence of power was palpable.   Conversation after conversation trafficked in topics related to who had power, who didn’t, and how to tap into the next most powerful person in the room.

Again, fascinating.

Yet here we are in the Season after Easter, celebrating in our various ways the Gospel fact that the world changed–was saved–not through a top-down exercise in power but through a bottom-up exercise in humility and sacrifice.    Also in the Roman Empire, the power all flowed in one direction, and it steamrolled right overtop of Jesus.  As Neal Plantinga has reminded us in some of his luminous sermons, public crucifixions in the Roman Empire were among other things public reminders to the populace of who had the power and of what happened to those who opposed that power.   Every cross that rose up from a hilltop like Golgotha was like a giant Roman exclamation mark that screamed out “Any Questions!!!?”

Of course, ever since, the Church has grappled with figuring out how to get things done in a world where power is generally the way to accomplish much.   It’s easy to see the power hierarchy in something like The Vatican–how often haven’t we read about the “power struggles” that take place at the highest echelons of the Papal Curia?–but it’s no less present in more Reformed polities (we just do our power struggles without miters and robes for the most part).   And certainly the politicization of most everything in recent years has affected also the Church, in which not a few have concluded that the way to get things done is by lobbying, by intimidation, by punishment.

Power is seductive.   It also undeniably gets things done.   LBJ knew that power could help the disadvantaged.   But he also came to learn that power has a way to come back and destroy the one who wields it, as his own despairing exit from the national stage in 1969 went on to show.   But for the Church, is it also possible that we forfeit our ability to witness to the true Gospel when we opt for power-solutions to the things we want to do?   I don’t have any answers as to how, whether, or to what extent the Church can tap into power to accompish a greater good.   But in the Season of Eastertide, it’s as good a time as any to wonder about such things and maybe to ask God to show us a still greater way.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

One Comment

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thanks, Scott, for this powerful reminder of the ways power is (mis)used in both politics and church. And you are right–following upon Easter we need to follow more closely the One who emptied himself of power and gave the ultimate sacrifice. He does have power though, this Risen, Ascended Lord, but He uses it in wonderfully giving and redeeming ways.

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