Lord Acton famously said that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. We see examples of this across history and we are witnessing another example of it at present, with the collapse of the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Of course there are ‘enemies of the Church’ there, driving the process forward as energetically as they can, but for most ordinary people it is the corruption being revealed at the heart of the Church that is bringing it down. That heart, at present, seems morally and spiritually empty.
Another quotation attributed to Lord Acton is equally relevant to the situation: ‘every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity’. Discussion and publicity are the air in which truth and freedom prosper, which is why free media are a crucial element in a democratic society. Not that democracy is perfect either its evil being, as the same Lord Acton pointed out, the tyranny of the majority. Yet democracy does still seem to be the least worst form of government.
Power, corruption, discussion, publicity, truth, freedom – why speak about such things? Well, the readings for the Mass are about power. In the first reading there is a contrast between the kind of power that comes into Ezekiel to make him stand up, and the kind of power he must confront in the defiant and obstinate political and religious leaders. Paul, in the second reading, boasts of his powerlessness, not because he has no power but because he is aware of its dangers. To keep me from becoming proud, he says, God sent an angel of Satan, a thorn in the flesh, a saving weakness. I prayed for it to be removed, again and again and again, he says, until the point was revealed to him, the word of the Lord saying ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’. Power is made perfect in weakness. What a strange thought.
The gospel reading is Mark’s account of Jesus’ return to his home town and the antagonistic way in which he was received. What went wrong? If he had played the game of power he might have kept them onside: local boy does well, bringing fame (and perhaps fortune) to his own people. Instead he speaks and acts on another basis, with a wisdom from beyond Nazareth, doing mighty works with strength and authority originating beyond Nazareth. Like all prophets who try to bring the Word of God to their own people, he is rejected. ‘We know who he is’, they say, dismissively. ‘Who does he think he is?’, they ask, dismissively.
Power is about a sense of worth and value and meaning, of counting for something and being effective in the world, and human beings will sacrifice many other things in order to have these. We go looking for them in ourselves and in the groups with whom we identify, to feel powerful and significant, secure in our identity and our superiority to others.
By contrast love and goodness, truth and grace will often seem weak and ineffective in the world. Waiting for God to give our lives worth and value, identity and meaning: this will often seem foolish. But Ezekiel knows the strength that comes from having the Word of God inside him. Paul knows that strength too, just as he knows the internal struggle that these contrasting kinds of power set off.
Jesus is the one who knows all this better than anybody else. He knows the strength and authority of love, just as he knows the difficulties love encounters in trying to convince the world of its (love’s) wisdom. Love is the only great power in the world that is not violent because it contains, and reconciles, this paradox of strength and weakness. It is all about vulnerability and acceptance and patience and learning. It is all about strength and worth and value and identity.
The temptations of power are relentless and insidious, and even when we think we are detached from them they return in subtle and confusing forms. Pride, arrogance, superiority – these are the roots from which corruption, exploitation, indifference, and the abuse of others finally sprout. In such places faith counts for nothing and so Christ is rendered impotent: he can perform no mighty work there. His wisdom will be dismissed as unrealistic and impractical, even if people continue to pay lip service to it. His power will be regarded simply as weakness. His great saving act of radical powerlessness, his death on the cross, will be ignored or turned into something pious.
Thanks be to God that he is freeing us from the chains of pride and power. May he give us courage for this journey. May he guide us into his kingdom, where love tends to heal and save, and absolute love heals and saves absolutely.