Wielding Power

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on February 7th, 2012

Wielding power is tricky. When famine struck Ireland in 1782-1783, the English government used its power to close the Irish ports to keep local food in Ireland, a policy which caused food prices to drop immediately. Merchants protested the port closures, but the government held firm. During the Great Famine of 1845-1852, however, the government did not act, the ports were left open, and huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England while the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. Not until almost a million died was any government relief organized, and it took the form of corn meal so coarse that it often killed the constitutionally-weakened Irish who ate it. The government’s failure to save the impoverished Irish people is not surprising. Parliament’s primary constituency was the business class, which emerged from the famine wealthier in cash and property.

Rita Corbin, 1954

The conviction that governments serve elites rather than the general populace is widespread. In The Boston Globe, December, 21, 2011, Brandeis Professor Kanan Makiya said that Iraq is now run by corrupt “political elites…. no better than the former Baathist elite that was overthrown.” Also on December 21st, the Associated Press reported that 10,000 Egyptian women demonstrated against the brutality of the caretaker military government which demonstrators empowered only months earlier after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. That same day, the BBC broadcast a story of Chinese villagers barricading their streets against local officials who’ve been seizing their land. According to the BBC, “Every year, tens of thousands of demonstrations occur [in China] against corrupt officials.”

Giving anyone power over a nation is risky. When the Israelites asked for a king, the prophet Samuel warned them:

…the king who is to reign over you…. will take your sons and assign them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot…. He will make them plow his plowland and harvest his harvest and make his weapons of war…. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops… and you yourselves will become his slaves
(I Samuel 10-18)

This is not to say that all politicians are corrupt. Some use their authority for the general good, but power tends toward personal aggrandizement and favoritism. The authors of the US Constitution were so wary of tyranny that they tried to craft a government with three branches checking each other’s power. Little did the founding fathers realize that all the branches would eventually serve the same master–the rich. From a nation originally lauded as a land of equal opportunity and broad prosperity, America has become a country where 50% of its population is either poor or low income, while the top 1% own 38.1% of the wealth. (This wealth gap is even greater if one includes the tens of millions of undocumented people working in the US.) Although the wealthy, white, male, slave-owners who established our republic proclaimed government “of, by, and for the people,” it wasn’t until a hundred years later that public education was provided and fifty years after that before fair wages, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions were mandated. Civil rights took another quarter century. Environmental protection is still a work in progress.

But since the election of President Ronald Reagan, the government has increasingly reduced services while transferring wealth to the rich. People think nothing now of paying fees to use public parks or to have their children participate in school sports. Fire departments, the postal service, public transportation, libraries, and schools go begging, while the lords of Wall Street and the mandarins of the military industrial complex gorge themselves at the people’s expense. And yet, ironically, many impoverished Americans still cheer for super-wealthy politicians, like Mitt Romney, whose economic policies would make his class even richer.

Then again, the corrupting influence of power is not confined to politics. When Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their ice cream business in Vermont, they famously pledged that no executive would ever earn more than seven times the salary of their lowest paid employee. The CEO now earns $250,000, quite a bit more than the average Joe.

Similarly, while Pope John XXIII encouraged Catholic decision-making via consultation with bishops, lay people, and other faiths, subsequent popes have moved ever closer to top down rule and papal infallibility. Interestingly, one of the most prestigious theologians of our time, Rev. Hans Küng, made an impassioned appeal in June 2011 for decentralization of Church power. In an open letter, Father Küng points out blunders of Pope Benedict XVI, the most autocratic pope since Pius XII, and argues that frequently held councils of bishops are less prone to error or abuse. Küng rejects authoritarianism saying, “unconditional obedience can never be paid to any human authority; it is due to God alone.”

But shouldn’t we go even deeper than pointing our fingers at political, business, and religious leaders who abuse power? After all, don’t all of us wield some authority over others? Police officers, teachers, parents, owners of pets, and yes, even Catholic Workers can wield power abusively. Here at Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker, a core group of volunteers manages donations, determines the rules, makes the menus, and has the final word on how long a guest can remain. We too can lord it over others and save the best portions for ourselves. We might not even notice our elitism. At Saint Benedict’s Catholic Worker in Washington, DC, volunteers would sleep on the floor if all our beds were full because Christ urged us “to take the lowest place,” as He certainly did. When we first came to Worcester, members of our community would go out in pairs to spend one night a month on the street to remind us of how difficult homelessness is and of the fact that the Son of God had “nowhere to lay His head.” Like governments, which Thomas Jefferson suggested should be overthrown periodically, power arrangements on the interpersonal level need to be evaluated and reformed constantly.

Brian Kavanagh

I’m happy to say that Ben and Jerry announced in late 2011 that their company will become 100% fair trade. They will give up some of their profits to redistribute wealth and power downward. It doesn’t happen often and isn’t easy, but power can take the form of servitude. We can grow in moral stature and personal happiness by divesting power and sharing decision-making. The Occupy Wall Street people take it on the chin from critics who demand immediate results, but they model a better world by eschewing leaders and embracing consensus. Ultimately, the most vital state, congregation, or business is community-based with loyalty voluntarily given and power dispersed as widely as possible and oriented toward service of others.

Once again, Jesus sets the standard:

Though He was in the form of God, He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather He emptied himself and took the form of a slave…
(Philippians 2:6-7a)

Originally printed in the January 2012 issue of the Catholic Radical. PDF link

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