Men behaving badly
The political scene of late has a lot of news about men behaving badly. In New York City a mayoral candidate is asking for a second chance at a second chance after being caught – again – in an online sex chat. Meanwhile a candidate for controller is proudly working on his first opportunity at a second chance after his sexual escapade. I guess he comes across as a choir boy by comparison.
Lest we think this is only a New York problem, across the country in San Diego the total number of women claiming that the city mayor has harassed them has climbed to seven and down in South Carolina their newest congressman , and former governor, apparently has had his sexual escapade forgiven by the voters. It’s not even all about sex. In Virginia the current governor is under scrutiny over his financial misdeeds and has promised to give the money he has accepted back.
Is this a case for the “Lord Acton rule?” Acton is famous for his line “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Many people, particularly those on the small-government right, feel this rule is up there with the Bible for inspiration and cite it as a case for reducing the role of government. Is it?
The fly in the Acton rule ointment is that from time to time those in power, even those with absolute power, seem to do a pretty good job. In NYC, under former mayors Guliani and Bloomberg , whether you agree with their policies or not, there has been a 20-year run of competent and scandal-free leadership. How does Acton account for this?
Most conservative Christians say that only “Biblical values” give us the answer; only if those in power are led by Scripture can we avoid the Action nightmare. This answer fails to explain the NYC history however as neither of the two men are professing evangelicals. Some explain that away by saying that, though they are not evangelicals, they have Biblical values. I suppose honest leadership doing the best it can is consistent with the Bible but many people who are decidedly not evangelical, and who probably would bristle if you said they were governed by biblical values, may be pretty good leaders too.
So do we throw Acton out? Or do we just bring up his quote when we can hurl it at political opponents? Does power corrupt? Well, if we really are serious about reading the Bible we’d have to conclude that men, or for that matter women, don’t need power to be corrupt. We already are corrupt. To be sure, power situations give more opportunities for our sin nature to manifest and, even more, to have widespread consequences. Power gives more temptation for our corruption to manifest but doesn’t cause it.
Our culture has accepted that power is “bad.” The power of government is bad; the power of Wall Street and the 1% is bad; the power of the church is bad. Each of these theories, and many others, has horrific stories to tell as proof. The trouble is that power never goes away. If we take it from one place, it goes to another. Even if we fragment it in an ultra-libertarian “everybody does what is right in his own eyes” kind of way the power of one over another will go on. Simplistic solutions to the problems of power always fall short.
The problem of men behaving badly rests in the values of the men. Values are shaped in us at an early age and, with apologies to my fellow evangelicals, may not always come from the Bible. But values don’t come easy. We need to have them driven into us over and over. Even now, at my advanced age, the lesson of these men behaving badly comes in the renewed determination it gives me not to be like that.
Here is a Lord Acton quote I like better than how one about power – “Liberty is not the power to do what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”