by the Ven Canon Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Chair of One Body One Faith and Member of General Synod
“The measure of a man is what he does with power.” So said Plato.
I have been reflecting on this statement a lot over the past week of so as I have watched the news. As I have seen politicians behaving like football hooligans and as I have seen grown men write disparaging tweets about a 16 year old girl attempting to do something about our climate emergency I have been wondering what it says about these particular men.
And it is men generally isn’t it?
I was going to start by excusing Plato’s blatant patriarchal approach to the world but on reflection is it mainly white middle-aged men in positions of power and privilege who have behaved in this way and been the reasons for my shock and reflection.
Why does any member of the UK government feel the need to use aggressive confrontational words? Words which they know will encourage others to behave in a similar fashion and indeed the threats against other members of Parliament is evidence of this. Why would any educated public servant think that sneering and laughing at another whilst lounging about in their place of work appropriate? What are these members of Parliament, usually white middle-aged men very keen on shouting down the women MPs, doing with their power? How are they displaying it to others?
I referred to them as public servants earlier on and indeed that is what they should be, but it occurs to me that there was very little going on in the Palace of Westminster which served the public. It seemed to be a fight about who had the real power, who was really in charge and pushing the boundaries as to how untouchable that power made them.
So back to my question why? It seems to be something about being challenged, about having the power questioned, or at least what they are doing with the power. And what happens when we are challenged? We react, we summon all the power we have to reassert ourselves as the powerful one. We shout, we’re rude, we use aggressive language. We try our very best to maintain our alpha male status like so many apes in a pack.
Alongside the scenes in Parliament we have seen the outrageous comments made on social media about Greta Thunberg. A 16 year old girl who is taking seriously the climate emergency facing us and trying to do something about it. That includes challenging others. It includes challenging the ‘adults’ who are in charge, leaders of nations, CEOs of multinationals and those of us who are so ingrained into the consumer society we can’t see what our actions are doing to the planet.
Once again those who hold power and privilege are challenged and they don’t like it. So they post criticisms, insults, sarcastic and unkind comments to try and reassert their power and regain their dominance. To ridicule the person making the challenge so that they are not taken seriously and written off by the masses.
When power is challenged it fights back, or rather those with the power fight back.
This is a story as old as humanity itself and we only have to read the Gospels to see that Jesus encountered it as well.
Jesus challenged those in positions of power, the Scribes and Pharisees and, much like those in the Houses of Parliament or venting on social media this last week, they didn’t like it. They argued back, they shouted, they ridiculed and attempted to make Jesus look stupid and eventually they incited others to do the same, ultimately convincing them to shout “Crucify, Crucify”.
It was amidst this, admittedly rather sad process of reflection, that I saw the following advert for The Guardian newspaper:
Change is possible. Hope is power.
In the gospels we see that the real power lay with the one who could not be defeated even by death. That real power lay in washing the feet of others, of riding on a donkey rather than in a grand parade, of a simple supper with friends and prayers in a garden, of a seemingly helpless man condemned to die yet forgives others as he does. Real power lays in the hope of making the world a better place and that change is possible.
Perhaps when it comes to the climate emergency the real power lays in the hands of a 16 year old Swedish girl who is persistent in raising the issue and taking action despite the resistance she encounters; perhaps the real power is not in the hands of the adults but in the hands of the school children who go on strike to highlight the crisis we find ourselves in which us adults seem to be doing so little about?
Real power lays in the hope of making the world a better place and that change is possible.
In Parliament maybe the real power lays in the hands of the many Members of Parliament who are fighting for a better world, who truly are public servants and who faithfully serve their constituents day by day? Does the real power exist in those who don’t resort to shouting and name calling, who retain their dignity rather than stoop to the lowest comment denominator? Is the power in those who believe change is possible and hope to play a part in making the world a better place?
For those of us who profess to be Christians we need to take Philippians 2:5-11 seriously:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father
We need to consider carefully how people could measure us by what we do with power, as individuals and as Church institutions. Who challenges us and how do we react when they do? Are we on the right side of the power struggle? Do we believe change is possible?
Is our hope in Christ our real power?