Be Careful: Power Tends to Corrupt…Our Faith

Several years ago, my family and I spent a weekend visiting friends in North Central Indiana. Although this part of the country is home to lots of regular Indiana folks, it’s one of the places known as “Amish country,” a handful of regions in the United States that are home to large Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities. Although we were there to visit friends, not to engage in “Amish tourism,” we did visit the Menno-Hof Amish/Mennonite Information Center in Shipshewana, Indiana. Part museum, part educational experience, it features interesting exhibits about the history, beliefs, and contemporary experiences of Amish and Mennonite people.

The experience began with a quick multimedia presentation of a couple of thousand years of Christian history, starting with the birth of Jesus and showing how and why the Anabaptist movement emerged in sixteenth-century Europe. Through this perspective, one prominent theme emerged: bad things happen when religion and political power get cozy.

These folks should know; their history serves as brutal illustration. The center’s exhibits highlighted the European experiences of Anabaptists and other minority religious groups. An underground dungeon shows the lengths to which powerful state churches would go to suppress the rights and views of minority groups. A ship, ready to sail for the “New World,” illustrates the lengths to which they went in order to find a place where they might peacefully practice their faith and honor their conscience.

In fact, among those of us with European roots, many are descended from people who came to this land seeking escape from state-sponsored religious persecution in Europe. They saw for themselves how political power and religion, when they get all mixed up, can be a recipe for oppression. And we see it for ourselves today, in nations all around the world, where faith and power are used as both justification and tools in the fight for domination. Whether we like it or not, the entire Western world is at war with one such system. How tremendously ironic that American Christians can’t seem to let go of our own appetite for political power.

Now, I’m no separatist. I’ve never even read an Amish romance novel. And I’m a firm believer that Christians ought to be as engaged–and personally invested–in our cultures as anyone else. But I think these Anabaptists got something right–political power has the potential to corrupt our faith as thoroughly as it can corrupt any other area of life. As soon as people perceive a threat to their power, they often begin to lose their way as they focus on trying to cling to it. I’m afraid this is one form of sickness currently infecting the American church.

We are here to live in relationship with God and wield our influence in the direction that relationship leads us. We are not here to make or keep ourselves powerful. That is not part of our calling. Does this mean we ought to eschew power and influence, automatically yielding it all to people who have no misgivings about the relationship between power and faith? Absolutely not. But graciously exercising power is far different from grabbing for it, hoarding it, or wielding it only in our own self-interest. Humbly and generously seeking the common good is vastly different from seeking to hold over others the kind of power that God himself chooses not to exercise.

Many of the people who are quick to point out power’s corrupting influence on people who have disappointed us–like lifelong politicians, corporate kings, and media moguls–are foolish enough to believe it won’t have the same effect on us. Take a look around and think again.

These are messy times, like all other times in human history. I’m not naive enough to believe any one attitudinal shift will bring ideological peace to our society. But clinging to power at all costs has never brought lasting peace or fostered a kinder, more livable culture. In fact, those who refuse to share, without exception, eventually lose everything they worked so hard to amass. Let’s take a lesson from our own stories. Let’s imitate the all-powerful King of Kings and Lord of Lords, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).

6 Comments
  1. John Edgren says:

    This is an excellent article, Amy. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Extremely well-written and important. I do wish you had given some specific examples of following this paragraph: “Many of the people who are quick to point out power’s corrupting influence on people who have disappointed us–like lifelong politicians, corporate kings, and media moguls–are foolish enough to believe it won’t have the same effect on us. Take a look around and think again.” I am equally concerned about a growing storm I see.

  3. Rhoda Sommers says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy. I come from a long line of Amish and plain Mennonites and value deeply my heritage and how it continues to influence my faith and political beliefs even though I have not formally been part of a Mennonite church for many years. I appreciate the way you captured a perspective dear to me and my heritage and the way you have spoken words so needed in our world today.

    • Amy says:

      Rhoda, I’m so glad this post felt honoring to your heritage. I have a lot of respect not only for what the Amish and plain Mennonites have learned from history, but also for how they have cared for vulnerable people and been catalysts for change in our society. Because it’s close to my heart, I’m thinking especially of their advocacy for more human treatment of people with mental illness. Thanks for reading and for your encouraging feedback!

© 2018 Amy Simpson.