The privileged inherit most of the power and the powerful end up with most of the privileges. They say power corrupts and privilege is blind. I can’t say that I disagree. But is there another way?
The New Testament gives brief accounts of two famous men of power and privilege––centurions both. For my money, these two pre-saved men are good role models for all people with similar social status. Even before new birth they had the kind of internal character to be able to handle their influential positions.
Sorry for the misdirection, but the “governor” of which I speak isn’t a particular character in an official position but a specific set of characteristics of a person of character! I’m not talking about a person in state government but the kind of person whose state of mind governs their course toward the benefit of society. This state of mind serves as a “governor” to help those with power and privilege manage it in a righteous way.
When I was a preteen I had a mini-bike, sort of a tiny motorcycle with a lawnmower engine, which was equipped with what they call a “governor.” I don’t know how it worked exactly; I just know it kept the engine from going as fast as I wanted it to. My dad explained that it was better for the engine and safer for me, to say nothing of everyone had the misfortune to be in my path!
There is something that I’ll call a moral governor that those who have power and privilege need. There are two centurions in the New Testament narrative who had this governor.
Centurions were Roman officers, most of whom had the reputation of being harsh taskmasters on the hundred soldiers in their command and on severe treatment of anyone else who got in their way. They rose to their position, not only by being fierce warriors and ruthless leaders, but also by being educated and well connected. In contrast to those who served under them, centurions were well paid for their service to the Emperor. Near the top of the socio-economic and political food chain they commanded the fear––if not the respect––of their armies, their fellow citizens, and all “foreigners” under Roman domination.
But the two men to which I refer were anything but stereotypical centurions of their day. They broke the mold of what you would expect in men addicted to power and who abused their privilege. Centurion #1 is found in Luke 7.
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
What we have here is an embarrassing example of a non-christian who acts more Christian than a lot of Christians, and more humane than most humans endowed with power and privilege. He “valued highly” his servant (several versions say the servant was “dear to him”). Uncharacteristic centurion treatment of their servants! Furthermore, the Jewish elders gave him a glowing character reference: “he loves our nation… he deserves to have you do this… he built our synagogue.”
If that weren’t enough, he demonstrated his own good humility by the way he approached Jesus, calling him “Lord” and saying what you would never expect to hear from a person with such clout: “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof… I am not worthy to even come to you!” He didn’t order Jesus to come, as he very well could have, but “asked” him kindly. His spirit was altogether antithetical to that of another great army commander, Naaman the Syrian, who pouted that his privilege didn’t warrant a more spectacular display of healing from the prophet (2 Kings 5).
The swagger, common among the centurion’s colleagues, was not the way this man of power rolled. He had the right ethnicity, a good education, and stable economics, in contrast to Jesus and his disciples who were poor, uneducated Jews who lived under the fierce thumb of men like him. Yet he approached him with a humble, unassuming spirit. He didn’t play the power card. He didn’t even play the, I’ve-done-a-lot-for-you-people-and-now-you-owe-me-card.
The fact that he showed any concern for a lowly servant in the first place is phenomenal, yet he had a mutually edifying relationship with this one who belonged to a much lower caste! He was no garden-variety person of privilege and power.
Everybody below him on the social ladder was obligated to obey his orders, but he wasn’t one to order people to do what would have merely served his own narcissistic whims. No wonder Jesus wished his own people had this kind of faith!
The man’s humility, generosity, and compassion served as a Christ-like “governor” to restrain the worship of privilege and power. His character gave him the ability to serve the powerless rather than exploit them.
Before turning to a second centurion in the next post, let me ask conclude with questions:
- Which of our governors (and all so-called “public servants”) have this governor?
- Which of those that we select to represent us have the restraint over their power and privilege in order to bless, rather than bleed society?
- How many of those we rally behind have a modicum of humility and compassion?
Next time I’ll divulge the identity of the other centurion with a “governor” and make some gnarly comments like:
Of all people, we ‘Christian’ people should be the first in line to surrender all unjust possibilities of privilege for the sake of the unprivileged. We must steward whatever form of power we possess in such a way as to reflect the personality of the One who allowed us to have power in the first place. And we must insist on electing officials with those same priorities…
About my memoir, The Other End of the Dark, someone wrote: “I see (in the book) the love of Jesus to comfort when we’re feeling lost, alone, and tormented. How He teaches us through the trials and gives us purpose again.” If you get the book, Freedom House gets the proceeds.