Presidential Power Plays

abuse of power

Kings, Prophets, and Presidents: A Warning about Power Abuse (Part 2 of 4)

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

Power abuse is nothing new to humanity. Man’s inhumanity to man is as old as humanity itself, especially with respect to the powerful-over-the-powerless.

Anyone who doesn’t have sociopathic tendencies hates to hear about the parent who abuses his children, the man who forces himself on a woman, the celebrity who leverages his fame for sexual favors, the policeman who uses his badge to bully the public, the priest who uses his position to harm children, the boss who exploits her employees––to say nothing of corrupt judges, human traffickers, political demagogues, and spiritual leaders on a power trip.

The stories of David and Ahab serve as negative examples of monarchs who used their position to get what they wanted when they wanted it, and murdered the witnesses to cover it up. To be fair, what was a lifestyle for Ahab was for David a momentary failure, albeit a grave failure.

By way of contrast, Samuel, the prophet-judge who near the end of his life of service addressed the nation:

“Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these things, I will make it right.”

“You have not cheated or oppressed us,” they replied. “You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.” 1 Samuel 12:3-4

[Can you imagine our man in the Oval Office, or many other politicians for that matter, at the end of his/their term in office even possessing the gall to ask for such a performance review, let alone earning this sort of response? Just sayin’.]

Samuel was a man of integrity and used his social/spiritual capital to benefit his people rather than exploit them. His sons, on the other hand, leveraged their privilege and took advantage of their countrymen. They “did not follow Samuel’s ways… [instead] turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” 1 Samuel 8:3

“Justice,” as I understand it is the right use of power, privilege, or position. It follows then that abusing whatever power, privilege, or position we have over others “perverts justice.”

The International Justice Mission says, “Injustice is what happens when someone uses their power to take from someone else the good things God intended them to have: their life, their liberty, their dignity, or the fruit of their love or their labor.”

If God is a God of justice, then when we do justice we’re acting like him. Since he uses his ultimate power to benefit those over whom he has power, it follows that it is our responsibility to wield our limited power to help rather than harm our neighbors, especially those with less agency than ours.

When the powerful take advantage of the weak, God takes the side of the weak. Ron Sider says, “God is not biased. Because of unequal needs, however, equal provision of basic rights requires justice to be partial in order to be impartial. (Good firefighters do not spend equal time at every house; they are “partial” to homes on fire.)” He fights FOR the exploited and AGAINST the exploiter, FOR the victim and AGAINST the victimizer. And commands us to do the same.

Timothy Keller shares a definition and consequences for justice when he says, “The strong must disadvantage themselves for the weak, the majority for the minority, or the community frays and the fabric breaks.”

I turn now to a discussion of our man in the Oval Office. Let me be clear, I make no claim of equivalence between presidential and prophetic or monarchial roles. I absolutely do NOT expect our POTUS to fill the shoes of prophet or king in America. Nevertheless, I believe we can justifiably draw some parallels between them with respect to how modern public servants should and shouldn’t conduct themselves.

While I could go on a tirade regarding Mr. Trump’s innumerable abuses of presidential power, I’ll just call to mind a small sample of them. I do have respect for his office but, as you may have guessed, I can muster little-to-no respect for him as a person or president. In my opinion he is a classic relentless power abuser.

Donald Trump has routinely used his clout as a wealthy celebrity, real estate mogul, and now politician. Take for instance how he admitted to routinely leveraging his fame to sexually harassing and assaulting women, how he ridicules his political opponents, fires anyone disloyal to him, and the list goes on. It’s evident, at least to me, that this millionaire’s son has he’s been on an entitled power trip his whole life. Anyone below him on the social register without the agency to defend themselves is fair game. To say nothing of how he habitually exploits his bully pulpit to spew vitriol, vengeance, and hyper-nationalism over social media and in his MAGA rallies.

It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a parallel between Ahab’s childish sulking when Naboth rejected his business offer and our “Great Negotiator’s” immature mocking and belittling attack tweets against those who stand up to him. There is more than a slight similarity between Ahab’s boldfaced lies in the process of stealing Naboth’s vineyard and our president’s relentless torrent of “alternative facts” in order to advance his agenda at the expense of those with less clout.

[I’m aware that most politicians are pretty good at lying. But from where I sit, Mr. Tump has perfected it to an art.]

There is at least one disparity between those kings and our POTUS. Neither David nor Ahab “fired” the prophets who called them on the carpet. When it was well within their power to have Nathan and Elijah put to death, instead they took it on the chin, humbled themselves, and repented. That’s where their path and our president’s diverge. Since he routinely ridicules his opponents instead of admitting he’s wrong and since he never asks for forgiveness, it seems like a long shot that our POTUS will ever respond to correction in any sort of teachable way and actually repent of his abuse of power.

For a current case in point, which should be no surprise especially in light of the incidents I mention above, I cite Mr. Trump’s recent declaration of a national emergency without congressional approval in order to get the money to build his wall on our southern border, a project that is designed as a monument to his ravenous ego, and an alarming abuse of executive power.

“When a political leader only seeks more and more unaccountable power, when his language and action is consistently used against the most at risk, that’s a moral, not just political, problem….The real national emergency that we face in America, is not a fictitious ‘invasion’ on our southern border, but Donald Trump himself.” Jim Wallis

Next time, we’ll talk about what can be done about unleashed unaccountable power.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Do you feel I’m being unfair to the president?
  • In your opinion are my comments out of step with Scripture in some way?
  • How would you propose to respond to an abuse of power in government or anywhere else for that matter?

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