American news outlets have been aflutter with conversations and questions about the messy relationship between power and sex, catalyzed by the coinciding revelations about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sexual indiscretions. Although the two cases are categorically different—Strauss-Kahn is accused of assaulting a hotel maid, whereas Schwarzenegger's misdeeds, though morally repugnant, are nevertheless legal—both men compel us to look closely at the potentially combustible mix of sex and power.
Sadly, Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger are only two of many powerful men to come before them. Following the likes of John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and John Edwards, Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger perpetuate a sick pattern in which powerful men live as though the rules don't apply to them. Given this trend, cultural analysts have been asking two key questions. First, what is the cause of this pattern? Why are so many men in power sexual cads? And second, how should we classify these sexual relationships between powerful men and powerless women? When a woman is economically or socially dependent on a man, is the relationship every truly consensual?
On a recent episode of NPR's On Point, Time magazine executive editor Nancy Gibbs responded to these questions by citing a new study on the effects of power in a business setting. According to the yet-to-be-released study, "The higher they rose, men or women, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery." Social scientists theorize that this trend could be due, in part, to increased opportunity, but they also suspect power breeds a particularly blinding arrogance that borders on entitlement.
As these scandals continue to appear in the news, it would be easy for Christians to stand at the edge and look down. After all, any ideology that divorces one's public and private lives is bound to fail. Perhaps the American public (as well as the French one) is getting what it asked for.
Then again, Christians are really in no position to judge. Not only is it common to hear about the moral failures of pastors and other church leaders in positions of power, but a pervasive addiction to pornography among Christian men and women is also symptom of it. In a country of free information, free time, and virtually unlimited access to technology, many Christians help fuel an industry that exploits women who are often poor and sometimes underage. To be sure, that is an abuse of power.
How, then, should we respond to this turn of events? Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." Lincoln's words, when read alongside the above cited study, remind us that worldly power is not a neutral entity. It has the potential to change an individual in the most fundamental ways. It can distort our vision by perverting the way we see ourselves and those around us. This means that Christians are to handle power with fear and trembling. Worldly power is not beyond the redemptive work of God, but it is a great seducer that has ruined the lives of men and women throughout history. We cannot be naïve to that reality.
Realizing that each of us is vulnerable to the trappings of worldly power, Christ offers Christians an important example. When tempted in the wilderness, Jesus rejected Satan's offers of worldly power, opting instead for the invisible yet everlasting power of God. And in a scene that many theologians consider to be the clearest display of Jesus' divinity on earth, Christ forsook his right to worldly power to hang on a cross instead.
Does this mean that Christians should not be people of influence? No. But it does mean that there is a crucial difference between the power of God and the power of man. The power of God does not create hierarchy and injustice. It does not require the trodding over of the weak for the exaltation of self. It is not threatened by the strengths of others and it is not a zero sum game. In the kingdom of God there is no scarcity of blessing and freedom. And the power of God does not require the slavery and subordination of others.
Christian theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once challenged the believers of his generation with the indictment, "Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power." Christians today do well to heed his warning. It is difficult to attain worldly power without being self-serving along the way. It is not impossible, but it is unlikely. That is why power manifests itself so similarly wherever it is found, both in the halls of national leaders and in our homes, both inside and outside the church.
Let us therefore reject the lie that worldly power is more effective than sacrifice. It is tempting to accept the world's way of doing things because power has proven effective. But as long as our measure of faithfulness is pure pragmatism and not conformity to Christ, we are sure to hear many more stories of men and women who fall victim to the powers and principalities of this world.