Many of us are familiar with the standard cliche (originally penned by Lord Byron) that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I would like to take a little time to study the anatomy of this peculiar but all too well established effect.
Why does power corrupt? One would think that it could or even should be the very reverse, since power would enable a person to do much good, to command the abolition of evil and foster all that is good, and that doing such cannot possibly corrupt a soul. Indeed, I do know that there are some other lines of work that by their very nature will corrupt the individuals who have the misfortune to attain such employments, and that is so even without their having much power. These employment positions cause detriment to the souls working them because their job definition consists of being professional bullies. They are praised and advanced and promoted to the extent that they persecute the innocent, and punished for showing mercy.
But if one had a truly powerful position, would they not be able to set the rules themselves and bless and be blessed for showing mercy? One would think so, and one would be flat wrong, even in such a case where a person attained such power that they really could set for themselves their own rules in this matter.
In a nutshell, what happens to those who rise up in rank can only be described as a kind of blindness. The more powerful you are, the more you are prevented from seeing what it is that is really going on. This applies as much to businesses and corporations as well as governmental agencies, charities, and even ecclesiastical rank. The higher one's rank, the more one is blinded.
For example, one wag commented (with a world of wisdom in his sense of humor) that the main job of middle management is to prevent upper management from learning about all the things that are not working on the lowest levels of the company. Unfortunately, all of that is all too true as upper management, clueless as to what is really going on, will occasionally speak vacuous platitudes, or institute bizarre and meaningless and counter-productive policies from time to time, to the utter confusion and consternation of those who work under them. Even stranger, such persons at the top may actually imagine that they do know what's going on and that they have their finger right on the pulse of how their business is going. What is it that causes this illusion?
It is the psychology of most people. We all know how much powerful people can help us if we are their friends, or contrarily, how much they can hurt us if we offend them. Without even having to think consciously of it, we automatically and even instinctively do everything we can to stay on their good side. We do this, not out of greed or dishonesty, but merely out of self-preservation. The greedy ones will deliberately kiss up to the leader; the rest of us merely try to stay out of harm's way by not saying to his face anything about how poorly he is doing
I am reminded of a Twilight Zone segment about a little boy who has (for no identifiable reason) been endowed with extraordinary powers. Everything he wishes immediately comes true. The small group of people surrounding him all live in fear verging on blind panic, their whole lives revolving around him and his whims. They all know that with a single act of his will, he can turn any one of them into something hideous (such as a gigantic live jack-in-the-box) and then wish them away into the cornfield. No matter what he does, everyone around him always praises him with "What a good thing you did!" Most importantly, to challenge him is be changed into something hideous and then banished to the cornfield
Of course, real people, with real power of various sorts, never possess anywhere near that magnitude of power, but to a more limited extent, they too experience the same effect. A president of a corporation can say as a matter of corporate-wide policy "From now on, everyone will wear blue. This is to inspire corporate pride and unity." Everyone working directly under him, though they know the policy to be ludicrous and obviously nothing but counter-productive will nevertheless stroke his ego and tell him what a good thing he did.
But of course, where the leader's power is clearly less than that of the little boy in the Twilight Zone, there can and will at times arise someone who overcomes the instinct to be a yes-man around him. Couldn't the leader just listen to this person, if ever he is so blessed to have such among his courtiers? But he won't.
As is too often the case, the one person who tells the head man the truth is shouted down and boo'ed by all the yes-men, a lone (and very weak and soon to be removed) voice saying "no" when everyone else is saying "yes," and "yes" is the answer the guy at the top already wants to hear. It is a too familiar refrain that contributes to incompetence and abuse.
Conversely however, he who resides at the bottom of society's food chain, has the very best perception of all that is really going on. The beggar, the lowest ranking worker bee, the part time student-wage helper, the army private, the disparaged parishioner who is treated as being nothing, whose opinions count for absolutely nothing with the "great ones," is the one who knows the truth, and who furthermore knows he has nothing to lose by speaking it. This is one of the great gifts of the evangelical counsel of Poverty. By Poverty one gains the spiritual vision to know all things unknown by the rich and powerful.
In poverty, one sees the true state of everyone's spirit. If you are such a nobody, no one has to act around you; they let down their guard, just as they do when alone at home. Another writer once stated that a good measure of who one is, is what that one does when they are alone. But many will as much ignore or even fail to see the poor ones as much as they ignore the nearest lampost or fire hydrant. The poor see the truth about everyone.
It is sort of like the family dog, who can tell good people from bad people while his owners remain oblivious. Bad people don't care what the dog thinks because it is not the dog who makes decisions and who can be fooled into making a bad one, but the foolish owner who says to the con man "I don't know why Fido is acting this way; here, let me put him in the back room so we can continue our conversation."
By the same token, I have read in dating guides that one of the best ways to measure the character of a person you are dating, for consideration as to whether to marry them or call it off and move on, is to see how they treat the least important person in their lives. If you go to a restaurant and the waitress screws up an order, do they bite her head off or do they show respect and consideration as they either accept the incorrect order or request the correct order in a polite and respectful manner that shows that one understands that people do sometimes make mistakes and that nothing ought be made of that fact?
In this day where governmental welfare programs have displaced alms for the poor, there yet remains one thing we can and do give to the poor which is a good measure of our spiritual state. We can give them the respect and willingness to speak to them as equals and the fellow human beings they are, really listening to what they have to say, and sharing things about ourselves that we might otherwise have only shared with those who are at our own economic level. They don't need our money, indeed those most truly oppressed by unfortunate circumstance rather than their own foolish choices would not accept it unless truly necessary, but what they most deserve is our ear.
How do we treat the least important persons in our lives? Do we know the names of the people who sweep up our offices after hours, know their concerns and interests? Have we conversed with the homeless person who hangs out at the local Wal-Mart? Who knows but perhaps in doing so we may have entertained angels? (cf. Hebrews 13:2) I have been blessed with plenty of this world's goods, at least in comparison to at least 95% of the world's population, and I would be sorry to lose much of them. But knowing what I would gain in Poverty, and with it the ability to see the truth of those around me, would be truly ample consolation, were things ever to come to such a pass.