Henri on power, love and leadership

Yesterday Josh Graves posted on his blog this quote from Henri Nouwen:

One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power—even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to power but emptied himself and became as we are. The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all. . . . What makes this temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life (In the Name of Jesus, 58-59).

I agree with Henri that power is an attractive and easy substitute for love.   It is easy, but I don’t think “ease” captures all that is at work here.  It is easy to substitute power for love because it is easy to get a big head.  Such is a peril of being in front, of being visible and noticed and lauded and applauded.  With a big head, folks get confused that leadership=power.   Power is easy and attractive because when it is all about me I must somehow maintain and enlarge this focus on myself to ensure that it remains all about me.   How do you maintain or enlarge focus on self?  Easy…you use power.  You leverage popularity (or at least visibility) into power.  It is a short slide from visibility to narcissism to power.  So begins the manipulation, scheming and conniving.  So begins the politics of self-preservation.

Love, on the other hand, says it is not all about me.  In fact, it is not about me at all…it is about you.  While power strives for the good of self, love seeks the good of another.  Henri’s theological point is well-put: Jesus did not cling to power but emptied himself.  The text underneath this is the hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2.1-11.  Leaders who would be Christian will take seriously this truth not only in word but in deed. I commented on Josh’s post that what makes Henri’s quote all the more powerful (no pun intended) for me is that he turned his back on power for sake of those who in the eyes of this world have nothing to offer narcissistic people.  I find that truly powerful, and I respect it.

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