Abuse of Power

SLIDE 3: NABOTH’S VINEYARD
The scripture today is about the Prophet Elijah’s principle opponents King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. As the story of Naboth’s Vineyard unfolds, we realize why Elijah was prophesying against the King and Queen. The issue was not just the idolatry that Queen Jezebel had introduced into Israel, but royal injustice and abuse of power that were leading the country down a path that would end in ruin.
Poor Naboth owned a vineyard that adjoined the King’s garden, and Ahab coveted that vineyard. He offered to buy it from Naboth, but that vineyard had been in Naboth’s family for generations, and he just couldn’t bring himself to part with it. Ahab for his part was a spoiled child, and when Naboth refused to sell him the land, he pouted.
SLIDE 4: LIMITS TO THE KINGS POWER
In Israel there were supposed to be limits to the power of the King. They hadn’t learned yet about eminent domain. In most of the rest of the ancient Near East, Kings were absolute monarchs, there were no limits to their authority. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was a deity of justice, and the Mosaic Law guaranteed that ordinary people were supposed to have rights that had to be respected by government. Queen Jezebel, however, had grown up in Tyre, where the King was all powerful and the people were at the mercy of government.
SLIDE 5: NABOTH JUDICIAL MURDER
So when Jezebel found her husband sulking because a peasant wouldn’t sell him some land, she said, “You are the King. You can have anything you want. No mere peasant can stand in your way. Let me handle it.”
SLIDE 6: POWER CORRUPTS
So the Queen handled it alright. She arranged for Naboth to be accused of a crime and stoned to death. When news reached Ahab of the death of Naboth, he confiscated the vineyard – classic abuse of power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even in a democracy power corrupts, witness the recent revelations about government domestic spying on the press and ordinary individuals, and the misbehavior of the IRS. Even in a democracy the temptation to abuse power can corrupt individuals, who are supposed to be serving the people.
SLIDE 7: POWER IN ALL HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
And the abuse of power is not just in governments. All human relationships and organizations have power dynamics, in marriages, families, churches, places of employment, the Little League, the Girl Scouts, the Neighborhood Association, the PTA, even among friends, there are dynamics of power and influence. And all of those relationships are open to abuse. Even among friends people can take advantage of one another. It happens.
SLIDE 8: THE COMMON GOOD BE DAMNED
The classic cases of abuse of power involve some kind of office holder using his or her position for the purpose of personal gain. We had in our scripture this morning the example of Jezebel using the office of the Queen to commit judicial murder and steal poor Naboth’s Vineyard. Increasingly we witness abuses of power in government as moneyed interests appear to control what happens in Congress and our legislatures. The Koch Brothers have become the best example of a bad example. Much of what we call lobbying anymore is just good old fashioned greed – the common good be damned.
SLIDE 9: PLAYING FIELD STREWN WITH MONEY
Ever since the Supreme Court opened up unlimited corporate contributions into the political system, the playing field has been titled and strewn with money. We have the spectacle of massive sums of money being spent on elections, while we cut back on head-start programs and food stamps.
SLIDE 10: ARROGANCE OF POWER
Every once in a while we run into abuses of power that aren’t about greed but just power itself. There is a story about a Drug Enforcement Agency officer who stopped at a ranch in Texas, and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.”
The rancher said, “Okay , but don’t go in that field over there…..”, as he pointed out the location.
The DEA officer verbally exploded saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, the arrogant officer removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher. “See this badge?! This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish… On any land! No questions asked or answers given!! Have I made myself clear…do you understand?!”
The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores. A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, and looked up, and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull. With every step the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he’d sure enough get gored before he reached safety. The officer was clearly terrified. The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs… “Your badge, show him your BADGE!!”
SLIDE 11: POWER ABUSE AND THE PUBLIC GOOD
Power arrogantly wielded often leads to a fall. Power always needs to listen and be exercised with humility. Power abuse motivated by greed or arrogance are both reprehensible, but some of the most egregious abuses of power have been in the pursuit of great ideals and what sometimes seemed like a concern for the public good. For instance, the Patriot Act established our domestic surveillance programs, and the motivation for invading the privacy of our citizens was to keep America safe. Our nation had been attacked by international terrorists and our government needed extraordinary powers of surveillance to protect us from terrorist threats. But how much surveillance is enough? Do we need to scan everyone’s phone records and e-mails?
SLIDE 12: EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066
Fear often motivates the abuse of power like the detainment and resettlement of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from California, and parts of Oregon and Washington after Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, on February 19, 1942, which allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast. In 1944, the Supreme Court even upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, while noting that the provisions that singled out people of Japanese ancestry were a separate issue outside the scope of the proceedings. One-hundred ten-thousand people had their property confiscated, uprooted and sent to concentration camps by executive order not even an Act of Congress. The most egregious abuses of power can be performed by those who believe they are acting in the public interest.
SLIDE 13: NORMAL EVERY DAY ABUSES OF POWER
Now it is easy to point our fingers at the abuses of power we see in others, but what about ourselves? Very few of us think of ourselves as having any power. We are just normal every day citizens who watch the parade of fools who masquerade as our political leaders. But as I said before, “all human relationships and organizations have power dynamics.” Therefore I want to bring this sermon back to common ordinary folks like us, although sometimes I wonder if we have any common ordinary folks at United Church. Bill Tucker was confessing the other day, we are a pretty quirky lot.
SLIDE 14: HONEST, STRAIGHT FORWARD, NO GOSSIP
Anyway here are some thoughts about avoiding abusing our own power. Be as honest and transparent as we can be. Don’t confuse confidentiality with secrecy. Abuse flourishes when secrecy abounds. When dealing with others do not indulge in hidden agendas. Sylvia Boyer likes to call this an open kimono policy. Let everyone see whether or not you have weapons. Put everything out on the table so communication can be as honest and straight forward as possible. Don’t use hidden weapons or poison pills. Avoid gossip and slander. Bertrand Russel is credited with saying, “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” Remember gossip and slander poison the well of community, where we all come to drink. Don’t poison the well. We need to talk to one another rather than talking at each other or talking behind one another’s backs. Avoid double dealing and double talk. As Jesus said, “let you yes be yes and let your no be no.”
SLIDE 15: HERDING CATS
Understand the obligations and virtues of followership. Don’t ask someone to lead, and then refuse to follow at every turn. I know United Church is like herding cats, but if we never give up any of our power to enable leadership to lead, we will spend a long time in the wilderness.
SLIDE 16: USE POWER RESPONSIBLY
Remember, common ordinary folks have tremendous power, if we are willing to use our power responsibly and we are willing to be accountable just as we have to be willing to hold leadership accountable. Power has been given to all of us by God. Our task is to discover our power and use it responsibly.

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