'Power under' approach - a test of character

Adam Dodds reflects on power, character and leadership.

In recent weeks, two very different leaders have made news headlines regularly: Pope Francis - the new head of the Roman Catholic Church, and Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea. Reflecting on their contrasting behaviours is revealing. As Abraham Lincoln said: ''Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.''

Both leaders are relatively new to their respective positions and both have significant influence. Both have been quick to stamp their own style of leadership on their dominions. But, beyond these similarities, their styles could not be more different.

In recent weeks, Kim Jong-un has threatened several countries. Walking a tightrope of political detente, threatened countries have tried not to respond in kind. He has been displaying what could be called a ''power over'' approach. This approach involves someone seeking to exert their will over others through intimidation, manipulation, or coercion in order to extract personal gain.

Since the puff of white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the new Pope, like Kim Jong-un, is becoming known for his distinctive exhibition of power. Pope Francis decided not to move into the Vatican's palatial Apostolic Palace in favour of a modest two-room residence.

He preferred riding on the bus with the cardinals instead of travelling by special papal car. The day before Good Friday, the day that celebrates the crucifixion of Jesus for the sins of the world, the Pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners. Since his appointment, the Pope has consistently exercised what could be called ''power under''.

A hardened cynic might suggest this is clever marketing by the Pontiff to improve the ratings of his worldwide organisation.

However, a far more likely reason is readily apparent. For more than 50 years this man has devoted his life to being an apprentice of Jesus. Pope Francis washed people's feet because that is what Jesus did. Speaking broadly, he exercises this ''power under'' approach because that is what Jesus did.

According to the ''power over'' approach, you make yourself bigger, more impressive and more formidable. With ''power under'' one ''lowers'' oneself to serve the other. Both forms of power provoke a response in kind. It appears that the ''power over'' approach is stronger. But appearances can be deceptive.

Recently, about two billion Christians worldwide celebrated Easter. Central to this remembrance is Good Friday. This ''day of days'' is Good because, on that day, the all-powerful God incarnate, Jesus, revealed the true nature of power.

One of Jesus' apprentices (or followers), the apostle Paul, wrote that in our powerless state, ''God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.''

True power is ''power under''. This is not weakness but true strength. In contrast, the ''power over'' course can indicate insecurity and weakness because of the need to look strong.

In his book Humilitas, Prof John Dickson explains three features of living in the ''power under'' way. It presupposes dignity and security in a person's identity, it is willingly chosen and it is social, for the good of others.

As apprentices of Jesus, Christians are instructed to exercise ''power under'' as He did. This is to be the new normal for the society that follows Jesus. According to the New Testament, a husband and wife are to submit to one another, thus exercising ''power under'' towards each other.

What would society look like if, in our interpersonal relationships, we lived according to the teaching of Jesus and exercised ''power under''? What would this mean in the home, the workplace, the board room or in international relations? A nice idea, but is it practical?

Is there not a tendency within all people to want their own way and to bend others towards their will? There is, but on Good Friday Jesus resisted this temptation and chose to exercise ''power under'' by submitting Himself to be crucified.

As theologian Greg Boyd has said, God flexed His omnipotent muscles by dying on the cross. Why? Because Jesus' death enables all who entrust their lives to Him to disengage those ''power-over'' tendencies latent in us all.

This happens when people become Jesus' apprentices and join the company of other apprentices (a Christian congregation).

Lincoln was right. Power tests a person's character. Jesus passed that test and inverted commonly held notions of power.

''Power under'' is superior to ''power over''. This is a major reason why Jesus' death and resurrection is God's solution to the world's problems.

All people have power because all people have influence. Will you use your power as Jesus used His? Becoming an apprentice of Jesus is the first step.

Adam Dodds is the senior pastor of the Elim Church, Dunedin.

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