In my earlier trips to Syria, I remember the warmth of the people and the dynamic faith of believers. But I also remember a dark presence that followed like a shadow. I noticed that believers kept a low profile and men in parks sat with cast-down faces. Freedoms we take for granted went only so far. Autocratic rule and secret police made sure of this. Sadly, it is far worse today.
Look around. Our world is increasingly run by such dictators, thugs who rule with autocratic authority—who create a dark presence. In the latest The Atlantic, the cover reads “The Bad Guys are Winning.” We are returning to a world more and more dominated by dictatorial rule. What is particularly alarming is that these autocracies, led by the likes of a Putin or a Lukashenko, are ultimately run by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services, and professional propagandists.
In the accompanying article, Anne Applebaum likens these forces to an agglomeration of companies—call it Autocracy Inc. These despots don’t have an ideology beyond nationalism, self-enrichment, and the desire to seize all the power they can. It does not matter if their citizens suffer; what matters to them is that they remain in charge.
What is it about power? In his new book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, Brian Klaas asks, “Why do we create societies in which a small group control?” “Why do so many leaders turn out to be narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopaths?” (These are what Klaas refers to as the dark triad). “Does power corrupt or do corruptible people seek power?”
To this last question, experience suggests that it is yes and yes. Some unassertive, ordinary types step into power and lose what inhibitions they had over time. Acquiring position and authority, they begin to believe the praise adoring followers give. Gradually, they change. They begin to bend the rules. They become more and more selfish, less and less empathetic, and more inclined to abusive behavior. They feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want.
We see this in numerous biblical stories. Kings began with a heart for God, but power eventually corrupted them (Asa, Uzziah). David lost his spiritual bearings and sacrificed his humanity at the altar of power. Even more tragic was his son Solomon, whose character did not keep pace with his growing rule. A government marked by wisdom gave way to accumulation, burdensome taxes, forced labor, arms trafficking, and polygamy. Hollowed out by the acid of his own ego, Solomon’s self-serving power eventually led to his undoing.
In other cases, it appears the heart was already deeply corrupt (Saul, Ahab, Manasseh). In her book Leaders Who Lust, Barbara Kellerman notes that some leaders are relentless to gain influence, get their way and gain power from the beginning. It’s in their nature. If necessary, they will gain power by coercion and even downright terror. Coming to power does not change them. They just get better at using power for cruel ends.
I look at these five despots on the magazine cover, impressively dressed and self-assured, and I am reminded of Psalm 2:1-4—God laughs at their pretentiousness. Like all the other power-hungry tyrants, God simply blows on them and they wither and are swept away (Isa. 40:23–24). We need not fear but pray for their demise and protest their existence. By faith we hold, like Paul, that in Christ “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17). Whatever power any emperor, king, prime minister, president, or any present-day autocrat has, no matter how imposing and expansive, is at best derived.
What matters most is that we, the church, model true power, the kind that is not about posturing, asserting oneself, seeking the places of honor, trying to impress, and using one’s authority to manipulate and exploit others. Rather, we take our cues from Christ, whose power was more about self-emptying than about self-expanding. True power is a paradoxical mix of strength and weakness, holding on and giving up, kingdom and cross, resurrection and suffering.
Given we are all corrupted by sin, power can be easily distorted and misused to play God, exploit the weak, and push around one’s weight. And we see this. More than we care to admit, we are captivated by the world’s assumptions. Some of us in ministry are captured by large works and brash personalities, by leaders more interested in power acquisition than in character development. We fall over ourselves to get in the same room with people of rank. We do this even though there are endless stories of leaders who have fallen because they uncritically pursued the dominant ways of life.
Too many seek power over rather than power for. But real power proves its might through the act of humble affection. Leaders who are generous to give away their power ironically become the most powerful.