When it comes to leadership, it is worthwhile to consider the difference between power and authority. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” in counsel to Zerubbabel, the Governor of Judah, about the difficult task of rebuilding the temple (Zech 4:6). The Holy Spirit carries with it the authority of God for conviction and inspiration. “We love because he first loved us” is a succinct summation of this point.
Power, on the other hand, carries with it the inherent stigma of coercion and distrust. The use of power says a leader must compel others to do what he or she cannot persuade or trust them to do.
The difference is summarized nicely I think in this quote from a 1999 address from the then National Security Adviser to the President of the United States:
- There is a difference between power and authority. Power is the ability to compel by force and sanctions; there are times we must use it, but as a final, not a first resort. Authority is the ability to lead, and we depend on it for virtually everything we try to achieve. Our authority is built on very different qualities than our power: on the attractiveness of our values, on the force of example, the credibility of our commitments and our willingness to work with and stand by others (Samuel L. Berger, National Security Adviser to the President, Speech, November 4, 1999).
When the High Priest Caiaphas said to the Sanhedrin about Jesus, “It is better for one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50), he was appealing to power, not exhibiting authority. Caiaphas’ comment and its implementation illustrate that when the preservation of bricks and mortar and image and influence become more important than the cost to flesh and blood, leadership has been corrupted from stewardship of souls to ownership of them in competition with the God who alone gives life.
When the door permitting light and movement toward God and grace is slammed shut on the musty, windowless, lifeless room walled by tradition, brittle commitments of the past and self-preservation, then leadership is nothing more than a cheap and hollow substitute of power for the authority of love.
An obscure and disgraceful episode in the life of David demonstrates the essential difference between authority and power.
The unlikely protagonist of the story was named Rizpah. She was a concubine of King Saul to whom she bore two sons. Saul died in battle with the Philistines and his weak son Ish-Bothshesh came to rule eleven of the tribes of Israel. Saul’s nemesis, and God’s chosen king, David ruled Judah to the south.
The strong man of the kingdom was Saul’s general, Abner. As Ish-Bothshesh was weak, Abner gained in strength in the royal household. To show himself as the heir to Saul’s power, he began an affair with Rizpah who had no power to protest. Ish-Bothshesh objected. “Why are you sleeping with my father’s concubine?” he asked Abner. (2 Sam. 3:7).
Abner responded with a self-righteous, angry tirade about his faithfulness to the memory and legacy of Saul. He ended by telling Ish-Bothshesh that “Just because you accuse me of an offense against this woman, I’ll show you. I’ll turn over everything left of Saul’s kingdom to David. (2 Sam. 3:8-11).
Great treachery followed. Abner attempted to make good on his threat by going to David and turning over the kingdom, but after their meeting, Joab, David’s jealous thug of a general, assassinated Abner.
Ish-Bothshesh suffered a fearful paralysis of nerve and spirit when he heard that Abner was dead. Ish-Bothshesh, in turn, was assassinated in bed by two of his subjects thinking to curry favor with David. Violence and war followed until David conquered the whole kingdom and established Jerusalem as his capitol. He then went to work through a combination of military strength and political dealing to consolidate his power.
Nothing more was heard of Rizpah for several years, that is until. . . .
A three year famine afflicted Israel. David asked God what caused it. God replied, “There is blood guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Sam. 21:1).
The Gibeonites were a remnant of the Amorites, a people that Israel had sworn to protect when they entered the land of Canaan. Saul broke that promise when he tried to exterminate the Gibeonites in an attempt to purify Israel. God expects his people to honor their word even when the result seems less than God would want (Psalm 15:4). Saul’s attempt at ethnic cleansing led to disaster for the Gibeonites through bloodshed and the Israelites through starvation.
David did not wait for God to give him instruction on how to solve the problem. He went to the Gibeonites and asked them what could make up for the harm done them. They told him “You couldn’t pay us enough money to make up for this and we don’t want to kill Israelites.”
David asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“This is between us and Saul because he tried to destroy us. Hand over seven of his sons and we will impale them on poles on the mountain.”
David had made a promise to protect the children of Saul’s son Jonathan, so David spared Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth. He took instead five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab and Rizpah’s two sons by Saul. He handed them over to the Gibeonites who impaled them on the first day of the harvest so looking up from the fields they could see the corpses and know that Gibeah was avenged.
Rizpah took sackcloth and spread it out on a rock beside the poles. Throughout the harvest and into the winter rains she kept vigil there, day and night, shooing away the vultures and wild animals that came to feed on the corpses of her sons and their nephews. It must have been horrific for her.
We have seen scenes like this in the television pictures from places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan and Iraq. A woman, deprived of home and love by the intrigues and power games of arrogant and violent men, confronts the death by torture of her children who are innocent of any crime except being born into families burning with ancient prejudices.
Where is the grace in this? Rizpah is the grace. She did the only thing she could do and it was everything. No mother ever gave birth that her children could suffer this fate. And when, in spite of Mother’s love and royal birth, evil ravaged them anyway, she kept them precious in memory and honored in rest by refusing to let the indignity visited upon them in life follow them into death. She had committed to bring them into the world and she would stay with them through hell itself as their life ended and beyond.
Rizpah’s path took her from a position of privileged mistress of wealthy and powerful men through the disruption of war and political deal-making to the Palestinian mountainside where her sacrificial love transformed this squalid story into a testament of the Gospel. It brings her sons to life in our memory nearly 3,000 years later. Her’s was a pure act of grace; a gift of herself for no purpose but love.
God did not tell David to practice human sacrifice to end the famine. David exercised his power to “cut a deal” with the Gibeonites, but to no good result. His political act did not end the famine. It simply stained his kingdom and his legacy with the blood of innocents.
Rizpah’s vigil rebuked David. Word of her love, transcending famine, politics, horror and fear, shamed David to action. He had the bodies of the boys cut down and gathered up the bones of the rest of Saul’s family and gave them a state burial. Grace triumphed over disgrace. The authentic authority of love proved stronger than political power and death. It was only then, when love, not power, had its way that God ended the famine in Israel (2 Sam 21:14).
This story reveals the difference between power and authority. Abraham Lincoln said that the true test of a man is not how he handles adversity but what he does when given power. David, given power, went to God to discern the problem but he went to his own strength for the answer.
David had the power to take five children and two grandchildren of his defeated predecessor and sacrifice them for a political solution to a spiritual problem. But those five boys were the sons of mothers. They were flesh and blood. In the raw exercise of power, whether in war or peace, flesh and blood become commodities for the schemes of the powerful. “Might does not make right” is a concept we learn in childhood but too easily forget as adults.
I am in my thirtieth year as an attorney and administrator. I am privileged to represent religious organizations, educational institutions and hospitals. These are nonprofit organizations intended for helpful solutions to the basic needs of humankind. Even in such places with spiritual missions and altruistic ideals. one given authority to lead must deal with the temptation of power.
Eugene Peterson wrote: “Because leadership is necessarily an exercise of authority, it easily shifts into an exercise of power. But the minute it does that, it begins to inflict damage on the leader and the led” (Introduction to 2 Corinthians, The Message). This what happened to David. It is tempting to a leader to do something just because he or she can do it. Doing something usually turns out to mean doing something to someone.
When we use someone else to make our point we exercise power. When we convince someone to agree with our point we exercise authority. The authentic difference is found in love and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Henri Nouwen addressed the difference between the coercion of power and the authority of love in a passage that has fundamentally changed my thinking about my own leadership:
- What makes the 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. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21). Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power. Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert to the cross. The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.
- One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love (In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad: New York, 1989) p. 59-60.
About a thousand years after Rizpah’s stand for love against power, another Son was nailed to a cross on a Palestinian hillside by power brokers. The night before Jesus died it was observed that “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). He stooped and washed the feet of his disciples including those who before the next morning would betray him for power and flee from him for fear of power. But Jesus chose the authority of love over power.
When he finished washing and drying their feet he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right , for that is what I am. So if I, your teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:12-15).
Rizpah did not live and Jesus did not die in vain. Their stories call us to live and love under the faithful authority of Jesus Christ by His grace alone.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,