The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest temptation of all. We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power—provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing. With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much more moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in.
Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church, such as the Great Schism of the 11th century, or the immense secularization of the 20th, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.
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?” (Matt. 20:21) Ever since the serpent said: “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil” (Gen. 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power.
Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert all the way 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: 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 persons unable to give and to receive love in return.