By David Hegg
I have to admit I love old movies, especially those that have some sappy allegiance to themes like loyalty, chivalry and love. As old-fashioned as it may be, I still like heroes and happy endings where the good guy wins and gets the girl.
In one of my favorites, “Camelot,” a substantive element is the question of power. In initiating his round table cadre, King Arthur determines power is best used to preserve and extend whatever benefits his people. He coins the phrase “might for right.” You don’t have to be an ethicist to recognize the connection between the use of power and an underlying cause by which it is to be directed and controlled: Might controlled by an ethical pursuit of what is right.
Lord Acton is famous for saying “power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” As with all aphorisms, this one is not a guarantee as much as a wise perception of human nature that we disregard at our peril. Without an ethical underpinning, power usually runs toward self-promotion rather than the common good. This too often means the corruption of one’s integrity in pursuit of prosperity. This trend is what Camelot’s King Arthur was opposing. Power must never be used to promote selfish desires at the expense of societal well-being. Such would constitute an abuse of power. Yet, we are seeing this as a matter of common course in our day. We don’t have to look far to find out why.
Recently I asked some good friends what they thought about the overall ethical climate in the U.S. One answer stuck with me because of its simplicity and deep insight. His answer was “it is ungrounded.” Upon further questioning I learned that he saw the ethics of our country overall as no longer stemming from a mutually agreed upon set of beliefs. Our ethics no longer rise from common ground. Hence, we have no common ethic. This means our ways of living, which arise from our various autonomous ethical beliefs, are becoming more and more diverse. Increasingly the cry is for tolerance not truth. And it must be so because we can’t agree on what is true, or if such a thing as absolute truth even exists.
And where will this take us? It is clear we have fallen further into class and racial warfare, political and religious sectarianism, and the great cynicism that comes with increasing divisions among us. The past weeks we’ve been shown the horrible malignancy that infects our nation and world. A malignancy known as racially motivated contempt, bias and violence against fellow human beings. While this sickens any moral person, it is – sadly – not surprising.
We have too easily surrendered important decisions to those in power, thinking they would have our best interest in mind. We have foolishly entrusted power to those who promise what they can’t produce, and who insist that their private values, moral standards and religious convictions have no part in public discourse. They want us to grant them power without knowing whether they will use it for right or wrong. Once entrenched, they create divisions among us to stay in power.
Today we live in a nation where “might for right” has eroded into “might to stay mighty.”
You might oppose my opinion by reminding me that things didn’t work out too well for King Arthur. But I would counter with the argument that his strategy fell apart due to the unethical and immoral practices of those nearest to him. His view of power, its necessary pitfalls, and the superiority of using it for the betterment of others rather than self was correct. Where he was blind was in trusting those who only appeared to have moral integrity.
The lesson is clear. Never give a man a stick if there’s a chance he’ll beat you with it. Better yet, seek out those leaders whose lives testify to great moral commitment, who have suffered loss rather than break the public trust, and who are not afraid to tell the truth. We can no longer afford to entrust power to those who will use it to pursue their dreams rather than ours.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.