Power and Freedom

People like to contrast religion and politics, and yet throughout history they have always been closely intertwined.  This is no accident.  At their best, both are concerned with creating and supporting stable, just communities.  Both have an interest in the deepest needs and desires of human beings: the need for a decent standard of living, the need to be in a right relationship with other human beings, the need to be in a right relationship with the universe and with God.

Even where many politicians of right and left have no faith commitment, and political parties can be indifferent, or even hostile to religion, the common concerns remain.  And both sorts of organisation face similar temptations.

Take power.  Any organization has structures of power and authority.  In the office of any political party you will find a picture of the leader of the party on the wall.  In any sacristy you will find a picture of the local bishop and of the Pope.  Ideally such power is selfless, at the service of the whole organization, exercised for the good of the whole community or the whole society.  But power can become an end in itself: the right to rule, the magic of status, the sheer pleasure of being in control.  Authority becomes authoritarianism.  Where then is the space for intelligent voices offering different, and perhaps better options for new and complex situations?

This takes us to orthodoxy.  Every religion and every party has its fundamental understanding of the way things are.  If the orthodoxy is sound it will evolve and develop.  Wide ranging and thoughtful debate will respond creatively to new situations and new understandings of reality as they emerge.  Such orthodoxy preserves the deep insight of the group, while adapting to new contexts.

But orthodoxy can be misused.  Political and religious dogmas can lose their roots in reality and be reduced to tests of loyalty.  Political correctness becomes a tool to intimidate those who think differently, a tool not to serve truth and humanity but to preserve raw power.   That spells the intellectual, and eventually the spiritual death of any organization claiming to serve the common good.

It comes down to how we tell the true story of our religion, our party, our nation.  In Catholic Christianity we sometimes hear a ‘tribal’ history that pits a good ‘us’ against an evil, secular ‘them’.  But we only become twenty-first century Christians when we let go of the part-truths and tell the whole story, warts and all.

I believe this may be true for political movements as well.  Only when we have the freedom to see clearly everywhere we have been, can we also see what really mattered on the journey.  When we can own up to the mistakes of the past, then we can learn for the future.  This creates a new space for our imagination.  There we can finally find freedom to exercise power not for our glory, but for the good of those we serve.

Fr John Moffatt SJ
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