What hath power wrought?

The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ –Judges 9:8-9

Dear members and friends,

Since time immemorial, most people seem to desire to sit on the seat of power. And to a degree, having a powerful leader is still most people’s preference. Perhaps the reason for this is a deeply embedded expectation and hope that the leader would prioritize the protection and well-being of the people. In the West, this may be traced to the ideal image of a king as suggested by Plato: the philosopher king. Yet the actual history of mankind shows that those who sit on the throne often seek self-glorification, typically at the expense and suffering of the very people they are supposed to protect.

In the Bible, Samuel warns people who demanded a human king to rule over them by saying, “[the king] will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves” (I Samuel 8:17-18). A modern version of this lamentation can be found in the oft-cited quote from nineteenth-century historian and politician Lord John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” It is such sad irony that people created a powerful position in order to organize and manage the nation effectively and efficiently, but whoever holds that position becomes drunk with power.

Whenever I think of those kings, emperors, and powerful people who seem to desire a god-like existence, I think of a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) called “Ozymandias,” which is the Greek name of Ramses II (reign 1279-1213 BC):

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I wonder, what would it take for our leaders to fulfill the very job and duty for which they were elected by the people without becoming corrupted by power? Perhaps it’s as simple as accepting the truth that we are all equally human and finding contentment with that acknowledgment.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee