An Atlantic article from over a year ago has been recirculating in the wake of what feels like a Spirit-lead reckoning of the SBC over institutionalized failures to protect and affirm women. The article considers the case of the now departed Wells Fargo CEO’s brazenly un-self-aware congressional testimony about dishonest business practices to ask a prescient question:
“What is it about power that makes powerful people abuse it without seeming to know that they’re abusing it?
As Christians, we know the Sunday School answer – sin – as surely as we know the secular answer – science. Or more specifically – biology. This is the angle the Atlantic article pursues, as it reviews various behavioral and neurological studies that explore the effects of power on the brain and the behavior it drives.
Notable among the results is the observation that one of the most negatively influential consequences of power is the development of what’s described as an “empathy deficit”. As people with power interact with others, those in their charge will “mirror” their attitudes or words (as a way to signal acquiescence), but the people in power will not do the same with their subordinates. This impulse might be rooted in good intentions – a desire to filter what feels like extraneous data to focus on the end goal. But when other people’s feelings or perspectives, particularly differing ones, are put into that “extraneous” data bucket, lack of empathy and awareness ensues. According to the research described in the article, that response is traceable to specific neural pathways that deteriorate over time the longer a power differential persists.
TLDR – Unchecked power can literally damage your brain.
I’m not the biggest fan of “science proves what the Bible says about X” arguments. Too many Christians have a tendency to embrace the scientific assertions that affirm their beliefs (rock music is demonic) but dismiss the ones that don’t (climate change is a deep state conspiracy). Not to mention – as could be the case here – there’s a swift and predictable rhetorical progression from “power causes brain damage” to “brain damage absolves abusers of authority of accountability for their actions.”
I read several valid objections to the scope of the research, and particularly to the hyperbolic framing of the results as literal “brain damage”. As the article itself goes on to lay out, the “damage” to the brain caused by power isn’t necessarily permanent and is in itself a corollary of the person’s self-awareness of the problem. It can be resisted. And that’s why what really grabbed my attention wasn’t the description of the theoretical causes of the problem, but an anecdote offered as an example of an effective strategy for mitigating it.
On June 29, 1940, as Hitler and his troops were marching down the streets of Paris, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In the letter, Clementine. Churchill lovingly confronts her Prime Minister for what she has observed, and others have reported to her, concerning his deteriorating attitude towards some of his subordinates. It’s a classic case study in how a leader’s unkind or even abusive behavior demoralizes those in his charge. After Mrs. Churchill clearly and unapologetically exhorts him about his need to change, she wisely concludes with the most compelling of reasons why – that his behavior won’t yield the outcome he desires.
We don’t know what the Prime Minister’s immediate reaction was to his wife’s letter, but we certainly know what Churchill eventually accomplished. And it’s not hard to see the role the loving, yet honest, words of a trusted woman played in helping him do it.
As I read Mrs. Churchill’s letter, I couldn’t help think of the way her interaction with one of the most powerful men in Britain (who just happened to be her husband) mirrored that of so many women in the Bible with powerful men –
In each incident, a man (or men) in power stands at a fork in the road of redemptive history. The women they encounter give them specific direction about the path they should take. The men who heed their wisdom become woven into the stories of all the others who furthered God’s plan. The men who don’t become commemorative object lessons in folly.
Several months ago, when John Piper was asked about his perspective on the #MeToo movement, he replied that it was the logical consequence of egalitarianism – specifically, the rejection of the notion that men have a particular call to protect women.
Piper described this call as “…not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker. This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.”
Piper’s appeal to the power differential between men and women is the one that is commonly deployed in conversations about gender. A man’s physical size and strength is symbolic of greater power, while a women’s smaller size is symbolic of her lesser power. This same argument often extends to men’s larger brain symbolizing greater intellectual power, or the “power” of reasoning vs. the “weakness” of emotions.
The one time the power differential conversation is reversed is in the area of sexuality. Whenever the conversation focuses on sexual attraction, men are described as inordinately vulnerable, by virtue of their libidos and their positions of power. Only here are women in possession of greater power – in particular, to stumble a man into moral compromise, or to take out a man’s ministry or his livelihood with false accusations.
This is the power differential that drives the Pence rule, that attempts to protect a man from the power of women by limiting his proximity to them.
But what the Biblical stories like David’s and Naaman’s and Pilate’s, and historical anecdotes like Winston Churchill’s, and the stories of the last several years, months and weeks from evangelical institutions teach us,
is that there is a particular masculine vulnerability to power that can be mitigated by the particular power of a woman’s influential wisdom. But the taller and thicker the hedges are against it, the less capacity men will have to receive it, and the more vulnerable they will actually become.
This is a strength worth protecting.
What the Bible repeatedly shows is that man’s particular calling to protect women is not simply because he is stronger, but because he is weaker as well. He is as in need of a woman’s complementary strength to protect him, as she needs his to protect her.
It is not good for man to be alone.
That Atlantic article concludes on a decidedly pessimistic note – that the “…malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.” From the perspective of secular research studies, that’s certainly true.
I wonder what conclusions the writer might have drawn if he’d also studied the Bible.