Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

When Power Goes to Your Head

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

September 6, 2013

Over at the Acton Institute, they’re fond of saying that power corrupts, and the bank of evidence is pretty hefty. Even Andy Crouch has turned his prodigious faculties to the problem of power and the Gospel in his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Just how do we parse this Jesus, who spent so much time sticking it to the man, when we Christians become the man?

There are a lot of different ways to think about power, of course, and hardly a social or cultural situation exists in which some kinds of power do not operate, often beyond our acuity. Christians (even the kind that take Jesus seriously) know that power is a gift, meant for service, for bended knees and washing feet, and – in the words of Andy Crouch – for answering the question: who is flourishing because of my power?

But power is also an experience, a ritual, a burden for people who bear it. A new study released from Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Toronto argues that “Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others.” Neuroscience has confirmed what a few of us have probably long suspected: the feeling and experience of power dampens the part of our brain that helps with empathy. 

The powerful are also usually the very busy, and for that reason they are often forgiven the pathologies of non-empathy. Empathy cannot be hurried; it must pause, look you in the eye, wonder. But, argues the study, the decline in empathy isn’t (just) about pace.

The study put participants in a mindset of either power or powerlessness and then showed them a simple video. The mirror neurons showed the rest. The feeling of powerlessness boosted the mirror system, the neurological heart of empathy, whereas the feeling of power dampened the mirror signals. Metaphor scholars can take this kind of neurology to the bank: our ability to feel empathy is the direct result of our mirror system activating the same feelings as though it were happening to us. It makes other people’s experiences intelligible, and it makes us able to understand our worlds through a complex chain of self-referential sensations. 

The practice of holding power is therefore not a neutral one. Power does things to us, whether we’re aware of it or not, and whether we receive it with the best intentions or not. Like all cultural artifacts and positions, we tend to think more about what we will do with it. Christians, no doubt, talk about service, about exactly what Crouch exhorts us to, which is helping people flourish. This recovery of the gift of power is spot on, but it begs the question: who helps the powerful flourish? What rituals, what liturgies and practices, keep our mirror systems healthy when we’re called to power? 

By definition, Christians in politics are called to power, and yet we spend more time on the theory and implementation of doing than on the practice and presence of being. Michael Lindsay, now some time ago, made the important point that we have lots of Christians in politics, in very high offices in fact, but the pressures and powers of that system often overwhelm the distinctive Gospel counter-narrative and make us a lot like business as usual. It’s a tragic truism that power changes people, that relationships go to “the Hill” to fail, and that politics dampens and suppresses empathy.

Herein is the trial of doing public life and (still) believing stuff, the Bonheoffer-full moments of the Christian life. People like Steven Garber in The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior offer guides. But even Garber’s book is the stuff of time-lapse activation – it will only really hit you in the gut when you get there. I read it as a student with interest. I read it later in desperation.

Two years ago I was in Santa Fe with Image Journal at the Glen when my phone buzzed that the Syrian army had begun shelling Hama. It smelled like civil war. But I was in New Mexico, and Robert Cording was reading poetry. I remember he paused, oblivious, I expect, to the civil war now beamed to my pocket, and asked us to meditate on the inside of a stone. I’m not sure that siege would have activated my mirror system without Cording’s incredulous ask. Don’t trust people who don’t read poetry, a friend told me once. Don’t trust power with its mirror system out of order. Empathy is not an option.

- Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”