Christians are now in the season of Lent. For many this means giving something up. They assume this means resisting the temptation to do those things that they know they shouldn’t be doing in the first place because they are not really all that important to living a meaningful life: taking that extra scoop of ice-cream, buying that extra sweater, indulging their desire to upgrade their cable options. But these are trivial temptations that we are tempted to treat as if they really matter. We know our resistance to them will only last until Easter (if we even get that far).
So we often make up a laundry list of mundane temptations that we know we are likely to resist because we know that giving in to them does not enhance our well-being in the long run. But in the process of reducing temptations to a list of trivial desires to avoid, we often neglect the much more serious temptations that are hidden and rationalized because so much more is at stake in not resisting them. Jesus had some really serious temptations to deal with. Satan offers him power over all the kingdoms of the world: now, who could seriously resist such an offer? Jesus, of course, does rebuff Satan because the price is too high: worshipping Satan instead of God. While we are never offered this degree of power, many of us struggle with the temptations of lesser power but power nonetheless: e.g., the power of race, gender, economic privilege, or political supremacy. The power that derives from each of these is the power to exclude, and to dominate those ‘others’ who we believe threaten our status.
The desire for these kinds of power is often invisible to us because for many it simply comes as part of the package of being a member of a dominant race, gender, nationality, or political and economic class. And the very invisibility of how these powers protect us from others makes it almost impossible to see them as temptations to be resisted. But why should we resist them? Can’t we do great good with these kinds of power? Yes, but unless we see them for what they are: limited, finite, fragile, and fallible, we are tempted to excuse or rationalize our use of them because we are the ‘good’ people using the guns of power against the bad people. But all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton rightly observed.
The greatest temptation of all, Christians should remind themselves during this season of Lent, is the temptation to exempt themselves from the corruptions and ambiguities of power in the struggles of history. To claim such exemption in the name of God is often the source of untold evil in the world and the ultimate triumph of evil. The exercise of limited finite power may be necessary but it is never holy and its temptations are always seductive, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us. Therefore these powers must be brought out from the hidden forms they often take in our political and economic lives and exposed to constant critical review. Only in that way can we be truly honest about the deeper temptations that surround us every day.