The British peer, Lord Acton (1834-1902) was famous for very little, but one phrase of his continues to resonate: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What’s less known is the rest of the quotation: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Joseph Smith could not possibly have known this famous phrase–Acton wrote it 43 years after the Prophet’s death–but Joseph, imprisoned in Missouri in flagrant violation of his constitutional rights would certainly have agreed with it. As Joseph put it: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
But Joseph’s insight trumps Acton’s in lots of interesting ways. Acton was writing about popes and kings, about Elizabeth I beheading Mary, Queen of Scots, and similarly brutal acts of state. Joseph’s comments were directed at members of the Church, at his closest friends and colleagues. Given the circumstances under which the inspired letter which would become sections 121-123 of the Doctrine and Commandments was written, it would have made sense for Joseph to direct his anger towards the corrupt officials of the state of Missouri who had imprisoned him. His ‘sad experience’ could have meant being denied his habeas corpus rights–it could have included the damp and cold and filth of Liberty jail.
But Joseph was looking forward, not backward, in section 121. In the hierarchical, authority-driven Church he had founded, he was concerned with questions of leadership. Unrighteous dominion, he says, is something routine, normal, to be expected. It is the ‘nature and disposition’ of ‘almost all men’ to practice it. We have to guard ourselves constantly against it. Unrighteous dominion is something we slip into, almost unconsciously, when we’re in charge of something.
I have experienced this myself. I’m rarely the guy people put in charge of things. I just don’t have the skill set for a leadership position. Nor am I very good at following. By personality and temperment, I’m neither chief nor Indian–I’m the medicine man. Not a coach or a player–a sideline reporter. The one exception that proves the rule are those occasions when I direct a play. I can do that–I can lead, for about two months at a time. When I was in college, I took a directing class, and had to direct something. I was awful. Dictatorial, demanding. And disastrous–the play bombed. A few months later, someone who hadn’t seen it asked me to direct something else. Preparing for it, I re-read Joseph’s letter from Liberty. I thought–these actors are smart people. They have ideas, insights, experiences. Welcome their input. Invite them to participate in the creative process. The play was a lot more successful, and I still remember that cast with great fondness. And that’s how I’ve tried to direct ever since. Following, in my own inadequate way, Joseph Smith’s counsel. Fighting my own tendencies towards unrighteous dominion.
Persuasion. Long-suffering. Gentleness and meekness. Love unfeigned. Kindness and knowledge. We probably would say there’s no place for that kind of wussiness in contemporary politics, or business, in our regular daily lives. Leave all that kum bay ya girly-girl wimp stuff for sitting around campfires. Maybe for Church, but even churches should be run on business-like principles.
But our bishop came by the other day, wanted to talk to us about a personal setback we’d experienced. And also extend a calling. And his kindness and his compassion and his gentleness and meekness and love unfeigned rang truth to our souls. And we learned again what really works.