I remember having one of those “light bulb” moments listening to one of R.C. Sproul’s lectures from his series The Consequences of Ideas, in which he made the simple but salient point that correlation does not necessarily prove causation. His example was vivid: Every morning a rooster crows. Shortly afterward, the sun comes up. We conclude that crowing causes sunrise. Of course, only a birdbrain blames a rooster for a sunrise that wakes him up too early. 

Earlier this week The Gospel Coalition posted an article entitled “It’s Time for Christians to End Slavery.” I’m all for that! Slavery sucks, except slavery to Jesus, but that’s a horse of a different color, and I get what the author is saying, so good for him, we’re all on board there. However, I was a little bothered to discover a crowing rooster being blamed for the sunrise:

Slavery is an ancient and brutal practice. And it is still rampant, with more than 40 million people living as slaves today.
How is this possible? The answer lies in one word: power.

Slavery is possible because of power? Unquestionably, power is as closely correlated to slavery as a cock-a-doodle-doo is to 4AM. We could even say it’s a necessary correlation, because a slave is by definition powerless in comparison to his/her master. Theoretically, if one could strip power away from the master and grant more power to the slave until they possessed an equal share, slavery would end.  

If the problem we face is slavery, and it is a real problem, and the cause of its existence is power, we find ourselves in a war against power. But just as halting the sunrise requires more than making chicken soup out of crowing roosters, getting rid of slavery will involve more than an eradication or even redistribution of power. Besides, I think I hear the raspy voice of Dr. Sproul from beyond the grave saying that power, like the chance which supposedly created and organized the universe, doesn’t cause anything because strictly speaking it doesn’t have being. Maybe slave owners need power to be slave owners, just as a casino needs chance to exist, but power doesn’t perpetuate slavery, people do. It requires more power to fundamentally change a person than it does to stop the rotation of the earth.

The article goes on: 

Slave owners know their power; they use it to steal the life of the powerless. They’re confident in their power, and they have no problem using it. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to once again recognize and boldly apply our Spirit-given power to the cause of the poor. It’s time to lead the fight to eradicate slavery.

The first two sentences make perfect sense and present a reasonable argument. The concluding sentences, however, would have us believe that the cure for slavery is also the cause of its existence: power. The thing that causes the disease is also the antidote; what is poison in one bottle is medicine when poured from a different one. When they use power, it produces poverty and slavery; power is the antagonist. When we employ power, it produces prosperity and freedom; power is the protagonist. Presumably our power is better because it comes from a better source, the Spirit, but still, it’s our power that’s needed in the battle against their power, with the result that those without any power will get some. Power is the problem, power is the solution, empowerment (hopefully of the right version of power) is the desired result. Remind me, what was the problem in a single word?

The closing line reads: 

When the church aligns itself with the needs of the poor and powerless, God’s power is revealed. The day his people unite to end slavery will be the day slavery is overtaken and swallowed up by the flood of love and compassion. And on that day, millions of men, women, and children… will be free.

I want those ladies and little ones free. I have a relative who has invested her life in freeing sex slave girls in Asia, and I’m proud of her as can be for doing it too. But I’m not sure fighting sinister slaver-power with loving compassionate church-power is the ultimate answer, and not for the obvious reason that all too often the love and compassion of a church dies before it escapes the interior decorating committee meeting.

I’m as pro-love and compassion as I am pro-chicken soup. Depending on the soup, maybe more. But lopping up leghorns never stopped a sunrise, for the simple reason that their squawking never rotated the earth. Floods of church-grown love and compassion (even if organic, non GMO, and gluten free), as overpowering as they may be, are not actually the solution for eradicating the world’s problems, because power never caused them in the first place. Even if it were possible to strip every bad person of his/her power (it isn’t), or equalize power to all people (it isn’t, and isn’t advisable, either), the underlying problem still hasn’t been addressed.

Powerful Proverb?

There’s an old proverb I’ve been pondering: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is almost universally true that wherever one finds power he finds corruption, that’s why the proverb survives. There’s correlation out the wazoo. And it’s also indisputable that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were able to do so much killing because their power was near absolute.

Still, the claim that power is the cause of corruption deserves some scrutiny. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to sing the mighty pow’r of God? Is God, absolute in power, absolutely corrupt? Certainly not. A little corrupt, perhaps? When Jesus claims “all power” and delegates his authority to his children (and that unequally), should we get nervous that slavery is just around the corner? When God gives parents physical and relational power in the home is He inadvertently institutionalizing oppression? To poach a line, I speak as if insane. 

The actual cause of the corruption of human nature producing slavery is, of course, sin. Paul speaks of it as a thing with causal capacities and being: “sin… produced in me,” “sin… dwells in me” (Rom. 7:8, 17, 20). John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Unlike power, the solution for the problem of sin is not sin of a different kind. The corrective for excessively sinful men is not the ensinning of the less sinful.

Sin, unlike power, by its very nature corrupts everything it touches, and when it touches those with power, it affords them the ability to do powerfully sinful things. Like enslaving women and children and treating them like (or worse than) animals. I suppose it wouldn’t be popular to say it, but we must also remember that those enslaved women and children are also infected with sin, and freedom from slavery, no matter how cruel, is but a temporary (albeit incredibly noble and desirable!) fix of their second-worst problem. And that’s not to belittle the problem, eau contraire mon frer! It’s merely to remind us how bad the first-worst problem is. Justification by victimization may make for a powerful gospel sermon, with lots of hands raised, err wrung, and lots of tracks made on the old sawdust trail and stacks of signed cards a mile high, but at the end of the day only one Man’s suffering ever actually justified anyone.

The one-word reason for why slavery exists is sin. Power is neither cause nor solution, it’s a correlating reality. It isn’t the disease, it merely magnifies the symptoms of the disease. Strip evil men of power and you still have evil men. I think a case can be made that a pauper has the ability to earn himself a place in hell every bit as hot as a cruel king. If we give powerless slaves power, and we should, we still have sinful ex-slaves. Sparticus was no saint, his empowerment wasn’t redemptive, and silencing the rooster won’t delay the sunrise.

The cure for sin’s corruption is not the power of the love and compassion of the church, even God’s power mediated through it. The church once claimed to wield the power of God to save men from their sin, and kept a little political power on the side just in case. Thank God a somewhat portly, often crass, beer-swilling monk named Martin came along and toppled the thing. Justification by faith alone was his rather unoriginal, society transforming message.

You won’t find the eternal gospel in either the disempowerment of evil men or the empowerment of their victims, as good and desirable as those things may be – and they may be! The good news of redemption – freedom from slavery to sin – says the Father draws a person to faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death and sends the Spirit to begin the work of transforming the heart to hate sin and love neighbor. Neighbor-lovers make lousy slave-traders. The gospel of Christ contains astronomical, sunrise-stopping power. The church, even with all its present and future glories – not so much.

I suspect power is conserved just like matter and energy – it’s neither created nor destroyed, it merely gets shifted around. A war on roosters prevents no sunrises, and a war on power ends no slavery, it just shifts it around. We’ve done this before. From the French Revolution to the Chinese Cultural Revolution the war on power has been waged and millions died, because power just ends up in a different set of sinful hands.

I want slavery ended. When I think of my daughters and what they might face if they fell into the hands of evil men with power over them, my blood runs cold. But my dear brothers at The Gospel Coalition, let’s fight the proper enemy with the proper weapon. Otherwise we are fighting the sunrise with a hatchet.

— jr

note: I pick on this article, partly because of the article, but mostly because the idea that people with power is the primary problem humanity faces is a powerfully popular and powerfully bad idea, and this article seemed to illustrate how the idea presents itself, so I use it as a representative example of a whole corpus of thought.