What do we do with our egos & our desire for power?

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 23 September 2018, Trinity 17, United Benefice of Holland Park

What do we do with our egos, our desire to achieve, to be noticed, to make our mark on the world, to be held in high esteem? What about the desire for power?


These issues are all portrayed in the most exquisite television drama surrounding political life in Washington DC, the Netflix phenomena House of Cards. It’s the story of Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. He’s the unscrupulous protagonist: a Democrat from South Carolina and the House Majority Whip. He is passed over for appointment as Secretary of State, and so he decides to exact revenge on those who betrayed him. With his wife, played by Robin Wright, he lies, cheats, and even kills in his quest for political power.

The series reminded me of the famous c.16 book, The Prince, by the Florentine, Niccolò Machiavelli. It’s only 60 pages or so, but it gives a fascinating insight into the often ruthless tactics for gaining power and holding on to power. In The Prince, he states that ‘it is best to be both feared and loved; however, if one cannot be both it is better to be feared than loved’. He goes on: ‘everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are."

And this is exactly the case with Frank Underwood. He embodies the Machiavellian perspective. He’s ruthlessly pragmatic, manipulative, cunning, and he knows how to play the game of politics; once you become involved in his tangled web, there’s no escape. Yet, to those who don't, and will never truly see his dark side, he's just another ‘caring’, yet determined politician, who is seemingly fighting for the best for his constituents.

One of the interesting features of the series is that when Frank Underwood is being particularly Machiavellian, he looks and speaks directly to camera, addressing you, the viewer. Here are a few of his classic quotes:

  • On ambition: "For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted"

  • On power: "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties"

  • On virtue: "Nobody's a boy scout. Not even boy scouts"

  • On martyrs: "What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on. So you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then 3, 2, 1..."

House of Cards is set in Washington DC with power as the prime mover, but it is also set in every human heart where self-promotion, self-aggrandizement is the lasting legacy of the story of Adam and Eve. Taste this fruit, the serpent said, and you will be like God. You will be independent and powerful.

In our Gospel reading, the disciples of Jesus were debating who was going to be the greatest among them. Who was the most important? Who were going to be in his cabinet, and sit on Jesus left and right in the new kingdom? Their question is about power and prestige.

I can imagine the sort of advice Machiavelli or Frank Underwood’s would give them. Instead, Jesus describes a different mode of being. Leading should not be about power or prestige; it should be about serving. He says: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ It is becoming child-like, for whom accomplishments, greatness, status, or pretensions mean nothing. Jesus invites us to welcome every person in the same manner, without regard for their worldly importance.

The epistle reading speaks about the importance of wisdom and of character. It’s a theme that the New York Times columnist David Brooks has written. In its book, The Road to Character, he contrasts eulogy virtues like kindness, faithfulness and humility with what he calls resume virtues - the kind of things we put on our CV. He’s convinced that both eulogy virtues and resume virtues take work to develop, but is worried that western society pushes us to put our efforts into the ones that will help improve our careers, not our characters.

He addresses the age old question- what makes a good life? How we can go deeper amongst the clamour of a culture that defines us by how ‘successful’ we are – success being defined by what we earn, own or look like? He argues that we need virtues like ‘humility, sympathy, honest self-confrontation’ to build character. His quest is to identify the virtues that help us become ‘deep… rooted in something spiritual and permanent’.

David Brook’s call for us to do the hard work of developing character isn't really controversial. Deep down we know that the real legacies of our lives aren’t job titles, academic achievements, or amount of twitter followers. But how do we develop the eulogy virtues, when the gravitational pull of our ego is so strong?

Whilst the book is written for the secular market, Brooks is open to the idea that we need God’s help. Perhaps we might add we also need the support, encouragement and help of the church community, because change happens through vulnerable, committed relationships. To overcome the tyrant self we must confess our frailty and darkest tendencies. Following the epistle reading’s Advice, at the beginning of the service we often pray the Collect for Purity, in which we ask God to ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’. When it comes to eulogy virtues, we want to be remembered not for our fleeting achievements but our depth of character, how we loved, showed compassion, served others.

We are all invited on this journey to develop character – a journey towards the light. And if we are going to shines as lights in the world, which is our baptism vocation, we must stay connected to source of all life and love.

My time is up for this sermon, but I’m still left two questions, which I shall leave you to ponder:

  • Is it okay to be ambitious? If so, what might a Christ-like ambition look like?

  • The Church of England exercises huge power, with its 16,000 churches, cathedrals, bishops in the House of Lords. With less people regularly attending church, what might a smaller, more vulnerable, Church of England look like?

Reference: David Brooks, The Road to Character

Revd Dr James Heard Vicar of Holland Park

Fr James Heard