Who Watches the One in Charge?
A conversation with Elizabeth Rice Handford
One morning, when I was a Christian school principal, I learned something about myself I didn’t like. A teacher brought a girl into the school office. It wasn’t the first time her teacher had complained of her insubordination, and I looked at the child with impatience.
Usually I hated disciplining other people’s children. I didn’t enjoy punishing my own dear seven, and I most certainly didn’t like disciplining someone else’s child.
But that morning, for one awful moment, ooking into the face of that frightened little girl, I realized I was enjoying the power of my position over her. She was afraid of me, and I was glad.
Then, thank God, I was ashamed. I saw the child again as God’s precious gift, to be cherished and nurtured, not intimidated and wounded. I put my arms around her and held her close. She and I would find a way, God willing, to work through the temptations she was facing.
Nearly 2000 years ago a Roman writer, Juvenal, asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will watch the watchman? Why does the watchman need to be watched? Because history proves that when a ruler has absolute power, he will abuse it. The pages of history are stained with the bloody acts of people who had uncontrolled power.
An Englishman named Lord Acton wrote, in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
That’s why, at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, the men drafting the constitution for our brand new nation, America, determined not to let anyone in leadership have absolute power. How did they manage that? By what they called “checks and balances.” We would have a three different authorities with power: a President of the United States, a Congress (with a Senate and a House of Representatives) and a Supreme Court. Each has distinct powers, and they are accountable to each other. Their power is “balanced” by the “checks” of the others. None of the three would have absolute authority over American citizens. “Someone,” Juvenal wrote, “must watch the watchman!”
So why did I share this uncomfortable memory of mine with you? For two reasons.
You may be in a position of authority where you are tempted to use it unfairly. Parents have enormous power to wrong a child. A boss can take advantage of an employee’s vulnerability. A civil authority can intimidate a frightened citizen. A spiritual leader can use his authority to bully someone in his care. When that happens, God is displeased.
Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, Wickedness was there.
And in the place of righteousness, Iniquity was there.
I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked,
For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.‘” Eccl. 3:16,17
The second reason I share this humiliating story is that you may be enduring difficult times under an unjust authority. I want to remind you that God is still on His omnipotent throne. He is still in charge. He sees the unjustness of your situation, and He will vindicate you in His good time. So endure. God is with you.