A few months ago, he was one of the most powerful people in Washington, indeed the country. Head of a massive Cabinet department with a budget of nearly $80 billion, when the Secretary left his downtown government office Secret Service agents scurried, memo-laden aides scrambled around wondering who would ride in the lead car and who would be forced to go in the longer caravan. Officials from governors to small town mayors would wonder who would get grants and what projects they could tout as promises of benefits fell from the Secretary's lips.
When I saw the former Secretary recently, walking along the streets of Washington, he was by himself, walking rather stooped over, carrying what looked like a too-heavy briefcase as he trudged down the sidewalk. In that moment he was unrecognized, merely another aging striver caught in the stream of early morning pedestrians.
He is not the first "former" I've seen in my more than two decades in DC. There have been many occasions when those who once were Senators, Cabinet Secretaries, and Members of Congress have crossed my path at various events and sometimes just in passing on the street. People with impressive titles, huge portfolios of responsibility, command of gigantic sums of taxpayer money, and virtual armies of assistants who are now just ordinary citizens, no longer courted, no longer fawned-over, and only as influential as the amount of money the PACs they influence can distribute to eager candidates and party officials.
I have drawn two lessons from these experiences:
- Power is fleeting. This axiom is as ancient as Rome, but its potency is unchanged over the centuries because it has the advantage of capturing truth. Scripture teaches Christians to respect those in authority, but worship is reserved for God alone. Daniel knew that, and was willing to give his life because he never lost perspective on Who had true power, and who only had the relative smidgen delegated to him for a season. Christians must be wary of imbuing "those in authority" (Romans 13:1) with wisdom and permanence God reserves for Himself.
- America is a land where the inherent equality of every person is such that while respect is due those who serve and have served, oce they leave their positions of authority they return to being what they had always been: Free citizens of a republic in which there is no royalty or "class" or permanent stratification. Nobility in America is not an accident of birth but the reward of character and conduct.
"Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation," warns the Psalmist. Instead, he writes, "How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, Whose hope is in the Lord his God" (146:3,5). True when first written perhaps 1,000 years B.C. True today.