23 July 2006

On Authority

Remember the bumper sticker “Question Authority”?

It’s not as popular as it once was, but I still see it for sale at Saturday Market, the weekly garage sale under the Morrison Bridge dominated by Rastafarian motifs and hand made “glass ware.” Saturday Market is largely  a collection of ex-hippies, current hippies and wannna-be hippies who sell their crafts to Portlanders with elephant ears and shaved ice. Don’t get me wrong, strolling through the booths is fun and you can find some cool stuff there, but the overarching hippie vibe is pretty hard to miss.

But I was talking about the bumper sticker; more to the point, I was talking about the attitude behind the bumper sticker. In many ways and for many reasons, I’m more and more aware that Americans in general have a problem with authority.

Take for instance the political realm. By and large there is a cynicism about all politicians and all politics. We seem to have an assumption that the only people who would seek to be political leaders do so out of megalomania or a lust for power. As a result, every election becomes an exercise in discerning the lesser of two evils. Likewise, despite the obvious fact that the President (any president) has access to far more information than I do, I’m completely comfortable to second-guess and debase any and every choice he makes. I read evil or stupidity into actions that I am in no position to understand because my model of political authority asserts that they are all corrupt anyway.

Police are in a similar situation. My base model is that policemen use excessive force, unfairly persecute certain people, and are basically jack-booted mercenaries hired by the government that is corrupt as previously demonstrated. Now it’s only the hippies who will generally vocalize the stereotype in those stark terms, but the underlying distrust seems to rest in the minds of most of us.

Teachers, priests, bosses, coaches...it’s all the same. It wasn’t very long ago that if a priest brought your teenage son to your door and said “Mr. Jones, I’m sorry to say that we caught your son doing such-and-such.” that Mr. Jones would absolutely trust the priest’s word and Johnny Jr. would be grounded. But it’s different now. Some of you are or were teachers – what percentage of parents took your word as an authority figure over their snot-nosed 13 year old? It used to be my responsibility to make sure my boss approved of my labor – not hold him hostage to my “expectations “and 5-year plan.

I’m not so naive to think that we don’t have historical basis for being cautious about authority. There are lots of stories about corrupt politicians, cruel cops, and manipulative teachers. So to some degree I believe a willingness to question authority is healthy and essential to American thought. But it feels like we’ve come instead to a point where we don’t question authority – we categorically reject it. We fail even to recognize the existence of legitimate authority, much less the very good and important role it plays in every civilization.

In the church this shows up in several places that at first glace seem inconsequential, or at least within our highly developed sense of ‘rights’. Do we see our pastors as having legitimate spiritual authority over us? Or do we see them instead sort of like salesmen. I’ll attend this church exactly as long as I like and approve of what they are selling. One sermon that makes me squirm, one child-care worker with a crooked smile, and I’ll take my business elsewhere. Does God assign us to a particular body, or do we ‘shop’? Does even God have the authority to make such a decision for me? After all, it’s important that I feel ‘fed.’ And let’s be blunt – if my pastor flat out screws up does that negate or diminish his authority over the body? Over me?

And what about mentorship? I know that mentors and discipleship programs are very popular right now, but how many of those people, either the mentors or the manatee, really see that relationship as having an authoritative component. Again, we’re far more likely to see these in terms of sales and product. I may be willing to listen to your counsel, but only so long as I agree with it, or at least recognize its wisdom. If you dare say “I want you to do such and such” and I’ll go look for another mentor. But that’s a long way from the biblical or historical model of mentorship. It used to be that a teacher was well within their role to beat the unruly student. A recalcitrant student who refused to pay attention or was incorrigible could be dropped without explanation and without recourse. A student in that position was unlikely to find another mentor who would accept him.

The outgrowth of that structure was that a person who wanted to learn something sought a good teacher and truly good teachers were deeply valuable to a community. A potential student knew they were making a serious and enduring commitment to that teacher AS an authority – they were deliberately seeking an authority to be submitted to. Likewise, teachers took their role far more seriously. It truly was a calling and not a job. To take on a student or an apprentice meant that you were willing to accept a large degree of responsibility for that student’s growth and success. The relationship was not one of peers, it was obviously one where the teacher had and exercised explicit authority over the student. In most cases it was vaguely sacred – a relationship that the student’s friends and family deeply respected and declined interference. We’re not so far from this image of authority though that we can’t understand it anymore – just think about Star Wars and the development of Annikan/Darth Vader. Think about Annikan’s moment of commitment to Darth Sidious – it’s a bowing of the knee, a ceremony of submission – he knows exactly what he’s doing and he takes it seriously. (Of course it’s also his prior rejection of authority that gets him here. He thinks he’s better/smarter/more powerful then the Jedis above him so he imagines their intentions to be wicked, mistaking sound judgment as ill intent and seduction as kindness...but that’s another post).

There are really two sides to this topic that I want to explore, but one at a time. The first is this general sense that we have come to a place where all authority is subject to our evaluation and approval and how this state of thinking seems increasingly bad to me. But it’s bad in a subtle way – hard to really put my finger on (hence the wandering of this post). And I realize that I’m simply a child of this generation in that there are precious few (if any) men who I would actually submit to based on a sense of their spiritual authority. But that seems wrong to me – I’ve missed something important, something that Jesus wants in my life that I’m only just know even recognizing as valuable. And while the implications for my faith are what are really driving this topic in my head, the social implications loom large. If we loose all confidence in our government and our social institutions – if all authority figures are stripped of the very essence of authority – society has to devolve. If we refuse to submit to and support the authorities we ourselves elect, then what remains is the illegitimate authority that gets forced upon us. Without a conscious decision to create and maintain government...social contract anyone...we’re right back to a ‘might makes right’ kind of situation.

I guess at the heart of this post I’m recognizing that I’m too selfish and too independent. Seeking a mentor requires a bit of humility on my part as well as a recognition of a person who at least in some way is better than me. Similarly, it reaches out to that person and seeks to build a community bond. Without question, that act of submission is solid practice to submitting to God – but more importantly, it’s when I submit to God that I should be willing to submit to others – specifically the authority figures God places in my life. I shouldn’t be giving to Caesar only out of fear of the sword, nor a sense of bitter obligation – I should obey because it’s right, and it’s good for me.

I reckon I’m looking for a new bumper sticker, because it seems there is a message that we really need to ponder at length.

“Recognize Authority”

03 July 2006

Which Way Europe?

Please see:
And “Of Paradise and Power”

One of the foundations of Cold War Europe was an American military presence large enough to make the threat of American retaliation to a Soviet attack believable. In other words, there had to be enough soldiers there so that if they were killed – we’d be pissed enough to start and finish another world war. By the time I was growing up in the 80's and was first becoming aware of geo-politics it was a matter of dogma that World War III would be fought between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. NATO was best understood as US forces with a handful of German and British support units. Warsaw Pact forces were Russians...just Russians. To put a finer point on it, we had this euphemism that pitted the "East" against the "West" and imagined a "World War" but what we all really meant was that The United States and Russia would fight, but not on either's home turf. Even "The Soviet Union" was a kind of distortion of reality since the other union members weren't there willingly, and would not willingly participate materially. So for about 50 years Europe, both east and west, lived under the shadow/umbrella of the two superpowers and was like a kid caught in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle; with both parents so caught up in defending their stuff that the child just becomes another extension of their warring egos. It’s funny how well that metaphor anticipates the end. One day, one of the parents ran out of money...and dropped their case. The Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was over.

But with no need to fight over or defend Europe, the United States wasn’t quite sure what to do with the ‘prize.’  It seems that Bill Clinton’s ‘Peace Dividend’ was our way of saying “The danger is over now. You guys can stand on your own two feet now. Have fun.” The aside to the audience would have read something like, “I’m glad that burden is off my shoulders. I’m going to go over here now and look for something more fun to do.” Then in the mid 90's, Europe had a problem in its own back yard - Kosovo. In time, after much debate, they decided that military intervention was needed. But even in this "European" enterprise, a relatively meager distance from France, Germany and England - something like 70% of the equipment and personnel used in that campaign were American. In all those years under our wings, the entire continent had forgotten how to fight for for themselves. More specifically, their militaries had atrophied to almost nothing in both hardware and know-how. The main training mantra in all those years had become “When the going gets tough, call the Yankees.”

If you’ll remember, when we were building up to the war in Iraq, there was this big fuss because the US felt that our European allies weren't stepping up when we needed their support. Many Americans felt as if these nations owed us a degree of deference and loyalty because of all the years we had risked our own blood and treasure to defend them. I was one of them. But since then, I’ve come to think differently. I realize that the use of military force is not a realistic option for Europe. Of course they're reluctant to fight, because their capacity to fight is so limited. Conversely, our capacity to fight, more specifically our remarkable capacity to win with increasingly small loss of life and property, has made the use of force a rather attractive option for the United States (perhaps too attractive, but I’m not at all certain of that conclusion). Please don't misunderstand - the loss of almost 2500 American lives in Iraq is in no way being trivialized, but when one considers that more soldiers were lost in a single training exercise for D-Day, to say nothing of the lives lost in that single battle, it's hard not to notice that the risks are much smaller than they used to be, at least for the US. (the guilt associated with that preeminence is another topic I’d love to explore, but not here.)

Where the US is emboldened by our success, Europe has been weakened by their dependence. We weren’t their ally, we were their protector, and it weakened them. Not just in the number of tanks and jets, but in their hearts. All that time spoke one message loud and clear – you are incapable of defending yourself. And the mission in Kosovo must have driven that point home even deeper. And so now, trying to find some hook to hang their pride on, the leaders of Europe look to their seats on the UN Security Council as the one place where formerly great nations still wield real power. They resent the US for our pride, our success and the help we gave them starting with the Marshall Plan. It’s odd to look at W@H as a template to understand politics but I have to say...the shoe really fits here. The template of the wound and the vow and the false self – it all goes a very long way to understanding Europe in the double-oughts.

What happened to Europe over the last 100 years? At the beginning of the 1900’s Europe as a whole was ascendant. Internal bickering aside, the continent led the world by a large margin in economics, politics, military might, intellectual thought, etc. etc. But then it’s as if they just self-destructed from the inside out. These two events we call the World Wars really weren’t world wars at all – but by centering on Europe they affected the entire world. What caused them to eventually combust? Pride at what they’d accomplished? Guilt over colonial sins? I don’t really have an answer here, I’m just wondering. While we don’t generally look at the last century as having a unit called “Europe” it certainly applies to some degree. The amount of intellectual, cultural, and economic interchange has made Europe a distinct and coherent thing since Roman times.

So today, with an obviously atrophied military they continue to desire a seat with superpower status (see: UN Security Council) even when the term ‘superpower’ is almost defined by military power. Similarly, they want to have a world court, a single currency, a grand unifying constitution, etc. etc. It's like there is this vision of something bigger in Europe, something that would empower Europe with real relevance and vitality...but they can't quite seem to get it done. It's almost like the overweight, spoiled kid of a rich dad who earned his fortune by hard work. The kid has seen big ideas work but has had everything handed to him for so long that he doesn't know how to balance his admittedly beefy checkbook.

As the Cold War recedes farther into the past, and as the US draws away, most likely to face the rapid and exciting changes in Asia, Europe is getting acquainted with some harder realities that it's been largely insulated from over the previous 50 years. They're finding that the world is a lot more competitive these days. They're finding that without  a common enemy, they have a lot of old animosity between them that hasn't been settled. They're finding that a military costs money and requires support if it's going to ever figure as a factor in international politics. It must seem like a cold bucket of water in the face after the Cold War, where they were able to live in a sort of Kantian paradise and the bills were always paid by somebody else - us.

There is another aspect here that I’m at a loss to account for, but must be important – the fact that Europe now sees itself as Post-Christian. I guess as I say that I must conclude that this matter is in fact MORE important than the economic, political or military aspects of Europe’s path. The truth is that I haven’t done my homework and I have no sense of where or when Europe’s faith started its nosedive. But in my (unverified) image of 1901 Europe - it sure looks as if Christianity was still alive and well at that time. It seems that it only fell apart in the next 100 years. Was it less? Was Europe still Christian in 1950? My gut tells me that the death knell of European Christianity was World War I. The brutal futility of trench warfare, the appearance of mustard gas, the helplessness with which nation after nation was drawn into a conflict by force of treaties that were intricately designed to prevent war.

Perhaps it largely comes down to modernity.

20th century Europe was built on the foundation of modernity. It’s rise to power hinged on technological advances, the promise of progress and an abiding faith in man’s ability to better himself. It was the Enlightenment and humanism and the Age of Reason. For the most part modernity had no problem with Christianity. Sure there were tensions like that mess with Galileo and the Pope, but the bulk of Enlightenment movers and shakers were at least deists. Still, at some point that would be hard to define, a belief in human potential became a belief in human independence and God became at first distant, then disinterested, then dead. Christian faith went from pivotal, to parochial, to problematic. It was The Enlightenment Unchecked that brought us mustard gas and machine guns and coal soot so thick it changed the color of the peppered moth. And as 1917 closed, standing atop its massive cathedrals and looking over their profound ability to slaughter one another by the hundreds of thousands Europe must have wondered, Where is God in all of this? But it was then, like in Forest Gump – that God showed up. Out of nowhere rose the Spanish flu, and the world witnessed death on a scale not seen since the plague. Millions of dead in a single year and all of man’s great potential and power was unable to cause or prevent it. The Enlightenment had failed. Its premise was demonstrated to be false by its own methods.

When modernity lost its connection to God, it essentially lost its anchor to reality and to life. At that point, its eventual decline into morbidity was inevitable. Look, I’m not one of those guys who thinks that all of modernity was bad, but cut free from Heaven and Hell it was just another Tower of Babel. The root problem that Postmodernism seeks to grapple with is a world where nothing means anything, all symbols are referential, and all truth is relative. When people say that Europe is Post-Christian they are recognizing and opposing one fact – that Europe was built on Christianity for the previous 1600 years. But they are forgetting or ignoring a much more germane point – that Europe worked hard to break free of Christianity in the most recent 100 or so years, and most of the pain and misery at issue came after that break, not before.

There’s a saying that great civilizations fall from within, they are not conquered from without. It’s as if somewhere in the mix of the two world wars and the rise of Communism that Europe grew somehow disgusted with itself at some level and it balked at the future. The US, I suspect, could not have risen to power as it did unless the European powers invited or allowed it.  In a way, WWI, WWII and the Cold War are the stories of Europe needing to be saved from itself. Like we interfered in great acts of self immolation...and perhaps Europe resents that like a jumper who’s violently yanked from the precipice. To that degree, America’s continuing Christianity perhaps  seems  offensive – they are the cynics who bark at the optimists – “Grow up!”

Boy, this post started in one direction, veered sharply to one side and now drifts slowly into a third...sorry for the rambling.

But I started with a thought on Europe’s future. Let me make something clear - I'm not sassing Europe in this post. I'm just describing what I see. I think Europe is at a crossroads and I'm curious to see which way they go. On the current course, I think they are most likely headed toward a ‘remember the glory days’ kind of stagnation and eventually irrelevance - BUT...I also think that they'll change. While Postmodernism could be described as a rejection of truth, it could also be seen as a (albeit cynical) search for truth...and in that case they will find it. There is a tremendous spiritual hunger out there. At least twice in this post I’ve likened Europe to a child and I think that’s accurate in many ways. On the point of religion I see Europe in a kind of teen-age rebellion, throwing down their parent’s faith in defiance of what they see as hypocrisy and foolishness. But teenagers grow up when they get kicked out of the house. What makes sense from your upstairs bedroom doesn’t wash in your own apartment. I suspect that even now, the regular folks in Europe are sniffing around the edges of Christianity and finding that it is not the same as modernity, it just has something to say about it. Nor is it imperialism or socialism or capitalism – or any of the other things that turned out to be false idols. I suspect it’s at that point when the deep laid seeds of European Christianity will start to bloom again.