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”

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