To start off I'll say that I've always been a bit of a strange combination of a people-pleaser and a rebel when it comes to how I respond to authority. Somewhere between the rule-following, codependent-suck-up and the bratty leader of mutiny against "unjust tyrants." Really, I was part of an organized mutiny in my 5th grade math class. Today things are more complex, but I'm still aware of those two seemingly opposite impulses in myself that can arise depending on the particular situation–with the particular person or power at hand.
Authority is good and right. More of an innate reality that we humans had to come up with a name for at some point, I think, than a purely cultural construct. And definitely more something that people embody with who they are and how they live than something a piece of paper, a job title, and a prefix added to your name can grant you.
I was recently listening to a podcast message by Makoto Fujimura who pointed out that artists don't tend to like the word authority. In fact artists spent most of the 20th century rebelling against established authority. Millennials tend to have a natural suspicion of institutional authority as well, so as an artist of the millennial generation I suppose there was no hope for me on this one. There was no getting around some sort of tension in response to authority.
But Fujimura also says that we must remember that the root of this contentious word is author. Authority is intimately connected to creativity as it is given to those who can create–those who author a story for themselves and for a group of people in the world. God's authority created a universe and authors the history of it and its inhabitants.
Now God's authority is beyond any we can imagine, far superior to ours. God can create out of nothing (ex nihilo), whereas we can only create out of what has already been made (ex creatis). But we get to share in the divine authority, the authorship. We get to co-create with the great Creator. We get to play a microscopic part in the grand history of time and space and light.
We are innately creative, created to create as we bear the image of the God who creates. Therefore we make something of ourselves and of our lives whether we realize it or not–using our creative authority constructively or destructively in every act. And it takes some real intentionality, attention, learning, and submission to end up on the side of doing good without causing harm.
I look around and grieve many ways that authority is being exercised in our world today...
- By marginalizing entire populations based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, where people live, what people believe, etc.
- By manipulation of entire countries to gain support for war based on corrupt self-interest and monetary gains
- By trying to teach us that murder is wrong by murdering the murderers through capital punishment
- By corrupt market practices that serve corporation's financial interests while exploiting the people and destroying the land and natural world in their wake
- By depriving the poor of basic human needs while the elite accumulate more and more
- By bosses so insecure that they'll fire anyone who dares to offer an idea that doesn't line up with their own
- By pastors who make 6 figures while their janitorial staff doesn't make enough to feed their family
- By foreign aid and foreign missions practices that are culturally ignorant and insensitive, causing more problems than they alleviate
- By an inhumane judicial and penal system where under-resourced get lost and no one gets restored to health (and a public school system that looks much the same)
- By our buying habits that keep demand high enough to maintain slave labor around the globe
- By money buying sex and bodies and souls
- By a food and drug industry set up to keep us sick and addicted and buying more and more, while it's harder and harder to find real food for affordable prices
- By military practices that lead to so many unnecessary deaths and to more U.S. troops dying by suicide than in combat
- By creating cultural stories that reinforce the pervasive "us and them" mentality with which so many of us perceive the world
- By infusing our lives with technology so rapidly that we're losing the basic skills of relating to real people
- By allowing our privilege as the wealthiest in the world to let us forget the hand we've played (and still play) in the injustices of colonialism, segregation, racism, discrimination, countless wars and crusades, etc.
...to name a few. I'll pause there though, as I'm getting overwhelmed, and surely you are too.
But there's another way.
There's another thing to do with humanity's creative authority and communal power that can play a part in restoring the world. And I think Jesus shows us what that Way looks like, and why it can give us hope.
I have hope in our human potential submitted to the Author of all things good, true, and beautiful. In an age where the good (ethics) and the true (apologetics) have been debated to death, perhaps it will be in rediscovering the beauty of our Story that things can begin to be restored and the Gospel can compel us again.*
I have hope in authority that takes the shape of the cruciform–the true aesthetic of the Jesus Way. The unique form of beauty displayed by Jesus on the cross is co-suffering, self-sacrificial, ironic, mysterious, patient, non-violent, and not at all passive. He stands vulnerable with arms are wide open, chest exposed–no clenched fists, no weapon in sight, no armor worn to protect against attack. Can we even see the beauty in that anymore as we live our lives in this American superpower that teaches us to idolize success, achievement, technology, militarism, enemy-making, wealth-accumulation, self-preservation, violence, pragmatism, and obsessive efficiency? Can we be anything but confused by the God-made-man who, embodying the greatest power and authority ever known, chose to absorb an utterly humiliating act of violence, sacrificing himself publicly to the point of death to show us the way of real victory, real love, real faith, and the right way to exercise authority? It doesn't make any sense in the logic of a pragmatic, violent empire that is obsessed with quick results, flashy shows, and pretty things. It's ugly, offensive, looks like failure, doesn't get immediate results, and has no logical explanation. The logic of the cross is backwards compared to the logic of the empire. But if we claim to follow that God-man and that we are to shape our lives to look like the life he lived, I don't think we have a choice but to take a serious look at ourselves and our Church and our country.
I think we have some questions to wrestle with together, and they're not the comfortable kind. They're the kind that can get us in trouble–with both the church and the state as the lines between these two institutions have blurred to the point of disappearance. At a time when American flags are on our altars, when "In God We Trust" is printed on our money, when we're singing "I'm Proud to Be an American" & "God Bless America" in worship services more passionately than we are the hymns, when we employ armed ushers to "protect" our congregations, and the church is known more by its language of moralistic protest, political conquest, and its support for a "war on terror" than its way of love even as we profess to worship the Prince of Peace...I think it's clear that we may have somewhere along the way become the chaplains of an empire's cause rather than the prophets of God's kingdom. Our allegiances seem fuzzy at best, and at worst, entirely reversed.
This scares me. And saddens me.
But that same God-man who used his authority to show us the cruciform way of beauty also said not to be afraid. And fear is the monster that got us in this mess in the first place. That God-man knew sadness & sorrow too, but not divorced from an active pursuit of reconciliation and a new reality.
So, what do we do now?
So rather than protecting ourselves out of fear or sitting silent in sadness, what if we start by trying this? With any action we take, any value we uphold, and any group we endorse, what if we begin to ask:
Does it look like the cruciform? Is it beautiful? Would an observer look at it and say, "That's beautiful; it reminds me of Jesus"? **
And then what if we're brave enough to respond accordingly? Refusing to participate in whatever is not cruciform-shaped–not beautiful–and learning little by little how to stand cruciform in a world that needs to see this shape again so desperately.
*Zahnd, Brian. Beauty Will Save the World, Charisma House 2012, p. xiv
**Zahnd, Brian. Beauty Will Save the World, Charisma House 2012, p. 19