Last night as I was falling asleep I couldn’t stop thinking about authority in its different senses. Of course, when falling asleep my thoughts tend to be basic, half-formed, and repetitive, but I still had a sense that it was an important thought to work through, even though I’m sure I’ve worked through it before. Sorry for any repetition.
There are two main views on authority, that I know of. One is dominant in discussions of theology, and it has to do with correspondence to truth: a view or a witness is authoritative because they correspond with reality, or they are true. The Bible is authoritative because it gives true representation of God, but also because it is believed to be given by God, who himself is trustworthy and true.
The second view of authority is a sociological view, in which authority is something that the people who are under authority bestow upon those in authority. We obey our leaders because they are our leaders, but they are our leaders because we have collectively agreed to obey them. Children grant authority to just about anyone who’s older than them, agreeing that these older and wiser people can tell them what to do; teenagers refuse to grant authority even to those who may have a legitimate claim to it, such as their parents.
Authority in both senses tends to create positions in which that authority is held. Nobles became nobles because they led people through times of trial, and the people granted authority to them; being entrusted with this authority, they took on a role as leader and protector of the people, and passed that role on to their children. Many of those children had no such leadership skills, and flouted their responsibility, but the role or position of lord maintained authority, and people continued to invest authority into that position even if they disagreed with how one particular lord fulfilled the duties of that position (or failed to do so). In the same way, the Office of the Prime Minister began in Canada as the PM’s secretary, and the PM was just the first among peers in the House of Commons; but during wartime, we granted the Prime Minister the ability to give special powers to other MPs and form a Cabinet to help with wartime decision making, as well as expand the staff in his Office. Now the PMO has over 100 people in it, and there are 39 members of the Cabinet, all of whom have more power than a regular Member of Parliament; every successive government has grown the size of these institutions, investing more authority in them in spite of the fact that Canada hasn’t been in active combat for most of its history, and is not currently so. The position remains, and the authority of that position remains, so long as we continue to agree to grant authority to those positions (the sociological definition of authority). We will continue to do so until it has been proven to us that these positions are arbitrary and incorrect – until the positions themselves have lost any sense of correspondence to truth or reality (the correspondence sense of authority).
So here we see how the two positions are connected: so long as we believe that the person in the position of authority has authority in the first sense (that they are truthful and trustworthy), we continue to grant them authority in the second sense by granting them the respect and obedience due their position. The trouble is, when we’re talking about authority we tend to confuse it with power. The sociological definition of authority is “the legitimate or socially approved use of power.” Power itself is the ability the person in authority has to carry out the duties of their position: they can tell us what to do, because we’ve given them the authority to do so in recognition of their trustworthy and reliable nature or character. Perhaps, then, I should call this a third view of authority: that we grant authority to someone in recognition of the power that they hold over us. Because at a certain point, we only obey those in authority (and thereby continue to give social sanction to their use of power) out of fear of their power over us.
As someone who’s keenly interested in both theology and politics, this makes me ask: what kind of authority does God have, what kind of authority does government have, and how do the two exercise the power that comes with that authority?
In the first and third senses, God is the ultimate authority. He is completely and ultimately trustworthy and the only one in existence with access to all of the facts – therefore, he is an authority on everything. And he is also omnipotent, having the power to exercise ultimate control over everything in existence should he so choose. Usually theologians think of God’s omnipotence and omniscience when they think of his authority. The trouble with the theological emphasis on this third form of authority (that is, giving power someone in recognition of their existing power over us) is that it is the weakest or lowest form of authority, and tends to be recognized as illegitimate authority. It is the authority of a tyrant, or a mobster. If we only obey someone because they have the power to destroy us if we disobey, are we actually obeying? Do we owe allegiance to such an authority, or do we simply comply out of a sense of self-preservation?
When it comes to politics, things change a little bit. Politicians claim to have the first form of authority, as they claim to be experts who can guide our nation. We don’t often believe them, and a majority of Canadians didn’t vote for the current government, but they maintain the authority of their position nevertheless because of a combination of senses two and three of authority: enough of us voted for them that they can claim that the people have granted them authority, and for those who dissent they exercise the power that comes with that authority, arresting and beating peaceful protesters (as in Toronto at the G20 protests a few years back). That exercise of power is widely recognized as being illegitimate use of authority, but so long as enough people continue to vote for them, they can claim legitimacy. We continue to renew their authority, even as they continually undermine any sense of being authoritative (in sense one, of being trustworthy and expert) by their misuse of authority (in sense three, of the ability to exercise power over others).
So, God has a perfect claim to sense 1 (trustworthy, expert), while any politician who claims that has a weak claim at best. God has very little authority in sense 2, in that a minority of human beings acknowledge, trust, or obey him; we tend to ignore him, or at least, ignore his commands. But for politicians in a democratic system, authority in the second sense is the only thing that grants them access to any authority or power at all. And while politicians often rely on authority in the third sense (the exercise of power to maintain authority in the sense of social sanction), their use of it actually undermines any authority they may have in the first sense (of being true or trustworthy) even when they’re successful at using it to shore up public support and authority in the second sense.
It appears, then, that senses 1 and 3 are mutually exclusive. If someone relies upon the use of power in order to maintain their authority, their credentials as a suitable expert whose commands are trustworthy is undermined.
Perhaps this is why, in spite of having all power in the universe, God chooses not to exercise it over the wills of human beings. He’d rather be respected and followed because of his character and correspondence to truth. This is why Jesus, having access to a legion of angels, submitted himself to the illegitimate use of power by the Romans rather than exercise his own, more legitimate power (more legitimate because of the legitimacy of its source, in God).
Not long later, Jesus told his disciples “All authority [often translated as "power"] has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). What does that mean, when governments and tyrants still hold power over people? What Jesus is saying is that he is the primary authority, and that because he alone is completely legitimate and trustworthy. We still grant authority to governments, but their authority is only legitimate insofar as they conform to reality or are trustworthy, and the benchmark for their legitimacy and worthiness is now Christ. That is, a government is legitimate when it is Christ-like. A ruler is legitimate when they are Christ-like.
Does this mean that all governments should be Christian? It’s not necessary to be Christian by creed or culture in order to act like Christ (though that is difficult for us all). There is no mandate in this statement for Christian culture or worship to be required of all governments or authorities. Christ himself never mandated that people follow him, he only invited – again, because he refused to exercise authority in sense 3, using his power to make people obey. In fact, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that it was after his execution at the hands of unjust authorities, in which he refused to exercise his unlimited power, that he proclaimed that all authority had been given to him. It is because of his refusal to exert power over human beings that he proved his worthiness to hold all authority and power. It is the most powerful person who never needs to use their power, and there is nobody else who can be trusted with that power.
So what does that mean for me, a Christian citizen? I continue to invest authority (sense 2) in my government only insofar as they are proved responsible and trustworthy (sense 1), which can be measured largely by how carefully they use their power (sense 3). When they abuse their power, I speak up and, whenever possible, step up. When a government proves itself illegitimate and must be reformed or removed, it is absolutely crucial that it is done so in a non-violent manner. In a violent revolution, those who recognize that their authorities are illegitimate due to a lack of sense 1 and 2 are just as illegitimate as the existing authorities they attempt to overthrow, as both sides are simply competing for power (sense 3), which undermines sense 1 and therefore sense 2. A true revolution is one in which those who have only power are overthrown by those who have only true authority: those who are right, trustworthy, and true. True authority is given freely, because it is objectively and truly deserved.
What would this mean for a political party or government? Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and you’ll have authority even if you don’t have power. (I think that the Green Party has authority in sense 1, even where it’s not recognized with the granting of the power to rule as in senses 2 and 3). If you have to sacrifice those things in order to gain senses 2 and 3, then you don’t deserve them and won’t be able to maintain them with any sense of legitimacy. Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and recognize that this might mean that you won’t get re-elected; do it anyway, and see how people respond. Be a one-term government, and if you do it well, you might get another term. You might not, but it will still have been worthwhile.