Friday, August 26, 2005

The Nature of Authority

By Mitchell

Hold on to your hats; today I'm going to try to link sports, pornography, abortion, the workplace, and the abuse of authority. All in one post. I get exhausted just thinking about it. But if you bear with me, I think I can pull it off.

The text for this post comes from yesterday's Gospel reading:

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, `My master is delayed,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." (Matt. 24:45-51)

All authority comes from God. We know this from the story of the centurion:

As he entered Caper'na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; be it done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)

Notice that Jesus uses the exact same phrase at the end of each passage: "there men will weap and gnash their teeth." Is this a coincidence, or should we take this as evidence of the seriousness with which Our Lord looks at the exercise of authority?

All authority comes from God. We also know it from history. The Divine Right of Kings, which derived its origins in part from the teachings of St. Augustine, traced the legitimacy of monarchy to God, from Whom the power came (and to Whom the kings were accountable).

All authority comes from God. We read it in the words of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Jefferson introduces a new concept to the dynamic of authority here, with the idea that the government derives its just powers "from the consent of the governed." In other words, from the people. This is the American evolution from monarchy to democracy, but implicit in this is an affirmation of the responsibility to govern in a just manner, and the concept that authority becomes illegitimate if it is not exercised justly.

So if authority comes from God, it follows that those in authority have a special responsibility to God to exercise their power in a way consistent with His will. This is important because there is an inherent inequality in the relationship between those with authority and those under that authority. The power must be used wisely as well as justly, as the wicked servant discovered:

"Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.

When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. (Matthew 18:23-34)

Presumably, while being tortured the wicked servant was weeping and gnashing his teeth.

A key component to the just exercise of authority is respect. Respect for God, the source of all authority; respect for those over whom the authority is exercised, who often are powerless in the face of that authority. Clearly, authority should not be taken lightly, which is why it is important to be just in the way in which we deal with animals. And this finally brings us to the athletes, pornographers, abortionists and employers, which is what I know you were all waiting for.

As you know if you've read this blog, I have a great deal of antipathy toward the way many employees are treated in Corporate America, so I won't rehash it now. But seen particularly in light of the first reading we referenced - Matthew 24 - we can see that respect is the key component that is missing from so much of employer-employee relations. One could argue that it is a two-way street, and to a certain extent they'd be correct. But remember that there is always a different dimension to respect when it is transmitted from the powerless to the powerful. The employee's respect often hinges on a degree of reciprocity, and when the employee sees a lack of respect from the employer through unjust, unfair, or even illegal management, that respect which is naturally due the employer will erode until in culminates in labor unrest. For an example, see any particular strike over the past hundred years or so.

The employee begins to see himself as nothing more than a unit of commerce. Rather than being an individual, he becomes a statistic, judged not on his humanity but on his utility - his usefulness. And in this respect the employee is no different from the star athlete.

We saw a young football player for the San Francisco 49ers die last week. We still don't know why he died, but one of the prime suspects is his weight - at 6'3", he weighed over 320 pounds. A large percentage of football players are described as clinically obese (just how large the percentage is depends on the methodology, taking into consideration body fat and muscle). That may not be healthy, but as football as evolved sheer bulk, rather than talent, has become increasingly important. Whereas players often played both offense and defense into the late 50s - which required coaches to teach skills that players might not naturally have - today rosters have expanded to over 60 players, even though only 11 can be on the field at one time. Specialization has removed the need for teaching; at some positions size has superceded skill. It is now the skill of the coach that has become important - coaches have television shows, endorsement deals, cameras focused on them all the time - and the players are little more than his tools.

There was a story at CNN.com today about a girls' high-school basketball player who had changed her mind about playing for college powerhouse Connecticut, opting instead to stay near her home in California. The Connecticut coach, Geno Auriemma, was said to be quite upset about this, telling the player something to the effect that she should pray to God that she never has to play Connecticut in college. One would hope that Auriemma prays to God himself that He treats Auriemma with more mercy and understanding than Auriemma treats others. Never mind the ethics of recruiting 16- and 17-year olds to play basketball at a time when they should be thinking about the crucial life-changing event that the selection of a college is. Never mind that she might have second thoughts about travelling across the country, away from family and friends, to play in a high-pressure atmosphere. Never mind all that - the only question is whether or not this girl will achieve her potential as a basketball player. The writer says that she likely would have wound up a better college player if she had gone to Connecticut. But would she have wound up a better person? One need only look at Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, to see the message that young athletes get: your value is measured by your contribution in the game. Character development only counts if it doesn't interfere with the game. As long as you win, it doesn't matter what you do otherwise. And the thing of it is, coaches like this might be perfectly wonderful people outside of sports - they love their wives and children and treat their pets well. They probably don't even realize the implications of their behavior off the field, because they've become desensitized to it.

Desensitization is exactly what pornography and prostitution have done for women. Some will argue that porn doesn't really hurt anyone, that sex crimes come from a disorder that is only tangental to porn, but I don't see how you can argue anything other than that porn trains the mind to view another human being as an object, an instrument to be used for physical pleasure. It's a selfishness that runs completely contrary to the love that Jesus teaches us, the selfless love that Paul describes. But once we're taught to treat one class of person as an object, it becomes easier and easier. The theme becomes not the dignity of the individual human being, but their utility. Once you see a human being as an object, then it's easier to beat them when things don't go well - when the bills aren't paid, when dinner is late, when someone looks at them and smiles in a way you don't like. You treat them like your own personal property, yours to do with whatever you want, because to you that's all they mean.

It's how unborn babies become "inconveniences" to be eliminated, how euthenasia can be described, with a straight face, as "mercy killing," how Terri Schiavo can be murdered because others judge her life to be not worth living. It's how monsters like Peter Singer can advocate the killing of young babies, already born, who exhibit signs of fatal disease or deformity. It's how an entire class of humans in this country were once considered property rather than people. One thing that all of these examples have in common is that people either have or take upon themselves a certain amount of authority, and proceed to abuse it.

One of the fundamental truths about life can be found in the dignity of the human being. When that dignity becomes obscured, even in just one instance, it becomes easier and easier to overlook it in others. When it can be overlooked, it can be consciously eliminated. That's the slippery slope argument that so many want to dismiss, becauese they know there's an elemental truth in it.

And the reason I've brought this argument all the way to this point is that dignity is so often at the mercy of human power and how it's used. We have seen what Christ says about authority, it's importance, its consequences. But none of this makes any sense unless we accept the fundamental premise I mentioned at the very start. All authority comes from God, and it should be exercised accordingly. It is one of the most visible ways in which we interact with God's plan on a day-to-day basis. Those who take the exercise of such authority lightly will feel the burden rest heavily on their shoulders, on the Day of Judgement. We may not be supervisors, may not coach or manage anyone, but we all exercise authority in our lives to one extent or another, as parents, friends, spouses, pet owners - any number of ways. That we may always cooperate with God's plan, and be just stewards of that authority which He has given us, may we always humbly pray.

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