Authority presents itself as an interpretative lens in the gospels over two dozen times. Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus sees the centurion as one who understands authority. Jesus stands before those with authority.
Our understanding of the authority of others, as well as the understanding of how we manage our own authority, will guide and result in the success we have in human relationships.
It is amusing to watch Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices because of ill-defined and murky authority issues in the room. Sonia Sotomayor sat before the authority of a Senate judicial committee and politely answered political questions because she understood the authority of that committee in regard to her appointment.
She operated using the “KISS” principle, careful not to say much or to step into a political pitfall. She respected their authority given by process but understood and was gracious about the lack of constitutional authority in the bulk of their questions.
One didn’t have to watch the hearings very long to realize that this woman held a far superior authority on the practicing and discussion of constitutional law to anyone in the room. When it came to authority based on knowledge or experience, every wise senator exercised a respectful timidity in their questioning. Like “Jack in the Beanstalk,” they realized there was a giant in the room. While wanting to claim and put forth their authority to confirm, most realized that they were not the legal authorities in the room.
Did you not sense the similarity of Sotomayor before the judiciary committee and Jesus answering the questions before the Jewish authorities? Jesus had the authority of knowledge and truth; the scribes and Pharisees held only authority by office and uniform. This balancing and struggling with authority is hand-wrenching and uncomfortable for all. Just watch Pilate washing his hands in Matthew 27:24.
Perhaps viewing the July 16 encounter between Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley through lens of authority rather than racism could be informative. The esteemed Harvard professor presumed that he held authority in his own home. As there was no crime committed, it is fair for him to presume to be the master of his own house.
Enter Crowley, a uniformed police officer suspecting burglary. The policeman anticipates a criminal scene; officers entering criminal scenes appear carrying authority. He assumed an authority that was granted and appropriate to his uniform and badge. He lost sight of the authority of a human being in his own home, intruded upon by an unwelcome guest.
Crowley held the authority of an uninvited intruder, not of a law enforcement officer or protector of the people. Uniform and badge did not translate into authority. He failed to understand this reality. The consequence of his action is that uniform and badge lost authority not only with Gates, but the larger society as well.
It is no secret that most college town ministers imagine hell as an endless committee meeting with a half dozen (usually named) PhDs in the room. While not all holding doctoral degrees suffer from an in-your-face arrogance based upon authority gained through knowledge, faculty position and earned degree, such arrogance is the witness of many.
Humility, patience and respect for others’ authority is certainly not a prerequisite to the granting of a doctoral degree. How many PhDs can we name who claim their degree as a sign of superiority, gifted with truths not evident to the common humankind?
Likewise, the struggle to properly manage authority is legendary among law enforcement officers. The authority of the badge, gun and uniform often brings the needed answer and stability to family conflict, abuse situations and criminal activity. Authority and order are corollary. If you minister to law enforcement officers, you are also aware of the interaction of fear and authority. Repetition of experience guides their behavior, and lack of respect for their vocation is enraging.
Presumed authority, without ever respecting the authority or place of others, leads to difficult situations. Also, lack of understanding and respect of authority breaks down communities and institutions basic to our collective life. Could it be that the arrest of Gates can be best understood through the lens of heavy-handed use of authority married to the lack of respect for another’s authority?
When racism is the lens for the July 16 event in Cambridge, the gift is more heat than light. If we can come to peace with the place of authority in our lives, we can be enriched in understanding the authority God exercises and be better stewards of the authority God has given us.
Authority abused yields to the disintegration of communities. Authority maintained with humility and patience yields creativity, respect, healing of broken and fractured relationships, safety and peace. May all of us be mindful of the limitations of our own authority and be more accepting of the authority granted others.
Larry Coleman is senior minister at Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.