Problems with Authority

Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

An interesting conversation with the Benedictine Oblates got me to thinking about the phrase “problem with authority.”  It’s one of those psychological terms (or perhaps psychobabble) that has crept into common parlance, but does not seem to have a precise definition. Its form makes it sound like a problem, but in modern American culture, some people wear the designation as a badge of honor.  At least among educated independent professionals, there’s an automatic suspicion of authority, a belief that anyone who is mentally healthy would have “problems with authority.”  I begin to wonder if a better term might be “Problems with Obedience.”

Our topic of discussion was one of the three vows that St. Benedict includes in his rule: Obedience. Unlike stability or conversatio morum, people were careful to state that they were not talking about blind obedience, thoughtless obedience, or turning over one’s will to another. Several times, people reminded us that there are times when it may be right and even holy to break the rules or to be disobedient.

In short, obedience does not generate any aura or mystique, does not have any inherent attraction. It frightens us: too much might be asked or demanded, we might lose control of ourselves, and most of all, how can we trust that the one to whom we give obedience is, in fact, worthy of it?  The first article we read, Christian Obedience,  by a sister from Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, calmed some fears by pointing to the root of “obedience” in the Latin word for listening or hearing. It is a term that refers to dialog, not command.

Freedom, Our Spiritual Goal, the second article we read, captured a talk by Abbot Jerome Kodell.  He pointed to the freedom that exists even in prison – and the Oblates were quick to recognize in MLKing, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – yes – St. Paul himself – the depth of spiritual freedom that was possible even when every choice of movement, food, and safety was removed.  We recalled Viktor Frankl‘s famous words about human freedom:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Abbot Jerome pointed to the fact that this freedom comes, not from being without restraint, nor from simply obeying common sense rules, but by listening for and following Christ in one’s life.

“Everyone wants to be free but desire doesn’t make us so,” Abbot Jerome said. “We are often unaware of the unseen masters of past hurts and prejudices, and the outer masters of culture, mores and the esteem of other people. If you’re not free, you’ll be enslaved by these masters. Slavery is being controlled by a master you haven’t chosen.”  Choosing your master – and as human beings we must have a master – means choosing God, if we want to be free.

This brought us to the point of rebellion.  BUT!  BUT! All the situations of injustice, where one is willing to go along with what is asked or demanded by some superior, to recognize their designated and legitimate authority.  BUT there is something wrong about what they are doing or how they are doing it.  It needs to be fixed! It cannot be fixed!

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