Thursday, November 07, 2013

Giving Authority Its Due

When asked about the religious persuasion of her children, my mother says that faith only took with one of them. That would be me. If I am to speak honestly, I'm not sure why I felt the concept as appealing as I did. Have you ever entered a space or gathering where you felt instantly that you belonged? That was how church left its lasting mark with me. I was a precocious child in need of something solid and tangible to revere. I respected tradition and saw a need for it, even when further examination later in my life made its flaws gaping and numerous.

At the age of nine, I jotted down a few words of an impromptu poem, having entered the sanctuary very early. I observed the sedate atmosphere before the pomp and circumstance and felt moved to write. I believe I called the piece "The Quiet Church." The minister, her gender a controversial notion in the Bible Belt for some, loved it. She reproduced the entire work, including my childish scribbling, on the front page of the weekly newsletter. This could be said to be my first published work, though I should add that, much as is common today, I received no money for it.

I never left organized religion, even when urged to question and doubt. I've never quite had the heart for radical rebellion and destruction, even for the right reasons and with the proper intentions. Some people believe that every institution, especially that of organized religion, is fatally flawed and must be metaphorically burnt down to save it from corruption. People my own age believe in the very worst of religion, often because they've never been informed of its great strengths. I ascribe this pessimistic opinion partially to 21st Century American culture and to the related attitudes of a generation prior, the Baby Boomers, who saw themselves fundamentally as rebels against the establishment.

Though I have my own criticisms, I believe in established precedent too much to throw it aside entirely. That's my secret conservative side. Be it government or the church, I see the need for continuity within the context of reform. I would argue that our Founding Fathers did something daring by casting aside a colonial mindset and insisting upon the purity of Democracy. And yet, nevertheless, they built upon the Magna Carta's demand for representative authority, not autocratic power.

Every culture and country has its own attitudes towards government and its own expected response should the issue of revolution be raised. Had I lived in the time of the English Civil War, where monarchy eventually gave way to a military dictatorship, then back to monarchy, I might have retained my head. In the French Revolution, where a conservative phase gave way to a radical Reign of Terror, then to a dictatorship, I likely would have lost it.

Today, I see a great dissatisfaction and heavy distrust of authority in American discourse, which is a belief system as old as the Republic itself. And even with our short fuses and angry pronouncements, we are not yet ready to upset the apple cart. Some may attend Mass religiously every week, granting it a measure of reverence, even if much upsets them and may give them reason to leave. Each of us are the truest of true believers, at our core, in the Democracy we would spread around the globe if given half a chance.      

There's a passage, frequently misquoted, in the New Testament book of Romans I often return to in my reading. It's been used over the years to justify bad government and worse policy. I'm sure that the verses in question likely depend heavily on the context of the time, which I why I am no biblical literalist and never will be. Yet, they hold meaning and resonance to the current day.
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong.
Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God's servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God's servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.
This same chapter, a few verses later on, implores its audience to pay taxes. This is a premise that renders many conservatives and Republicans, who have used the first few verses to great effect, hypocritical. In the First Century A.D., this Pauline statement was controversial, particularly because Christianity was in its infancy and was subject to fearsome persecution from the outside and schism within itself. I would argue that Paul is not arguing here for Theocracy, though some have taken these verses to mean exactly that.

We know that our two-party system is flawed, but we continue to grant it grudging respect. We know that Wall Street and high-flown businesspeople hold more of the power than should ever be granted to any person or group of persons. We speculate, with profound dissatisfaction, about why things never seem to change. But we are in a double-bind of a sort, somewhere between believer and agnostic. Habit and good practice still hold sway. We talk about our government and religion like a bad marriage, too emotionally indebted to put it aside, too bitter to let it drop.

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