Power and authority can mean the same thing, roughly, but they’re not really synonyms. Power is the ability to make something happen. To be powerful is to be capable. Power may come from native intelligence, or from physical characteristics such as strength or speed or agility. In human beings, power can also be a function of weaponry: tear gas, or a club, or a stun gun, or an assault rifle. But there’s another piece to this, and that’s the piece that we routinely miss or ignore: Power and authority need not go together. Given sufficient power, I can compel obedience. I can relieve others of things that are rightfully theirs. I can end or severely compromise the life of another creature. In other words, given sufficient power, I can exercise dominion, which means I can dominate. But having the capacity to dominate does not give me the authority to dominate. Authority is about permission. Officer Chauvin had the raw power to subdue George Floyd and to take his life. He did not have the authority to do so, and so he abused his power. The three Aurora police officers who responded to a call about a “suspicious person” had the raw power to subdue Elijah McClain. They had the power to end his life, as did the paramedics who carelessly injected the 140-pound Elijah McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine. No one among the first responders at the scene had the authority to do any of those things, and so they abused their power.
Authority comes from the Latin word for author. And so it makes sense that authority belongs not to the powerful but to the Author of Creation. And, as we’ll see, authority is a function of relationship – as is almost everything related to God.
Shebna: A name to conjure with. We don’t know much about him, except that he had a position of power and authority in the court of King Hezekiah. Drawing from various sources, historians tell us that Shebna was proud and deceitful and that he conspired with Assyria – the enemy of Israel – to plan an attack on Jerusalem. In other words, he used his power wrongly, for his own gain and to better his lot in life. And so the Lord – as is described in colorful language – thrust him from his office and pulled him down from his station.
We know from Scripture what God looks for in religious and temporal leaders: Ultimately, they are to lead in the way that Jesus led. Search the Scriptures, read the Gospels, see what Jesus was like: Jesus, the one who listened, intently, looking for meaning beyond the words, searching for what was in someone’s heart; Jesus, the one who led in the context of relationship, walking with; Jesus, the one who healed, reconciled, and forgave; Jesus, the one who spoke truth to power, without flinching or backing down; Jesus, the one who invited people into community, the one who formed a community of disciples that became a Church; Jesus, who went to those at the margins – the poor, the forgotten, the foreigners, the suffering, the outcasts – and brought them back into community; Jesus, who led people who were lost in darkness and confusion into the light; Jesus, who honored women in ways that were radically countercultural; Jesus, who reminded people of the things that they had in common; Jesus, who gave frightened and hopeless people reasons to hope; Jesus, who told us over and over again that we need not be trapped in fear; Jesus, who showed people that there was another way and a better way; and Jesus, who gave himself away, completely and utterly, bringing life out of death itself.
Sadly, Jesus will not be on the ballot this November. Not for either party. But the things that Jesus was about are at issue nonetheless. And we can use the power of the ballot box and what we know of Jesus to choose and elevate leaders at every level of government who have some sense for the common good, who are capable of leading us forward and not further into chaos and who exemplify some of the values that make this country’s imperiled soul worth fighting for. And that, dear sisters and brothers, is called discernment.
In American culture, questions of identity point to the individual. One of the tasks of American adolescents and young adults is the task of self-discovery – figuring out who they are as individuals, over and against their families. If someone were to ask, “Who are you?” you might mention your parents, but you wouldn’t start with that. In America, that’s not what’s interesting about your identity. In American culture what’s interesting about your identity are the things that differentiate you and set you apart from the people around you: “I don’t want to know where you come from, I want to know who you are.” We head straight for the individual and once we’re there we think the story has been told.
The Mediterranean cultures of Jesus’ day were very different, and were different in ways that can be hard for us to understand. There was no search for self as we think of it. Your identity – and your place in society – was a function of place and family. You were defined by the various groups you belonged to. That’s why, in the culture of the day, a sufficient answer to Jesus’ question “who do people say the Son of Man is?” would have been “Jesus ben Joseph” – Jesus, son of Joseph – or “Jesus of Nazareth.” Except that those things did not capture who Jesus was. Drawing on his relationship with Jesus, Peter figured that out.
Jesus did not call Peter Rock because Peter was perfect – he was, as we know, far from perfect, and in fact he denied Jesus not once but three times, out of fear. Why then was Peter made the Rock and the foundation of the Church that will endure until the end of time itself? Because Peter knows who Jesus of Nazareth is: the Christ and the Son of the Living God. Peter has uncovered the story behind the story.
One of the things that makes the Black Lives Matter movement so powerful and so revolutionary is that Black lives matter. BLM is about real, whole, entire people. Yes, it’s about brutality and the abuse of power and the confusion of power and authority but what gives the movement its real strength is that it dares to bring into play Black Americans as people, not abstractions. For too long the stories of Black Americans have been told from a perspective that made them in effect into stories about white Americans: what white Americans did to or for Black Americans. What was important in those stories were the thoughts and actions and feeling of white Americans. Consider the Greenwood Massacre, back in 1921, in the part of Tulsa, Oklahoma that was called Greenwood – where the Black citizens of Tulsa lived. A hellish and demonic mob of white Americans burned Greenwood to the ground, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless. Finally, one hundred years later, the story is being told. That’s good, and it’s about time, but let’s not tell the story as if it started with the massacre. Greenwood is compelling not because of what a mob of white people did on two nights in the late spring of 1921 but because of what Greenwood had become before the massacre. Black Americans built Greenwood up from nothing to become the most prosperous Black community in America: houses and churches and hotels and banks and shops and stock brokers and grocery stores and thousands upon thousands of stories of Black American living their lives. The same is true here, close to home. We know – or are learning – what white people did in Whittier and Five Points. But Whittier and Five Points are interesting because Black Lives Matter. Yes, the history of these neighborhoods is set against a background of adversity and broken promises and the stench of racism. But the compelling part of the story is about the schools and the houses and the churches where you’d go on a Sunday morning and settle in for the afternoon and the fire stations and the flower shops and the hotels and the people – people who built a community and who fell in love and reared children and lived lives of dignity and purpose and who were resilient and whose everyday lives were in themselves a sign of triumph. The truth is the whole story.
There are, BTW, two keys on the Seal of the Papacy for this reason, from Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven – that’s one key; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven – that’s the other key.” Power and authority. Because Jesus is who He is – fully human, fully God, the Author of Creation, knowable through relationship – we who have chosen to be in relationship with Jesus have a share in His power and authority. We have the power to forgive. We have the power to show mercy. We have the power to be compassionate toward all God’s creatures. We have the power to invite others into community. We have the power to right the grievous sins of the past. We have the power to restore, and to renew, and to rebuild. We have the power to set our course for salvation. And not just the power, but the authority. Because of love and because we are loved. These may be fearful times, but they are less fearful than they are wonderful, because we are loved, and perfect love casts out fear. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Praise God.