Authority Issues?

Do you have “authority issues”? What kinds of authority have you experienced in your life? Who should have authority?
Centering Thought: The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis. – Dalai Lama
2017-05-21 OOS Image
Share the plate: HOME Youth and Resource Center
Celebrant: Steve Rosen, Anchor: Arrhiannon Kirkpatrick
Music: Ryan Amend and Aimee Larsen-Amend



No way around it – you and I were born into authoritarian regimes. Everyone is. Some are blessed to begin life in benevolent dictatorships and benign monarchies, whereas some must live under indifferent or incompetent rule and others must endure harsh, even cruel authoritarian regimes. Simply put, we are born defenseless and dependent. In our early years we can’t take care of ourselves or make wise decisions and so, for good or ill, our parents and caretakers must exercise power – hopefully to lovingly protect and not just oppress and control us. It’s not a democracy – it simply can’t be. A young child should not have the freedom to run out into the traffic or stick a paper clip into an electrical socket. Some older authority has to simply communicate “no!” in such instances.

There is a legitimate need for authority in human society and yet even that word “authority” conjures up negative connotations for me. Yet dealing with authority is impossible to avoid (a lesson I learned early on) – so our history with authority and how it has shaped – or misshaped us – are important matters to consider. In other words, do you have “authority issues?” I do. It’s good to examine this.

I’m happy to note that I was born into a home with a loving mother and grandmother (my father was largely absent and having no father takes a toll on a boy’s psyche, but overall, I consider myself fortunate to have been born into a benevolent realm).

My particular struggles with authority began outside the home with church and state.

Let’s first consider the state first, in the form of Ms. Liarly my first grade teacher. She took an instant dislike to me, didn’t think I was that bright and was inclined to be a bad boy – not exactly the most confidence building of environments for a sensitive young fellow. Any young child deserves better.

Life under her tyrannical rule was intolerable for me, so one day before school I made a break for it and ran away with Peppy, a younger friend of mine. We dashed out into the woods and began building a raft next to a little stream with visions of floating away from oppressive civilization into a pristine wilderness, far, far away from the Ms. Liarly’s of the world. Thus began my life long spiritual quest for freedom. Given that the dimensions of our raft were greater than the width of the stream, it was a logistically ill conceived plan. Long story short, I was apprehended and forced to return to my first grade classroom prison cell where Warden Liarly now kept me on a short leash.

My first attempt at evading authority having failed I now went to plan B, which was to feign submissiveness whilst inwardly maintaining a nonconforming, rebellious attitude. The authorities could imprison my body in the classroom but not my spirit. During my childhood I stared out the windows of classrooms like a caged bird and often dreamed of a freedom. (I apologize to school teachers present today who know how to make classroom environments engaging and educational. The implicit educational theology in the schools I attended was that we were miserable little sinners who needed to be shamed and coerced into learning.)

Then there were the religious authorities in my life. Things did not go well for me with them either. I never liked going to church. Never. It’s a stunning and ironic development that I ended up a minister – no one saw that coming! Whatever it was that they taught in the Southern Baptist Church rarely piqued my interest, much less my enthusiasm. Those who proffered religious teachings did not strike me as trustworthy – it didn’t really seem that they believed what they told me I should believe. When my parents and the pastor decided it was time for me (all of 9 years old!) to become Baptized and commit my life to Christ this required my nominal approval, which I unenthusiastically gave. So they baptized my physical body but not my spirit. I feigned spiritual submissiveness until the time when I could make my break from the church.

That time came in my junior year of high school when a weekend job at McDonald’s Hamburgers preempted Church attendance. This greatly troubled my devout mother, but she was a single mom and we mostly lived on her secretary’s salary and I needed to save for college, so it was off to the exciting world of fast foods where I would encounter yet another type of authority – the employer.

Before I started working my mother made sure she instilled in me an abject fear of the boss’s authority. She grew up during the depression and knew that any job was better than no job and that you should do whatever it took to keep that job – just do as you’re told and don’t make waves. My bosses at McDonald’s were, alas, not good ones – they cared not a whit for their employees, only how much they could get out of them. Sub-minimum wage exploitation was the name of their game. Know this – each one of those billions of burger sold over the years was flipped by an underpaid employee. So I labored hard under the rule of uncaring, demanding bosses. (Alas, many people in the world have it much, much worse and would consider such a job the best thing that ever happened to them.)

Around that time I found refuge in the certain novels of John Steinbeck which challenged the injustices of our economic system, and thus I was primed for the anti-authoritarian counter cultural revolution when it happened in the late 60’s, and I jumped right on board.

Some time later I became involved in an alternative religious movement – Zen Buddhism – that challenged the authority of mainstream American religion. Buddhism came packaged as a non-authoritarian religion in which you are empowered to be your own authority – you’re advised not to accept or believe anything that doesn’t ring true for you. I joined with others to practice in a large community with a Zen Master. He was said to be a wise, enlightened man, and that was the impression I got. He was the central authority there. This was something new – an authority I respected – yet I feared him, too. I had virtually no meaningful contact with him during the two or three years I was part of this community. At the same time, this kind of authority had its appeal for me – here was someone who was enlightened, knew the truth, who had answers and solutions. Yet fear and a reservoir of mistrust from earlier encounters with authority kept me distant.
Some years later, after I had moved on to other pursuits in my life, I was distressed to learn that this Master had been removed from his position because of ethical lapses – he had betrayed the trust placed in him. He had been given too much unaccountable authority. It was a painful institutional moment for the Zen Center, but to their credit they recognized his transgressions (after a prolonged period of denial) and initiated the removal of the master. For transparency’s sake they invited the local newspaper to write all about it so everyone could honestly examine what had gone wrong. I should also note that this master later came to acknowledge his wrongdoing and has sought to make amends. A number of other eastern religious groups who gave their masters, gurus, too much power and control experienced the same type of thing and some of them more or less collapsed and some of them, learned to adapt and adopt more democratic practices, as did the Zen Center.

The news of the Master’s downfall initially disheartened me. I was attracted to the idea that there could be leaders who would always prove to be wiser and stronger and better. But the news of this institutional failure was something I needed to hear and so, too, do many others. Spiritual authoritarianism in which followers give up their power to an “all wise” leader just doesn’t work. Neither, of course does political authoritarianism, as history has proved time and again and as those who voted for our current president and who are not already disillusioned, will learn that they have lied to. The yearning for such authority is, as the social psychologist Eric From aptly noted, “a flight from freedom.” (And becoming disillusioned, as William Sloane Coffin noted, is not a bad thing. It simply means you had illusions that needed to be dispelled.)

One of my own illusions was that I could just avoid dealing with all authority and lead the kind of life I felt called to lead. You might say that I had (and still do have) “authority issues.” Then came the day in the early 1980’s when I knew that I couldn’t avoid dealing with people in authority. With not a little trepidation I made an appointment to meet with one. Frankly, I didn’t want to do it, but there was no other way forward.

I entered this authority’s impressive office and there he sat behind his big desk – a daunting sight. I prepared to sit in front of the desk during our interview, but he smiled and came out from behind that great symbol of his authority and sat right next to me so we could chat. I was used to seeing David Rankin (now retired and living in Idaho) up in the pulpit or reading the words he had written in one of his books. At the time he was deservedly one of the most highly regarded ministers in our Unitarian Universalist movement. What I needed from him that day was assistance in the forward motion of my own life – in other words, a letter of recommendation to enter theology school. I was a member of the congregation he served, but he really didn’t know me. Yet then, we sat and had a good long conversation and he ended by laughing and saying that he believed I did have a call to ministry and had the potential to do well and he’d be glad to put that down in a letter. What I did not know until later is that David called himself an “anarchist clergyman” and was about as non-authoritarian as they come.

And yet he was an authority himself – he had power in one of our larger congregations – power that comes with the office of ministry. My encounter with him was not painful or uncomfortable as I, given my past experience with authority, expected it to be. In fact, it was a uniquely empowering moment. After a lifetime of feeling disempowered by authority figures I needed that. David realized that the power and authority of his office was not “his” – it was delegated to him by the UUA and his congregation as a sacred trust to use in life affirming ways that would enable others to discover and come to have faith in their own power and authority. That, in my view, is one of our key purposes – that our congregations be places where you feel safe, accepted and encouraged and empowered to trust in yourself and be who you are uniquely called to be in this world. We fulfill this promise by being in kind, compassionate, life affirming covenantal relationships where we learn to recognize, name and abjure abusive and harmful uses of authority.

Here’s the troubling reality in our world: People are so often oppressed by unjust and unequal power relationships and yet have no other frame of reference and internalize this – it just seems that this is the way it always is. One pre-civil war Southern defender of slavery once put it this way: “Some people are born with saddles on their backs and others with boots and spurs on their feet.” Nonsense. Societies create and perpetuate unequal and unjust systems of power and authority – it’s not part of any divine plan.

I think of the child or the family member who is beaten or emotionally abused and told they deserve it and come to believe this lie. I think of those who must cower in the presence of mean spirited bosses because they dare not put their job at risk. Or minorities and marginalized people who feel fear at the sight of the police or ICE. We cannot begin to fathom full, heartbreaking extent of the systemic abuses of authority in our world.

In his sermon “Confessions of an Anarchist Clergyman” David called for “doing away with authoritarian, cruel relationships between men and women, parents and their children, employer and employee” noting that what was needed was a revolution wherein there would be “justice, equity and compassion” and that human relations would be guided by the use of democratic processes. Amen to that. That is the vision we are called to hold and cast out into the world.

This may sound like a political manifesto, but it is grounded in a spiritual vision of loving, compassionate, covenantal relationships – a vision that invites everyone to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person (and to consider the welfare of all beings) and to acknowledge everyone’s legitimate rights to be free of oppressive systems of authority that crush and deform the human spirit.

We’re now living in a reactive, retrograde era when governmental and economic authoritarian forces are threatening us all. Today, we, as a congregation, will soon vote on a resolution that challenges the abusive use of authority for undocumented immigrants. We will also vote to accept the proposed budget and to elect members to the board of trustees and the nominating committee. We vote as individuals in our democratic congregation because each person matters, your voice and your presence is a gift to us.