In this week’s epistle pericope Paul takes on a dispute among the Corinthian church over whether it’s acceptable to eat food offered to idols and uses it as an opportunity to discuss a much more important issue -- whether insisting on pointless regulations hinders the faith of others. As he bluntly puts it: “[T]ake care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Of course, we’re often experts in being stumbling blocks -- especially when we believe that by doing so we’re protecting ourselves and others. That’s certainly a paradigm we see in our political dialogue, exemplified by the ongoing stalemate in Washington as each party accuses the other of obstructionism that prevents “getting things done for the American people.” Last week’s State of the Union address highlights that dynamic, with President Obama threatening to veto bills passed by the new congress, while Republicans have already declared most of his proposals “dead on arrival.”
In the next installment of The Immediate Word, team member Dean Feldmeyer suggests that the reasons for this are deap-seated -- it’s all about power and the perception of authority. While we often become stumbling blocks for selfish reasons, we like to think that we’re doing so for more altruistic concerns... and our politicians make a point of “positioning” themselves that way in their rhetoric. But what constitutes authority? As Dean points out, it’s no accident that before Jesus exercises his power over the unclean spirit, our lectionary gospel passage opens by identifying him as one who taught with authority -- and there’s no greater authority (or source of power) than the Good Shepherd who personifies the word of God. Here’s a preview:
Authority and Power
by Dean Feldmeyer
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
An old adage warns leaders that “authority is like soap -- the more you use it, the less you have.” Effective leaders use their authority only as a last resort. They know that productive planning more often comes through building consensus and group ownership. People want to be led, but not pushed or forced.
History and literature teach this lesson over and over. Julius Caesar, King Lear, Chairman Mao, Richard Nixon, Captain Kirk, Pontius Pilate, John XXIII, and Superman all come to us as figures who struggled to find a balance between authority and power -- some more successfully than others. And we struggle with it still.
As our president and the congress jockey for position, thrusting and parrying in their ongoing legislative duels, they both want to claim the authority that gives power. The president points to the successes he has managed to achieve in spite of an obstructive congress, as well as to the recent rise in his approval rating to 50 percent. He claims that these accomplishments give him the necessary authority to move forward with his agenda. The Republicans in congress counter with their victories in the midterm elections, and claim that the voters have given them the authority to block the president’s agenda and move forward with their own.
Each side is claiming authority and trying to exercise the power which they claim is concomitant with it. Who is right? Whose authority is genuine and how much power flows rightly from it?
This week’s lectionary readings point us toward the only kind of authority that matters to the people of God -- and that is the authority that flows from God and God’s words.
>> Full installment posted Tuesday afternoon.
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