Question authority

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—July 27, 2014—1 Samuel 8:10-18; Romans 13:1-4; Mark 10:42-45

I want to talk this morning about political philosophy. Now, I don’t suppose many Mennonite preachers today—or ever—have done sermons on political philosophy. But like I say to Kathleen when she asks, on occasion, what in the world are you doing, I say, I’m just trying to keep you guessing.

Actually, I think Mennonites should talk about political philosophy—and understand that we have important resources for political philosophy in our tradition. The key theme, I think, is authority. Mennonites are not nearly faithful enough to our Anabaptist heritage in relation to authority. Not that many Mennonites I know have been socialized to question authority—though doing so was essential in the beginning of our movement in the 16th century. I’d like to float a provocative thesis this morning—when we question authority we take a necessary step in developing what we could call an Anabaptist, or , to be more presumptuous, an authentically biblical, political philosophy—that is, to question authority can be an act of faithfulness.

A political awakening

But first, let me tell the story of the beginning of my political awakening. When I was a kid, I lived for sports. Sixth grade was when we first had school sports where we played other schools. After football and basketball, we’d have both baseball and track. In my eighth grade year, we thought we’d have good teams—I was excited.

Then, something terrible happened. I still remember the moment clearly. We walk into our classroom one morning and see this written on the board: “Students who wish to compete on the baseball and track teams must have crew cut haircuts. There will be no exceptions.” Now, Elkton (Oregon) Grade School in the late 1960s was not a hotbed of hippy subversion. I had only recently let my hair grow out from my standard crew cut, but it wasn’t even as long as my hair is now. Nor was anyone else’s. But there were several of us who believed this was an unreasonable demand and refused it.

We had a standoff. The coach would not relent and four of us would not relent. The coach had the power. He made us ineligible. In fact, we were put on detention and forced to stay inside at school when the rest of the kids went to watch a game. It was a tough pill to swallow, but as was often the case when bad things happened to me as a kid, I eventually could say, “I learned a valuable lesson.” I learned that people in power can be stupid and unjust. I learned that power corrupts. I learned to question authority.

The Bible and authority

Question authority—is this a message of the Bible? Let’s do a little word association while I read a few biblical texts. What word or words come to your mind when you think of “authority”? While you are thinking I will read three texts to help stimulate (or maybe, confuse) your thinking.

Samuel reported God’s words to Israel’s elders who had asked for a king: “These will be the king’s ways: he will take your sons and appoint them to be his soldiers and run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war. He will take your daughters to be cooks and perfumers and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”—I Samuel 8:10-18

Let each person be subject to the governing authorities; there is no authority except from God. Those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and they will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.Romans 13:1-4

Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”Mark 10: 42-45

So, let’s talk a little about authority….

It is one of the great ironies—nay, I’ll say tragedies—of history that the Bible so often has been seen to be on the side of people in power. We can all think of a few proof texts and images in the Bible that justify this—Romans 13 not least. Obey the governing authorities. Pray for the king. Wives, children, slaves, submit. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And there are others—though not as many as most people think.

Seeing the Bible as extra friendly to the powers-that-be is actually a profound misreading of the basic tenor of the Bible. Happily, the actual subversive nature of the biblical story has survived generations of misinterpretation, mistranslation, and misuse. The actual subversive nature of the biblical story remains available, waiting to be noticed—and unleashed.

I can’t remember exactly when I truly noticed how subversive of authority the Bible is—probably toward the end of my college years. But once the light came on, I could never see the Bible otherwise. I think of it as like when I’m in a restaurant and hear a song in the background. But I can’t quite hear it; it might be pleasant noise, but it’s still just noise. Then, suddenly, I recognize the song. Then I start actually to hear it. It’s like the volume has been turned up (though it really hasn’t). But the music now makes sense; it begins to do it’s life-enhancing work on me. Likewise with the Bible. It came to be coherent to me, to make sense—as an inspiration to question authority.

So, we should interpret Romans 13 in light of 1 Samuel 8 and Mark 10. Romans 13, as traditionally interpreted, is actually only a tiny counter-voice of political conformity in a mass choir that, in Revelation 5, sings praise after praise to the Lamb. This Lamb challenged the powers-that-be, and conquered them with his subversive witness and persevering love. From start to finish, with few exceptions, the Bible questions authority. That my coach would abuse his authority, and damage his school, his students, and—as it turned out—his own career, shouldn’t surprise us. The Bible tells us that people in power from Pharaoh in Exodus down to the kings of the earth in Revelation often abuse their authority, often damage people and societies, often even act against their own best interests. That’s what power all too often does to people—it bamboozles them.

Romans 13’s impact

Romans 13 has—and continues to have—a nefarious impact. Several years ago I tracked down and read arguments against Christian pacifism. I was stunned to realize that in most every case, Romans 13 played a key role. God calls Christians to obey their government when they are told to go to war. This idea transcends theological and political diversity—from right to left, Romans 13 is seen as a basis to fight and kill.

Now, as it turns out, I believe that Romans 13 when properly understood, actually supports our pacifist convictions. I don’t have time now to explain why (I have an article about this I can refer you to). I’ll just say that we shouldn’t stop reading at verse 7. We should go on to notice that Paul’s conclusion comes a few verses later: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

I can think of one obvious reason to doubt the traditional use of Romans 13 as a support for the powers-that-be. Such a use contradicts the rest of the Bible. Question authority (especially kings and generals and chief priests)! Be suspicious when people claim to speak for God, but actually buttress their own power. The Bible actually couldn’t be clearer about this. I want to give just a few examples, but first let me make a comment. Many of those anti-pacifists who so readily cite Romans 13 also talk about human depravity and the need to be realistic about sin. Because humans are so fallen, we can’t be trusted to decide things for ourselves and we need people in power over us. Because humans are so fallen, we need weapons of war at the ready to resist the inevitable evil that bedevils our world.

But wait! What about the people in power themselves? Aren’t they also depraved? Aren’t they also fallen? Aren’t they also prone to evil? The doctrine of the fall should actually be a tool for our questioning authority. The people most likely to manifest human fallenness are people with power over others. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This isn’t just a nice bromide; it actually should be a core conviction that leads us to resist giving automatic consent to the people on top.

The Bible’s anti-authoritarian story

Let’s look at the Bible. First, the creation account, Genesis 1–3, is notable partly for what it doesn’t say. There is no king in this story, no human hierarchy, no attempt to link human power structures with the “orders of creation.” In fact, the actual biblical creation story denies the later idea of “natural” heirarchies into which we are born. Every single human being is equally created in the image of God.

Then comes the exodus. God enters the fray to deliver slaves into freedom. And what’s the problem these slaves faced? It was empire, a hierarchical society with Pharaoh’s unaccountable power at the top. God acts to liberate the slaves. But we must notice something here. This was a different kind of revolution. It was not based on the fire power of weapons of war. The weapons of war are destroyed when the Red Sea crashes down on the Egyptian’s horses and chariots. The human leader was a weaponless prophet, not a great warrior. The fruit of this liberation was a society established around Torah—a vision of social life that empowers the vulnerable and forbids centralization of power and wealth in the hands of a power elite.

Then, a few generations later, through times of insecurity, we have Israel’s elders wanting a human king. Samuel warns, such a move will have disastrous consequences. At the heart of the problem is that kings take and take, they tend to enslave and dominate. The elders insist, God, not being a tyrant, relents, and the consequences are severe. We should read the story of Israel under its kings in light of this warning, and in light of the critique from prophets later when the kingdom falls. We will see it as most of all a story about the path not to follow. God’s promise in calling God’s people—to bless all the families of the earth through them—does not need a nation-state to carry it out. Making a geographically bounded kingdom central to the carrying out of this promise proved to be a failure. The biblical vision for the universal blessing takes a different path—one that does not depend on the power dynamics of nation-states.

We see this with Jesus. Our Mark 10 text is not just a nice story where Jesus tweaks the foolish ambitions of his followers to be “great.” It’s a fundamental statement of his political philosophy. Don’t be like the nations—that was the problem in Samuels’ day and since. Jesus calls his people to resist the tyranny all too common in human attempts to organize themselves politically. It must not be so among you.

Paul also critiques domination. He insists on obeying God and not human governments when they are in conflict (even to the point of death). He shares Jesus’s call to servanthood. He spells this out is in Philippians 2. Jesus is our model. He turned his back on kingly, domination-oriented power, and became a servant. Jesus attained his victory through compassion and love, not coercive power.

Finally, and fittingly, the Bible ends with the wonderful book of Revelation—and its sharp critique of the Roman Empire. But Revelation is not simply over-against. The book’s alternative politics are shaped by Lamb-power. What happens in Revelation is the transformation of the earthly city, from Babylon to the New Jerusalem. Even the kings of the earth are converted—from Beast-power to the Lamb’s way of doing politics.


So, let me bring up something now. If we try to find a single word that captures the Bible’s questioning of authority—or better, the Bible’s alternative to authoritarian authority—how about this one? “Anarchism.” I raise this as a question, one I’m working on myself. “Anarchism” has a pretty bad reputation. We associate it with “the propaganda of the deed”—that is, assassinations, blowing things up, breaking windows, black shirts, maybe even punk rock. But the word itself actually could be compatible with the Bible. It literally means “without rulers.” One word used in the Bible for rulers is “arché.” So, “without rulers” (an-arché) could mean without Pharaoh, without King Ahab, without King Herod, without Caesar, without the tyranny Jesus refers to in Mark 10.

Anarchism typically has two elements: (1) the abolition of all government and (2) the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. This first element is the stickler—“abolition of all government.” But we may think of this in two different ways. The first would be more typical of many anarchists: overthrowing the state, violent revolution. This has problems. Such thinking still makes the state central. Anarchism can tend toward an obsession against the state, thus letting the state still set the terms. As well, violence as a method of resistance almost always strengthens the state’s power and justifies it use of overwhelming violence.

But here’s another way to think. We could say not so much the total abolition of government as the radical relativizing of government. We withhold our loyalty, even withhold our consent. We see the state as peripheral and secondary, demythologize it and see the center of our identity elsewhere. Thus, government can still be seen as capable of good. In our society now, government provides a crucial way to challenge the scorched-earth approach of so many corporations. But the state is not central—and it certainly has no right to demand that we participate in or support its violence.

If we have skepticism toward government authority, we can move toward the second element of the definition of anarchism: belief “in organizing society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.” This sense of anarchism actually turns out to be close to how the Anabaptist tradition has thought of the church—as voluntary, peaceable, egalitarian. An anarchistic reading of Christianity will be open to a sense of continuity between these ideals for the church as a community of love and efforts to influence wider society toward what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community”—like Revelation’s picture of the nations being healed.

Functioning without domination

The key point is Jesus’s optimism (in continuity with the rest of the Bible) about human possibilities. We actually can function without dominating hierarchies. If we don’t have strong top-down power in our society will things fly apart—or will we actually empower cooperation, compassion, and community? I’ve mentioned before a wonderful book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Made in Hell, that makes the case for the latter. She looks at various natural disasters from the past century and shows that when the top blows off the social order people show a remarkable ability to work together.

Let me close with an example from my life that also gives me hope about an anarchistic approach. One of the highlights of my college years was the hours upon hours I spent playing pick-up basketball—what we called “ratball.” These were quite anarchistic, in the good sense. They weren’t chaotic but were orderly and harmonious. We had a strict set of unwritten rules. But there were no referees, no supervisors, no formal organization. We ran it ourselves and all followed those unwritten rules—call your own fouls, winner gets next game, go to twenty-one baskets and win by two. The games were intensely competitive. And, looking back now, admittedly with rose-colored memories, they were great fun.

I’d like to think of that rat-ball culture as a kind of laboratory for human nature. We were “naturally” competitive, for sure. But more deeply we were cooperative. The joy we got from the competition (and it was important who won each game) rested on the deeper reality of cooperation. That reality of cooperation, I believe, simply came naturally. We can question top-down authority—and resist its domination—and construct genuinely humane cultures. It might be easier than we think.

4 thoughts on “Question authority

  1. Daniel Lehman

    God, Truth, the Natural Order…I, the hermit monk sit quietly in the wilderness. There is no other path.

  2. Lynn MIller

    Actually the Romans text does not command us to “obey” (hupoakuo) the governing authorities but to “submit ourselves” (hupotassomenos, a reflexive verb) to them. “Revolutionary subordination” was JHY’s way of describing how that happens, we disobey but submit ourselves to their authority by not running away from the penalty of disobedience. And the problem with “anarchism” is that we volunarily submit ourselves to the monarchy of King Jesus, so Christian monarchism would be a better way of describing our relationship to His authority.

  3. Pingback: By what authority? |

  4. Pingback: Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans | Thinking Pacifism

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