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Answering Questions that Matter: Authority as Accompaniment

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The value of human life has become a concern that increasingly pervades multiple aspects of society—both on a communal and personal level. I am provoked to ask this question every day when I look at the faces of my students at the high school in which I teach. Who are they? What gives their life value? Who am I in relation to them and what am I proposing to them about the meaning of life and the nature of reality? These questions have become even more urgent in light of the surmounting tension between law enforcement officials and people living in predominately Black urban cities. I am struck by those who feel compelled to proclaim the value of the lives of Black people. The fact that there are countless people who feel that this statement needs to be made implies that we have lost clarity and direction when facing our humanity and the source of our value. What is it, indeed, that makes life matter in the first place?

The homilies and speeches given by Pope Francis at this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland pointed to “memory, courage, and future” as the key themes the attendees ought to contemplate as they returned home from the six-day long gathering. He led them to their true identity and destiny: human persons made in the imago Dei, and called to witness to life’s fulfillment in God’s Kingdom.[1] In doing so, Francis exemplified the ideal of authority in his addresses to the youth, directing them with gentleness and firmness toward the True and the Good. Francis understands his own authority in the context of God’s mercy, knowing that his position was given to him by God. Francis, who is no stranger to sin and forgiveness, made this explicit when he asked the Church to pray for him within the first few minutes of his papacy, as well as when he told Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ that the first thing that should be known about him is that he is “a sinner.” Francis continued, “This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”[2] His experiences have strengthened his certainty that he needs God’s grace and mercy. Throughout his papacy, he has spoken candidly about his past in Argentina as a Jesuit provincial and novice master, a time during which he described himself as a “tyrant.”

Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, characterizes the authentic dynamic between authority and a community as a framework in which people “follow those who follow.”[3] A true authority knows that her authority does not come from her own power, nor does it direct people toward herself, but rather points her followers to that which she is following. Authority is not for its own sake and cannot be self-appointed. Giussani continues: “I follow you [the authority figure] because you pursue something that is greater than you and me. . . . Authority means causing growth.”[4] A true community can be established and begin to flourish when it is grounded in a reality that is beyond the authority figures and the community members themselves. Francis’ authority is predicated upon his humility and his awareness that true justice and peace can be established only in God’s Kingdom and thus cannot be brought about by his own efforts. His public presence stands as a witness to his dependence on that which proceeds from beyond, that which transcends earthly confines and limitedness.

Francis’ understanding of his authority was perceived by young people as a point of attraction rather than of contempt or disillusion. This is starkly different from the way in which a growing number of civil authority figures are perceived today. Many individuals, particularly people of color, feel increasingly threatened by police officers as more and more innocent Black men and women are killed at their hands. Now the police, whose responsibility is to establish order and protect the members of a local community, are being publically challenged to remember the value of Black lives and are threatened with being shot before they can shoot more innocent victims. What is it that creates such tension between an authority figure and his followers?

I feel this tension acutely as a teacher of inner-city high school students. In many inner-city schools, children express the same resistance and disillusionment toward authority figures as many adults do. This tension often becomes a gift to me as it challenges me to take my own position of authority more seriously and to ask daily what it means to be a teacher to my students. My authority, and that of any other authority figure, is strengthened by my awareness of the origin and finality of the task that transcends me. Many of my students look at me as if my authority somehow limits their freedom and their capacity to express themselves. I constantly have to remind them that I’m on their side and that, rather than seeking to control or restrict their freedom and sense of identity, I desire for their freedom to flourish and for them to live their identity more fully. After a number of unpleasant confrontations, I have learned to value the moments in which my kids challenge my authority. I run the same risk of letting my authority become a license to incite violence when I am tempted to affirm myself and assert my own power, rather than to direct them to something that transcends all of us.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to questions of human life and society were grounded in the same understanding that justice and peace belong to a transcendent realm. In order for an earthly society to approach said ideals, its framework and structure must proceed from God’s unconditional love. King references St. Augustine’s dictum that “an unjust law is no law at all” in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.[5]

He furthers this point by means of Thomas Aquinas’ treatises on Law:

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.[6]

Thus law is founded upon something other than those who enact it. The objectivity of this basis for establishing laws allows for a greater sense of justice and equality; it frees us from the subjective views or limitedness of the civil and political authority figures. In regard to the question of racial equality, King continues:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.[7]

King’s notion of racial equality is established upon the universal obedience of all people to a greater, divine Authority.

The City of God, St. Augustine tells us, is beyond man’s reach while he is still a citizen of the City of Man. We cannot exact a pure and God-like justice while on this earth, and for man to assume the authority to do so can only lead to violence and injustice. The desire for perfect equality and justice, rather, must be sought through reconciling one’s heart to God’s will. The City of Man, while remaining distinct from it, becomes a preparation for the City of God. How do we foster a civil society and political body that can adequately prepare us for the pursuit of the true City? Rev. King emphasized in all of his sermons the Value of all values, the only truly effective “tactic” in his strategies: unconditional love, or agape. This love is not an ambiguous or subjective emotion. As King affirmed:

It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him.[8]

Through transcendent love, King brought his Dream of a more racially equal America closer to fruition. It was this God-like love that influenced the way in which he and his supporters planned their strategies to effect change on the federal level. Any strategy that was not grounded in this love, King believed, could not realistically be expected to bring about any effective or valuable changes. This love ought to extend itself to one’s enemies, especially to those who are perpetuating racial inequality and injustice, precisely because of its “transformative and redemptive power”:

Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.[9]

Only agape can subvert an unjust power dynamic. Approaches to achieving a just society that are motivated by anger and frustration can only continue the endless cycle of the power dynamic.

Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. . . . The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.[10]

Power for its own sake cannot subvert an unjust power dynamic; it can only continue the chain of injustice. It can only breed further violence and disorder. It distorts our sense of identity and leads us further away from true justice.

Our identity as human persons is rooted in God’s unconditional and gratuitous love for us. “The way to be integrated with yourself,” said Rev. King, “is be sure that you meet every situation of life with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic, neurotic responses. . . . You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.”[11] Hatred makes it impossible because of the way in which it distorts our capacity to live in a true relationship with reality. “You can’t see straight when you hate.”[12] Returning to Giussani, it is precisely the authority figure’s relationship with the objectivity of reality and his awareness of his need and desire when facing it that allow the authority to grow in certainty of his identity and in relationship with the Infinite.

Responses to racial injustice that proceed from anger, despair, and a thirst for vengeance hardly share in King’s pragmatic goals and concrete strategies. King and his fellow civil rights activists effectively brought about changes in America precisely because their strategies were rooted in the creative force of love. Only when justice is rooted in a transcendent love for God and neighbor can true fruit be borne. The Civil Rights Act has not eradicated racism from the United States. I would hardly say, though, that a utopian society devoid of prejudice and sin was part of King’s Dream for America—at least not while he remained on this earth. His ideal for racial equality was founded in God’s justice, which can only be fully realized when we reach the City of God. Those who strive to enact a society that is purified of all sin and prejudice will be wont to find success while living in the City of Man; thus the frustration of many young people who are still awaiting the dawn of the day when “we shall overcome” all injustice, “someday. . . .” Until then, an activism based on anger, despair, and a utopian vision of society will struggle to bring about the kind of changes that can be actualized by a commitment to the transcendent, creative, and fruitful force of love.

Francis’ final address to the youth in Poland emphasized the importance of being connected to one’s roots:

I must ask myself where I come from . . . the memory of my people, the memory of my family, and the memory of my history. The memory of a path that has already been trodden and all that we have received from adults. A young person with no memory cannot be a beacon of hope for the future.[13]

In order for true justice and peace to be established—if we are to have any hope for the future—we need to be in relationship with that which precedes ourselves. Francis encouraged the youth to look to their grandparents as guides so that they can develop their sense of “memory,” of rootedness in something beyond themselves. Without having established their roots, it would be a vain effort to seek to transcend the circumstances in which they find themselves today. Without transcendence, the youth will feel compelled to resort to subverting the current power dynamic, only to end up perpetuating the exact chain of domination and hatred that they seek to eradicate.

The attractiveness of an authority is his or her ability to lead us to that which makes true progress and growth possible: transcendent love. An authority must be able to offer something genuinely new and creative, something that I want and need for myself. An authority cannot lead by force or by exacting particular responses. They must have a deeper awareness of what it means to be human and of the meaning of life as they point us to the “memory of our roots” and future.

I find that my students follow me with greater zeal and intensity as I grow in awareness of who I am, of my thirst for God, and my desire to understand the meaning of reality. I communicate this through the way in which I express my love for my students and my fascination with the content that I teach. It is this capacity to transcend, this relationship with the Other, that can provoke us to respond to the needs of society through the creative force of love. It is this transcendence that can allow us to understand the true value of human life. A notion of authority which derives its directives from God’s parenthood—his capacity to foster the growth of his followers, to protect and provide for them to the point of giving his life for them—ought to inform the way in which all authority figures approach their daily work of service to others. Civil authority figures such as politicians and police officers also ought to refer to their “roots” and ask themselves: from where does my position come toward what is my task ordered; and what informs the ideals with which I carry out my task? As they ask these questions with greater intentionality, they will be better able to carry out their task of protecting the common good. They will be able to fulfill their call to serve the communities entrusted to them by opening a space for people to work freely to establish a society that values the fullness of human life. Concretely, we should open spaces in which these questions can be asked freely. As we grow in understanding of the meaning of our authority and how to carry out the task to serve those entrusted to us, true progress can be made.

Featured Photo: Globovisión; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

[1] Vatican Radio, “Pope Francis: ‘I Don’t Know Whether I Will Be in Panama’” (July 31, 2016).

[2] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God” in America Magazine (September 30, 2013).

[3] Luigi Giussani, cited in Roberto Fontolan, “From Utopia to Presence: Presence, Judgment, and Authority” in Traces, no. 8 (September 1, 2006).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies” (November 17, 1957).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Vatican Radio, “Pope Francis: ‘I Don’t Know Whether I Will Be in Panama.’”

Stephen Adubato

Stephen Adubato is pursuing his masters degree in moral theology at the Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University, and teaches religion and philosophy at a Benedictine high school in New Jersey. He also blogs at Cracks in Postmodernity.