Authority, Part 2

Legitimate authority needs no enforcement mechanism – its power flows from the rightness of its decisions. Arbitrary authority is meaningless without the power to enforce its decisions. And many authority issues have nothing to do with laws and the power of government.

What power do authorities in the common world have – what can they really do? Soup Nazis may be able to keep you from getting their soup, but they can’t throw you in jail.

I think many of our authority issues with people like this have little to do with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their decisions. It has more to do with the power differential inherent in authority. We have to realize that these obnoxious authorities are extremely limited in their scope. They are not our superiors.

I used to buy a lot of wine at World Market. Then they started insisting on seeing ID first. As much as I’d like to think I look like I might not be 21, the white in my beard and the glasses I have to have to read a wine bottle scream otherwise. Checking my driver’s license serves no useful purpose and is not required by law. It’s required by lawyers who want to be able to say “it’s our policy to check everyone’s ID so it’s all the minimum wage clerk’s fault” if they’re accused of selling alcohol to minors.

I don’t shop there any more. Most grocery stores don’t ask for ID and some of the high-end grocery stores have a better selection. I think their authority is illegitimate, but they have the power to set the conditions of sale. Until I have the power to force them to change (not likely), I’ll respond in the only way I can.

The Soup Nazis of the world have little authority and even less power – we shouldn’t give them any more by playing their games. Take your business elsewhere.

Many cases of authority issues go back to childhood and problems with our parents. This is getting close to the amateur psychoanalysis I promised to stay away from, so I’ll just say that if you’re an adult, your parents have no authority over you unless you keep giving it to them. This goes double if they’re dead. The same is true for former teachers, bosses, spouses and partners. Don’t be afraid to renegotiate a relationship – or drop it, if it’s causing you more harm than good.

A lot of times when I see authority issues in churches, they’re masking deeper issues. I’ve seen people get upset with a decision they agreed with – that they thought was legitimate – just because they weren’t consulted first. I’ve seen people insist on policies “to keep something like this from ever happening again” when what happened wouldn’t have been prevented by a manual full of policies. I’ve seen ministers ignore the input of experienced, spiritual lay leaders “because I’m the minister and you’re not” and I’ve seen lay members ignore the input of experienced, spiritual ministers “because you’re no better than anybody else” (obviously I’m not talking about the same minister in both of these examples, or the same lay people).

These aren’t authority issues – they’re ego issues. They have nothing to do with the legitimacy of decisions that were made. These are people who needed their sense of importance reinforced so badly they were willing to set aside their beliefs and values and demand recognition.

By the way, these examples weren’t all in UU churches. This isn’t a denominational issue or a liberal/conservative issue – it’s a human issue.

I have authority issues. I can’t do anything about real power differentials, but I can make sure they don’t go past their limits – and that includes time limits. I can keep the focus on the real issues and not on my – or anyone else’s – ego.

Knowledge is power – especially knowledge about the parts of ourselves we’d prefer to pretend don’t exist.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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