When abused, authority damages bodies. A husband punches his wife and breaks her nose. Abusive day care workers crush the bones, dislocate the limbs, and scar the souls of small children. Tyrants torture bodies into a quivering mess.
Even when the results are not so extreme, abusive authority disables bodies. A husband who never lays an aggressive finger on his wife may still silence her with mockery and bullying threats. Children are blinded to reality by the manipulations of a sexual predator. Harsh teachers don’t open ears to instruction, but deafen. Even when they don’t cut out tongues, tyrants prevent tongues from doing what tongues are created to do—to speak the truth. Propaganda sows confusion and leaves many of the propagandized “brain-damaged.” Ultimately, abusers deprive victims of the full use of their faculties.
We know all this. It’s one of the main courses in our daily diet of news. What is not so obvious to us is the reverse: If abusive authority disables bodies, authority rightly used restores and heals. Well-used authority empowers us to bring our bodies to their full potential.
In his wonderful recent book, Up With Authority (T&T Clark, 2010), Victor Lee Austin uses the analogy of an orchestra to explain why authority is necessary for human life to flourish. Orchestras need conductors because reason provides no single right answer to questions like, “What shall we play at the concert?” or “What shall we practice today?” or “How shall we interpret this passage?” Each musician might have a perfectly reasonable opinion, but their opinions will inevitably be different and will almost inevitably be incompatible with one another. And it’s no good for each musician to do what is right in his own ears. It won’t do for the brass section to insist on playing Mahler fortissimo if the strings have chosen to play Grieg pianissimo. If the orchestra is to perform coherently, if the musicians want to perform music rather than make noise, somebody has to have authority to decide.
Conductors seem to limit the freedom of individual musicians. The goods that authority gives are individual as well as collective goods. Submitting to the authority of a conductor, individual musicians attain musical expression they could never realize individually or as a collection of uncoordinated players. Authority is necessary for classical musicians to bring their own bodies to musical fulfillment.
What is true for orchestras is true for human life generally. Teaching is the most fundamental and pervasive act of authority. Good teachers make it easy for students to hear, and give them eyes to see what they have not seen before. Good teachers don’t talk to keep their students quiet. Good teachers talk to give their students something to say back.
Midway through his prophecy, Isaiah envisions “a king [who] will reign righteously, and princes [who] will rule justly.” Their reign miraculously transforms Israel. Bodies are healed: The blind see, the deaf hear, stammerers speak clearly, and the confused discern truth. Christians of course read this as a prophecy of the Davidic King Jesus. Jesus surrounds himself with “princely” apostles who extend his authoritative ministry of teaching and healing. Jesus preaches; the apostles preach. Jesus heals; the apostles heal. Jesus casts out demons and raises the dead, and the apostles do the same.
But Isaiah’s prophecy has wider application. All well-exercised authority heals bodies and restores senses. The cowering, abused woman learns to see rightly and speak accurately under the protective authority of a battered woman’s shelter. Pastors who rule the church well give discerning eyes to everyone. Parents who train their children in love open closed ears by making their instructions hearable. Husbands don’t silence their wives, nor wives husbands: Each gives voice to the other.
The same happens on the public stage. In the safety of a Western democracy, refugees slowly begin to tell the truth about conditions back home. Under a skillful political “conductor,” people who had no previous opportunity to develop skills or ideas find new uses for their minds and hands. For decades during the twentieth century, many Western intellectuals were willfully blind to Soviet tyranny—until Solzhenitsyn’s meticulous account of the Gulag opened their eyes. Truth was whispered in corners and codes—until John Paul II’s courageous, truthful speech loosed Polish tongues.
Wherever authority is used well, a miracle occurs. Wherever authority is used rightly, bodies are healed and empowered: The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, “dead” bodies are raised to new life.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
Victor Lee Austin, Up With Authority
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