By what moral authority?

May 16, 2016 by

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Leading with moral authority takes uncommon courage in these fractious times. Who has the audacity to move out onto that vulnerable edge? Who has the integrity, love and theological grounding to do so in trustworthy ways? There are countless ways to get it wrong. We know of at least one way to get it right — someone with an authority that astounded his listeners because it was unlike the authority of the religious leaders of his day.

Many of us, including myself, know what it’s like to be silenced by those in authority, put in our place, told they don’t want to listen to what we think or engage with why we think it’s important.

As a leader, I grieve when fellow leaders who seek to offer moral guidance are thrashed and shamed on social media and from blog pulpits by those whose moral indignation boils over in public condemnations.

I am also among those who watch in dismay as church leaders who should exercise moral authority on behalf of victims and disenfranchised persons fail to do the right thing and then cover up or make excuses rather than apologize for their failure.

Many of us watch the current political charade in alarm as demagogues resort to authoritarian bullying and racist scapegoating with a masquerade of moral pretense. We also see the masquerade mirrored in our church life by articulate persons who, out of their own sense of moral superiority, publicly belittle persons who fumble in leadership.

I am among those who grieve as congregations and conferences, full of their own sense of moral authority, break covenant with the wider church out of a presumption that they must preserve the purity of the church.

By what authority do leaders do these things? What is it in these fractious times that brings out the authoritarian worst in us — from extremes at both ends of a political spectrum?

On the other hand, why do so many of us in positions of leadership abdicate the authority we should use on behalf of God’s reconciling mission in the world by hiding behind institutional structures, procedures, unnamed prejudice, excuses and the like?

How might we instead learn to be courageous moral leaders who are grounded in wisdom, in compassion, and in the justice-seeking, righteous authority of Jesus? I often ponder what it was about Jesus’ authority that astonished the people.

Jesus was an exemplar of moral indignation. He minced no words about those who harmed children, for example. In fact, Jesus says it would be better for such persons “to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:2-10).

When I hear a conference leader describe how colleagues use a “machete” to cut off those who mingle with the wrong people, I begin to understand what prompted Jesus to turn over the tables of the money-changers. Jesus got most riled up at righteous purists who used their moral authority to keep those deemed unworthy or the wrong race or diseased or impure out of the temple, outside of the community of God’s beloved.

For too long, Mennonites have been “the silent in the land.” We have had a disabling relationship to notions of leadership and moral authority. It’s long overdue that we break the silence and learn to be public and prophetic truth-tellers — unafraid to speak and act with authority. Yet if followers of Jesus are to have any transformative impact in these troubled times, we can’t be like the other self-protecting, self-promoting bullies out there.

Thomas Merton, whose peacemaking spirituality transformed me in college days and since, writes about the desert dwellers of early monasticism. He writes: “Love takes one’s neighbor as one’s other self, and loves him [her] with all the immense humility and discretion and reserve and reverence without which no one can presume to enter into the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity. From such love all authoritarian brutality, all exploitation, domineering and condescension must necessarily be absent. The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which ‘the spiritual man [woman]’ contrives to bully those he [she] thinks inferior…”

I want to be someone with authority who speaks and acts truthfully in ways that dignify every person I encounter. I want to show such reverence toward that-of-God in another that I am willing to listen rather than shut them down. Above all, I want what moral authority I am called to offer to be grounded in humility. A definition of humility I received firsthand from feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther is “accurate self-knowledge.” I want to embody the kind of humility that is ready to acknowledge my own limited understanding and failures rather than to blame or shame or cover up or shut out.

I resonate with leaders who dare to go to the vulnerable edge rather than to major on self-protection — and who do so with a spirit of yieldedness. “We yield,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “because you, beyond us, are our God. We are your creatures met by your holiness, and by your holiness made our true selves…”

By what moral authority? Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth….” Jesus’ authority was grounded in the unshakeable love of his Abba. His righteous indignation, his unflinching moral authority were rooted in pure Love for God and neighbor. May it be so with each of us as well.

Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared on her blog, Practicing Reconciliation.


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