“A New Authority”
May 22, 2016
As I said, I’m going to be working my
way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians in my sermon during these late
spring days. It’s something new for me. In over 30 years of ordained ministry,
I’ve never preached a series of sermons from Galatians, and only rarely have I
preached from this letter at all.
But, as is often the case, I find those
ancient words of scripture speaking to me—and I think to all of us—in new ways
during this election year. And this morning I want to consider the light that
Paul shines on authority and authoritarianism.
strange election cycle, people often seem to forget that each of us is called
to responsibility in our public life. Too often, when people seek the common
good their focus is on taking responsibility for others; or the focus is on trying to make other people act
responsibly. We often fail to simply take responsibility for ourselves, for our
actions, our commitments, our faith—and then live responsibly toward others and
temptation toward authoritarianism is always there—the desire to turn over our
freedom to someone else—to let someone else take charge.
One of the ongoing public discussions
this election year is about the effect that “authoritarianism” is having on the electorate
and on the results in the primaries and how this authoritarianism might
influence the final results in November.
This discussion is not new, of course.
Since 1992 pollsters have asked four
questions to measure a voter’s inclination toward authoritarianism. They deal not
with political views but with attitudes toward childrearing. Would you rather
have a child who is:
How would you answer those questions?
People who chose the first option in
each of those pairings—those who would want a child who is respectful,
obedient, well-behaved, and well-mannered—tended to be more authoritarian. In
2008 that suggested they were more likely to favor Hillary Clinton over Barak Obama.
Well, last August, John Dean—yes, that
John Dean, who has significant experience with authoritarians—John Dean wrote
an article titled: “Donald Trump is the Authoritarian Ruler Republicans—and
Some Democrats—Have Been Waiting For,” the subtitle of which asked: “How far
can a truly authoritarian ruler go in America?”
We’re coming closer and closer to
finding out, aren’t we?
Many of you might have seen the
now-well-known article in Politico
last January that used those questions about childrearing to show that
authoritarianism, not race, income or education levels, was the single
statistically significant variable that predicted whether a voter supported
In March, however, an article in the Washington Post suggested that there was
no evidence that the supporters of Trump were more authoritarian than the
supporters of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
In April others argued that, yes, Trump
was an authoritarian. But just last week, Melania Trump wrote of her husband:
“He is not Hitler.” So we at least have that assurance.
On the other hand, Ron Paul has asserted
that Bernie Sanders is an
authoritarian; and others make the same charge of Hillary Clinton.
We are a nation founded on the idea that
the people have certain rights that cannot be taken away. We are a nation
dedicated to assuring that government
of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And we are a
nation that is constantly haunted by the specter of authoritarianism—the desire
for order and stability, little tolerance for deviance, obedience to strong
leaders, scapegoating of outsiders, demanding conformity and traditional norms.
suggest that we Mainline Protestants tend to be less authoritarian than
Catholics or Evangelicals and that we are more authoritarian that secularists
or Jewish people. And we’re told that people who attend church less than weekly
also tend to be less authoritarian—so what’s a minister to do? Should I tell
you to stay home on Sundays? Or should I be encouraging you to worship more
regularly and just hope that your authoritarian tendencies are not encouraged?
hope wouldn’t be entirely unfounded in this place. You know that Congregationalists
have always been somewhat uncomfortable with authority.
Our forbearers in the faith, the
Pilgrims, were known as Separatists,
because they wanted to separate from the Church of England, the religious
authority in their land. They were also known as Non-comformists because they could not and would not go along with
the established ways of being faithful Christians.
We’ve never seen the creeds of the
church as binding, authoritative
statements of what must be believed. They are valuable affirmations of faith,
they can help us as we try to sort out our own beliefs, but when you join this
congregation—or any UCC congregation—you won’t be asked: “Do you believe…” We
recognize that each individual is responsible before God and each one of us has
the right of conscience to follow God as he or she understands scripture. No
outside authority is going to tell us what to believe.
At our best, we’re uneasy with any
authority except for our own conscience.
But—and you know this—we’re not always
at our best, are we? I’m certainly not. I don’t remember what I once said to
cause a divinity school professor’s assessment of me, but I do remember him saying: “You have a bit
of an authority problem.”
And when I
read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I realize that I am not alone. This letter
exposes the very human tendency to hand over our freedom to someone else.
Paul’s experience with the church in
Galatia, shows how ready people are to set their conscience aside and seek out
Paul had spent some time with the early
Christians in Galatia. He was not well at the time and remembers that even so
they welcomed him, “as an angel of God.” He was a messenger, and Paul’s
consistent and constant message was about the freedom we experience in Christ.
He describes this as being set free from
the present evil age—and what he means by this is the new possibility that we discover
in Christ, what one person called, “the freedom from the shadow that yesterday
casts over today.” We are set free from old ways of living, set free from old
ways of looking at ourselves and others. And we are set free from the guilt and
shame that we’ve been carrying around. The good news, the gospel, is just this: we are not our own judges and we no longer
have to prosecute the case against ourselves.
But now Paul has heard that they have
turned to a different gospel—and he is upset to say the least. “I am
astonished!” he writes. He can’t believe the reports he has heard. And he
spends the rest of this letter chiding the Galatians, reasoning with them,
imploring them, berating them—all in an attempt to bring them back to the
freedom for new life that they had found.
Paul begins this letter with a defense
of his work. And while the question is never really asked, he seems to be
dealing with the same question posed of Jesus.
“By what authority are you doing these
Remember how Jesus responds when asked
Jesus doesn’t really give an answer,
does he? He only offers the promise of one.
“You tell me,” Jesus says. “Was the
baptism of John of divine or human origin?”
It was pretty clear right away that
there was no safe way to answer that.
It wasn’t evasion on the part of Jesus. If the religious leaders could
recognize John’s authority, they would have no problem recognizing Jesus’ authority.
But some couldn’t see what was right in
front of them.
At the same time, there were others who
recognized in the actions and words of Jesus an authority that gave new life.
The word for that authority is “grace.”
It is an authority that brings freedom to individual lives and to our
relationships with others. It is an authority that increases individual
responsibility rather than taking it away.
This is the same authority that Paul
claims: the love of God for humankind revealed in the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus; the grace of God revealed in the freedom of forgiveness.
This expansive, creative authority gives us the power to go forward in faith
rather than in fear.
In the months ahead we
will face many choices, many options as a nation and as individuals. There will
be those who encourage us to give over our power, our freedom, our hope to
as free women and men before God there might be times when we seem unfaithful,
when others will stand ready to condemn. There might be times when we will fail
miserably. But God will not cut us off.
in our congregation that in our personal lives and our public lives we are set
free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can
question old ways and try new paths, seeking the good in ways that are limited
only by our love for God and our love for one another.
trust in that love as we continue to live public lives as people of faith.