Friday, January 27, 2012

Freedom and Authority

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

A few years ago, a prayer group consisting of young people had their weekly meetings in one of the rooms at the back of the sacristy in the Church of the Assumption, PJ. One of the highlights of the meeting, the group being Charismatic in nature, was the deliverance session. Now, you may be thinking that this would only involve one or two of those young persons. But no, the deliverance session was opened to all and sundry. In other words, everyone got a good dose of deliverance. As you may expect, there was always lots of writhing, crying, screaming, and rolling on the floor as the symphony of tongues-speaking teenagers riddled with angst, anxiety and stress reached its apex. One day, my former Parish Priest, Fr Andre Volle, a big French man with a big heart and wry sense of humour was walking past the room. Those of you who know Fr Volle personally would remember that he is hard of hearing and yet his hearing aid seems to miraculously pick up the weirdest sounds, pitches and tones which are inaudible to most ears. On that eventful day, as he walked pass the room, his hearing aid picked up and magnified the sounds that was coming from the room. He opened the door and saw the scene before him, more than half of the participants were on the floor crying out for deliverance. Fr Volle instinctively shouted, “Leave the Devil Alone”, and slammed shut the door. All the young people immediately got up from the floor and recovered their senses. It was as if the devil had actually been chased out of them. Now, that’s authority for you!

We can often get lost in today’s gospel story by paying undue attention to the exorcism performed by Jesus. I’m not going to go into an explanation or catechesis of demonic possession and the dynamics of exorcisms as I do not claim to be an authority in this area. What I can firmly say is that evil is more than the personification of an abstract concept and that the devil and his minions are real and sometimes do have influence on individuals who have decided to parlay with the dark forces.

Let’s, however, move away from the dramatic elements of this encounter between good and evil to consider two concepts or themes which are being highlighted in the readings – they are ‘authority and freedom.’ A possessed man is freed from the clutches of the devil. Another man exercises authority. What is the relationship between the two? Or to be more precise, what is the relationship between authority and freedom?

"Authority" is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission, respect and obedience. We look upon authority too often and focus over and over again as if there is something wrong with authority. We see only the oppressive side of authority. One tragedy of our time is that, having these associations, "authority" has become almost a dirty word in our post modern society, while opposition to authority in schools, families, society and the church generally is cheerfully accepted as something that is at least harmless and perhaps rather fine. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background.

Since the Protestant Reformation, we have witnessed an ever increasing revolt against authority, first in the forms in which it was manifested and then against the principal itself. None of its important forms has been immune from assault. The assault was first directed against dominant institutions of Church and State. But the control exercised by Church and State in combination had entered into all phases and aspects of life, in belief and conduct alike. Hence attack upon ecclesiastical and political institutions spread to science and art, to standards and ideals of economic and domestic life.

This attack on all forms of authority has a corollary – it is freedom. According the critics of authority, the sphere of authority encroaches on the sphere of freedom, thus instating oppression and tyranny. Freedom is always seen as involving rejection of authority! Authority is equated with fixed limits, freedom with cutting loose from all that. Ultimately, this tension has led to the demarcation of two separate spheres, one of authority and one of freedom.

Today, ‘freedom’ is often seen as a magical word that acts as the justification of all actions and values. Since WWII, when freedom fighters who fought against dictators began to define their aims in terms of Four Freedoms – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion – freedom in one form or another has been a worldwide passion, encouraged and catered at every level. Playboy carries the torch for sexual freedom. Firearms or guns manufactures lobby the U.S. Congress for the right of every American to carry firearms. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept or a license in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be.

What kind of authority are today’s readings referring to? Here, the readings stressed this point that ‘authority’ is a relational word which signifies the right to rule based on its source. Today, the people who witnessed the act of Jesus commanding the evil spirit to leave the possessed man recognized an authority which did not just come from years of studies as in the case of the scribes or Pharisees. It was not an authority that came from belonging to a class or category entrusted with official ministerial duties, as in the case of the priests and the levites. It was not an authority that emerge from associating with a long lineage of prominent rabbinical masters. Jesus’ authority flows from who he is and not what he has acquired or done. Jesus is the Son of God, and that is his source of authority. Authority is at the heart of his message, the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Authority is also based on an objective truth, the relationship between the one who exercises authority and the one who confers authority. The authority of the bishop, for example, comes from Christ through apostolic succession. It does not depend on his popularity, intelligence or how he is viewed by his flock. Today, the object has been supplanted by the dictatorship of the subject. What do I mean by this? Many people are prepared to submit to authority as long as authority concurs with them. In other words, I obey authority as long as it suits me, when I sense that the authority is being reasonable, when I feel that the authority has my best interest in mind, when authority does not intrude into my private sphere or demand changes from me. What has really taken place here is that the authority vested in the objective relationship between the one exercising authority and his source, is now transferred to the subject, the individual. Thus, we are an authority onto ourselves.

What then do the readings say about freedom? Freedom is often conceived as freedom from restraint and limitations and freedom to make decisions and to act. But the readings provide a definition of freedom that is very different. Although it speaks of freedom ‘from’, it also points to freedom ‘for.’ This definition starts with freedom from and freedom not to — in this case, freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom not to be dominated by tyrannical self-will — but it centers on freedom for: freedom for God, freedom to love and serve one’s Maker and fellow-creatures, freedom for the joy, hope and contentment which God gives to sinners who believe in Christ. The man who was possessed was freed ‘from’ the power of evil, in order that he may be freed for the kingdom. His freedom was realized in his submission to the authority of Christ.

Thus freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavor and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the intimate link between human freedom and the authority of God when it teaches that “Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC 1731) “As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning.” (CCC 1732) From this we can clearly see the role of authority, which is to direct human freedom along the course for which it was created and given to humanity. Authority becomes the beacon or lighthouse along the whole horizon of possibilities. Authority is the set of lights that demarcate the runway for a safe landing. Authority is the anchor that continuously roots human freedom in the good and in God.

Thus, the readings remind us today the individualistic subjective philosophy of society was wrong in setting authority and freedom in opposition to one another. In the gospel, the authority of Christ is not merely lordship and power over all things, although this seems to be manifest throughout the gospels. However, the striking fact about Christ’s authority is that it also means freedom. Jesus taught with authority, not simply because he displayed lordship and power, but also because he brought liberation to the human soul. Thus, for Christians, there is no false dichotomy between freedom and authority. Freedom without authority will ultimately lead to enslavement to one form of addiction or another or to man’s own intrinsic tyranny. Authority, which does not facilitate freedom, will also lead to the abuse of power and external tyranny. Our faith requires attention to maintain the intimate and organic union these two things: of authority and freedom.

When the Church and its leaders exercises authority today, it does so as a prophetic act and not because they are trapped in the distant past of despotic undemocratic monarchs. When the Church and its leaders continue to teach, to sanctify and to govern with authority, they choose to bring about the union of the People of God who are called to be one as Christ and the Father are one. When they act with authority, they make present the voice of Christ who continues to proclaim the timeless gospel message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is hand. Repent and Believe in the good news.” What we should fear is when our leaders abdicate such authority in the name of democracy and allow the truths which they promise to defend and protect be bartered for socially acceptable mores. By doing so, they fail not only to silence their own voice or that of the Church. They silence the voice of Christ – a Christ who has no more authority to teach, to sanctify and govern his people.

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