Authority: Deconstruct, Then Garden – Part 3

If you’re starting this series here that’s awesome! You can catch up here if you’d like. This post is an example of a major concept that I’ve had to deconstruct and I hope to suggest an alternative way of understanding authority that doesn’t require a lot of structure building to interact with.


There was a prophet named Samuel, as the story goes, well known among the people of ancient Israel, having great influence and providing critical leadership, vision, and direction for the tribes. In fact, his leadership was so established that the tribes came to him when they wanted to appoint their first king and asked him to give them a king, which he did in appointing king Saul. So you have this prophet who routinely provides the people and the king with a word from god. In fact, he supposedly successfully foretold the future on multiple occasions.

One day he approaches the king and tells him that god is ready to avenge the Israelites from multiple generations past when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, starting with the weakest stragglers. The Israelites won that original battle. But now, it was time for vengeance. Samuel’s instructions were for Saul to destroy them completely. Men, women, children, babies, animals, everything. If you were to read this story, you would discover that Saul more or less carries out the command but not completely and he is cursed for it by Samuel. However, I tell this story not to confront the obvious moral questions this story presents but to explore the relationships of authority that seem to exist between the characters.

To give the story the benefit of the doubt, God gave the command to Samuel. Samuel gave the command to king Saul, and Saul gave the command to his soldiers. It’s an obvious chain of command. But for most Christians, it doesn’t stop there. Someone wrote all this down and so the traditional assumption is that they were eyewitnesses and gave an accurate account, or they were given the story later by God, either through direct revelation or the passing of the story in tradition. So the original chain of command was in place to ensure the event takes place, and a secondary chain of command exists to ensure we know of the event and believe it. There is traditionally no room given for us to disbelieve this story but a lot of room given for us to question it’s meaning or applicability for us today. These two chains exist throughout the bible in the mind of the believer though the secondary chain is clearly implied and must be drawn from other key portions of the text.

But may we ask what might have happened if things were different? We who have begun deconstruction find ourselves constantly asking, what are the stones in my wall that give these stories their power? In other words, what are my assumptions that I bring to stories like this? Perhaps if Samuel was a modern day man he would have questioned whether such an extreme command from god might be a hallucination or some other mental disorder. It doesn’t help that being insane and being prophetic were closely linked in the time this was written. See 1 Samuel 19:24. There was really no context for Samuel to believe anything different but that he was hearing from the god of his fathers. I’d prefer to not assume he had some motive of personal vengeance against the Amalekites, though that might have been the case. But what if he had heard the word and refused? What if Saul had refused to obey Samuel? What if the soldiers had refused to obey Saul? Their society and culture were not necessarily to the place where they would have felt there were good reasons to refuse but what would have happened if they did refuse?

The result is very clear to us who have been drinking from the well of the bible for a long time. The result of such refusal is destruction. If the chain of command is compromised the one who breaks that chain must be removed, and usually killed. This idea is reinforced multiple times in the stories throughout the old testament, it is reinforced in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham’s sacrifice, Moses and his detractors, the israelites and the law, Samuel and Saul, etc… I call this the principle of Absolute Threat. Most structures of authority presented in the bible are based on this principle and the narratives of the culture reinvigorate the principle. “If you refuse, you will join the condemned.” Saul breaks this chain of command in the story, killing all but the king of the Amalekites and keeping the best of the animals. His punishment is the loss of his line as a dynasty and a nasty death following a long descent into madness. This principle finds its terrible finality in the medieval idea of hell. Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse in sharing my deconstruction of authority before sharing my deconstruction of the Ultimate Threat (hell) but they are quite intertwined so I had to choose one.

Now, we should ask ourselves if these authority structures can be found in the church as well. Of course they are. In the “early church” there was a great amount of emphasis on the idea that there was some kind of authority transfer from Christ to the twelve (eleven?) apostles. I’m not going to go into great detail here but that concept translated to bishops inheriting some kind of authority from the apostles, and from that cauldron emerged the structure of the Magisterium with the pope at the head, understood to exercise the authority of Christ/God on earth. Most of the splits and schisms before the reformation concerned the question of who exactly held that authority? Who was the “true pope” or the “true church”? But with the Reformation came a new model of authority. Perhaps they would have called it a recovered authority. For them, that was the authority of the scriptures.

Since my religious background and worldview were essentially protestant in nature in understanding authority, that is where my deconstruction had to begin. The protestant view of scripture from the beginning till now seems to be founded on a lofty hope, that the God who inspired the scripture is capable of illuminating the meaning to those who are faithful to listen. This causes a real dilemma. What if my understanding of scripture differs from yours? Than we must either assume God is responsible for the lack of illumination, or we are. If it is God, there is nothing to do but wait until God brings us all in line. In which case, there is no need to worry or argue because God is the only one who can reveal that truth to us anyway. However, if we play a part, we must discover what that part is and how to play it so that we can reach the true understanding of scripture. The second option seems to be the primary way of resolving this dilemma for most of the protestant world from its earliest schisms to today.

To put this all in other words, until we all miraculously reach a point where everyone agrees on what the bible means, we are left with the realization that the authority of scripture, as understood by most protestants, is actually a manifestation of the authority of the individual mind. We in the Protestant movement are asked, nay commanded to go to the bible ourselves to test the preacher and test the church authority. We are not “really” searching after God until we have done this. But the protestant movement is really a mixture of individual authority and church leadership authority. Because when someone does really search and finds some major point of disagreement, the leaders insist that they are interpreting it incorrectly and must fall in line with the orthodox teaching, which is a manifestation of the authority of church structures. So we see that the so called “authority of scripture” is really a mixed manifestation of the already established “authority of the church” and the newly discovered “authority of the individual” thrust into the whole culture by the philosophy of the Renaissance. With the whole mixture using the bible as a kind of language datum rather than a real useful litmus test of right belief.

As you can see from the above paragraph. For me, deconstruction doesn’t involve ignoring a topic because it makes me uncomfortable, but rather to study, scrutinize and understand a topic to see my own faulty assumptions. What I discovered was that the authority which scripture was supposed to hold, lost its illusory power almost from the very beginning of the protestant movement, when it failed to hold together those most concerned with upholding its place as the standard of belief. If it was able to hold together those people who trusted it completely, it might have made a much stronger candidate for a governing authority. But it does no such thing.

So what now, are we to return to the authority of the church as the highest earthly authority for us to know the truth? Many protestants, when they have removed the foundation stone of ultimate biblical authority, desperate for something to go in its place, lest the building tumble, quickly return to one of the older structures of authority (catholicism, orthodox, anglican). I’m not saying that’s the only reason people return to these forms of the faith but I know it happens since the apologists and evangalists of these structures have learned the usefulness of helping their potential converts to deconstruct their view of the bible before welcoming them back to The Church, as they put it. But many are unable to return to “The Church”. That stone simply will not fit. And the building is shaking.

The church also continues the narrative tradition of the scripture in their usage of the Ultimate Threat principle to enforce their authority. Think about excommunication, threat of torture and death (at times), threat of loss of family relationships, threat of loss of marriage, threat of loss of possessions or health, and finally, threat of everlasting torment in fiery hell. We are constantly reminded that to step outside or refuse to follow the chain of command, will result in the authority that once “protected” us, reigning down in vengeful wrath to consume us along with the enemies of God. So both the narratives of scripture, and the actions of the church have sought to enforce a chain of command structure of authority that only works by using the principle of ultimate threat.

At this point I will contend that this is the only way for a “structure” of authority to work. Without the ultimate threat principle, the dissident is always seen as a threat to the structure by their questioning of foundation stones. In order to preserve their concept structure, the dissident must first be intellectually dismissed, then authoritatively condemned. That is, the act of removing the dissident from the community must be seen as sanctioned by God, which is not difficult to achieve given our dedication to the biblical narrative.

It might seem at this point that I am totally against the very idea of authority. But I am not. I do want to suggest an alternative style of authority. One that can only reach one level and still lets us jump to the ground. One that can produce food from the ground in the different seasons of our lives and that can nourish us and bring us from moment to moment without the need for a complicated and fear based chain of command. Let me give you an example. I have separated myself from an arguably “biblical” understanding of authority in marriage. I don’t think I need to rehash the details of that view with the chain of command moving from God to the Husband and then down further to the wife and kids. Yuck! Ok, but what then? That does not mean the idea of authority does not exist in my relationship with my wife and also my kids. If we have any kind of relationship at all, as opposed to two individuals living in proximity, we have authority in one another’s lives. It’s not an authority I can seize and enforce. If I did that, the relationship, as we know it, would be over. Neither can I build this authority using the principle of ultimate threat. I must build it from a different principle. That of the Ground of All Being. That of God. That of Ultimate Love. That is where my relationship must find its own ground. That kind of authority gives us influence over one another in a way that makes us realize our oneness. This authority is a paradox. We don’t have it until we let go. In a way that’s love. Letting go. And it is entirely possible and even natural to “let go” and still fully participate. Don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that we should somehow be indifferent or hands-off in our relationships. I’m saying do not assume that you can somehow control or hold on to the experience of joy you have right now or at some point in the past in your relationship. You may kill it by your desire to hold it too tightly. And there’s no need to hold on to some structure of hierarchy in our relationships. It doesn’t really exist and the relationship won’t fall apart without it.

You might argue that raising kids is primarily about enforcing your will upon them even if it’s in their best interest. However, even then the goal is not to enforce submission long term but rather to teach them how to think for themselves and in fact leave our “authority”. So the result of this authority is still to let go.

What about government? Well, in so far as government is all about governing, we will simply end up with more and more rules that we are less and less sure how to follow. Government also is at its best when it’s not under the illusion that it actually controls people. When it learns to “let go” and work with the people instead of pretending to be over them. Of course it’s not an illusion that many governments, spouses, and parents use the ultimate threat principle to enforce a structure of authority. It’s not an illusion that people are abused or killed or threatened in these structures. It is an illusion that this top down, ultimate threat based view of authority is the only view.

So you have to start somewhere. Maybe personal relationships are a bit complicated for a starting place. If you’re a religious person, observe your religious authority first. Does god really operate from the top down? Has he really communicated his will to some who then accurately wrote it down? Is this how our relationships, the ones we want to last, really work? Seeing authority from a gardening perspective means seeing that authority cannot be taken, it can only be given. And we only give authority to that which we either desire to, or feel obligated to. Next time you read your scripture which has held authority over you, or you speak with your religious authority who may be a person, ask yourself if you feel obligated to take them at their word. If you feel obligated to obey. Now ask yourself if your most valued friendship requires the same sense of obligation for you to experience that depth of spiritual connection. Now imagine this. God is your friend. Does that change anything?


Fasting From Heroes

It’s still Lent, so I’d like to say a word or two about fasting. Fasting traditionally means abstaining from food for a period of time and has been picked up by many as a way of taking a break from something. It could be anything. Dessert, alcohol, TV…etc. I’d like to ask you to consider something a bit different. Fast from your heroes.

Have you ever found yourself rationalizing the behavior of someone you deeply respect? Their shortcomings are overshadowed by their great contribution to your life. Perhaps you would like to model them in some way. Of course there is always the risk that by modeling your life after theirs that you will not only find their success but perhaps you will also stumble into their darkness. I’m not sure this is an avoidable aspect of life, but when mixed with the obligatory acceptance and approval of religion, this danger becomes startlingly present. So, since this is a season of change and reflection, perhaps I might convince you to take a second look at your heroes in a way that may help you grasp that ever elusive “reality”. As an example I’d like to present one of my greatest childhood heroes, King David, from the Hebrew scriptures.

Reading through 1 and 2 Samuel one can find a plethora of stories that would appeal to almost any young mind, perhaps uniquely the young mind of a male child raised within American masculinity. The young boy who grows into a mighty warrior and popular King is quite addicting. It sparks the imagination and can contribute to development in a very real way. For me, many situations I encountered were filtered through a lens which compared my reactions and actions with those of my heroes, especially David, with the goal being more alignment between my reality and the ideal of the narrative. Of course, looking back, this was greatly assisted by the majority of my scriptural intake during childhood coming from picture bibles and movies, none of which, in my opinion, truly display the horror that is sometimes described in such a banal way throughout these stories. Perhaps that does need to be done at some point, though that media would be very difficult to absorb I think.

I’m not saying that the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel doesn’t criticize David. It does. Biblical apologists rightly point out that the Hebrew scriptures have a unique penchant in ancient literature for exposing the dark sides of their heroes. We should learn from them. However, it IS interesting that what the narrators find reprehensible are perhaps small and relatively unimportant compared to what we would find disturbing if we were to have accurate theatrical portrayal of the, often celebrated, acts of David. Let me now bring your attention to a central example that is perhaps the epitome of my point.

In 1 Samuel 27 we find the pre-king David and his company of warriors, for reasons I won’t get into here, going to Achish, king of his notorious enemies, the Philistines, and asking for refuge from the current king of Israel, Saul. This would be a slap in the face to Saul and the king of Gath (philistine capitol) knows it. So he allows David to take possession of a nearby town for his home. To retain the favor of the king and to make a “decent” living, David spends the next year raiding nearby villages and taking all their goods and livestock. He then brings a percentage of these spoils to Achish. David tells Achish that he has been spoiling Israelite villages to get these goods and so Achish is all for it. His enemies are hurt and more riches are brought to him. In reality it is neighboring Canaanite communities that have been feeling the edge of David’s sword. The question is, how does David keep up this ruse?

I would dare say I wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing the reality depicted in a well produced Hollywood film. When David ransacks a village he puts everyone to death. This way there is simply no one left to tell the tale. Some might speculate that perhaps babies could be saved, being unaware and unable to tattle, but let’s give the narrative the benefit of the doubt here and take it for its word. Every man and woman, including children, would have to be executed to prevent word of David’s action from spreading.

Yes the overall narrative criticizes David, but not for this, perhaps for sleeping with another man’s wife and killing him to get away with it, but not this. No prophet comes from the shadows with a clever story to trick David into condemning his own action. Nothing. The narrator, and apparently God, is banal in his description and opinion of these events. Perhaps it is this indifference in the narrative that causes so many to simply gloss over this when they read it.

I don’t highlight this story to simply bring up David’s immoral acts or to ask if we might consider a David as a villain rather than a hero considering the cultural context. After all, at that time, there might very well have been similar canaanite bandits raiding and destroying Israelite towns. In fact this is all highly dependent on the narrative. We don’t know if a “historical” David really did these things. I bring it up because, if we are again to believe the narrative, David had a hero as well, one by which he could measure his own actions. One whom he modeled in his merciless treatment of canaanites.

Joshua. The original conqueror. The two can easily be compared and some scholars even see David as continuing the campaign/pogrom of Joshua during this span of his life and the general Davidic conquest of the kingdom. And so we must be very careful with heroes. Especially religious ones. Like David himself, many, even to this day, still model the conquest of Joshua and the establishment of David-ish kingdom in Israel. Many settlers in the area surrounding modern day Israel and their American religious allies carry on this “grand” tradition and see their lives through the lens of ancient heroes.

So that brings us back to the conundrum. How can we not have heroes? How can we not have models? Are we alone in the sense that we always run the risk of adopting the darkness of the other as well as the light? Perhaps, but perhaps fasting can give perspective and warn us of our own hidden motives created by our unfiltered adoration.

Photo Courtesy of Lou Levit