“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20: 25-28
Most of us remember that many a time our parents or other authority figures told us to do something “just because I told you so.” If we are honest we also know we ourselves have any number of times made use of this phrase, which is known in logic as “the appeal to false authority.” As James Carroll wrote many years ago, it “is the last sign of failed authority.” What makes it false is its subjectivity. Its link to reality and to truth may well be tenuous. Instead of being based on a shared search for the truth, it is rather an assertion of personal prerogative and power.
In today’s gospel Jesus asserts a description of authority that is the counter to our tendency to power and prerogative. To be a slave of others requires of us to meet them where they are, not from a superior or more powerful position. It is not to “know better” than another but rather to seek to serve the truth that the other bears.
In 2015 Pope Francis completed, as the press put it, a “triumphant” visit to Cuba, the United States, and the United Nations. During a press conference on the flight home to the Vatican, he was asked if the success of his trip had made him feel powerful. In his response he said “I am afraid of myself.” He recognized that there is, in worldly terms, a certain power in his office but that as a person he is weak, he is not able to serve to the degree to which he is called.
As often with Pope Francis, his simple answer is utterly profound. To lead in the gospel sense of service will always leave us with a feeling of weakness and inadequacy. We tend to seek power and authority because the experience of domination over others is ego-inflating. Our unconscious drive for power is strong and pervasive, in both large and small ways. It is one of the primary ways that we build and cultivate our false forms of life. Every time we remind others of our role or our significance, we are attempting to buttress our own weakness, to construct a false identity. Yet, when we attempt to serve others through an attentive presence to them, we experience that any attempt to define ourselves by what we do, by our competence and power is illusory. In working to be a true servant of the life and call of another, we always experience our weakness.
Power and authority, as we define it on our terms, is always dangerous for us. I believe that Pope Francis is also pointing to this truth when he says “I am afraid of myself.” In today’s first reading from Jeremiah, we hear some of the people who have been challenged by the truth of Jeremiah’s words declare:
“Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah. It will not mean the loss of instruction from the priests, nor of counsel from the wise, nor of messages from the prophets. And so, let us destroy him by his own tongue; let us carefully note his every world.”
Jeremiah has done nothing more than speak an inconvenient truth to the people. Yet, their response is a desire and plan to destroy him. To have power and authority over others is dangerous for human beings because our capacity for domination and violence is so strong. We are prone to attempt to hide our weakness through the exercise of power over others. We are always confusing our own will for God’s, and then we attempt to inflict that will, by force, on the world. Jeremiah has shown the people the truth of their failure to follow the Lord’s way for them and so has evoked in them their defensiveness and violence. If I consider the greatest failings of my life, they have been abuses of the authority I have been given. From the arrogance of a beginning teacher who would at times fail to reverence the personhood of the troublesome student, to the violence of the formation director who failed at moments to respect the psychological and spiritual boundaries of the candidate, to the director of a community who lacked the courage to engage in truth the Brother who was in trouble, over and over again in life I have experienced how counter Jesus’ call to servant leadership is to the drives of my own unconscious needs and fears.
Ego-psychological perspectives to the contrary, it is right for us to be afraid of ourselves and of our own propensities to defend our false forms with power and violence. Given this human reality, there may be no greater obstacle to community and to communion than hierarchy. If we look not only at the church but also throughout society, we discover that it is in hierarchical situations that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is most likely to occur. For a hierarchy which structurally gives certain people more power over others is an inherently abusive structure. It is those whose position of power is socially sanctioned that are most likely to abuse a socially constituted subordinate.
Yet, authority and power once gained are very difficult for us to relinquish. To the degree that our own identity consists of our title and role in societies small and large, to that degree we are prone to fight to maintain it. We actually come to believe that we “know better” than others, that our maintaining of control and authority over them is for their own good. Isn’t this the perennial argument of hierarchies in any society?
In the same interview we have quoted, Pope Francis speaks of how it is the duty of the church to “accompany people,” to be close to them. The imposition of hierarchy and authority is, of its nature, distancing. It is difficult to make decisions, to discern direction, through intimate dialogue. Often the experience feels chaotic. It is so much easier to make a decision at a distance so we can all get back to our functioning. Yet, to serve in the gospel sense is to accompany. It is, in the worlds of Adrian van Kaam, to “be with and for” each other. To accompany demands of us that we go where the other takes us. As Ruth says to Naomi,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
One of the great paradoxes of Christian history is that a church founded on the life and teachings of Jesus became such a hierarchical institution. Within that Church, communities arose to be, as Johannes Metz put it, “a dangerous memory within the Church.” Yet, by church law those very communities were drawn into the same structure of power and hierarchy. These days our own community is struggling to find an alternative to hierarchy, to learn how to be an active, vibrant and collaborative body. As the Fundamental Principles state:
A band of Brothers,
who mutually help,
and edify one another,
and who work together.
Is such a community really possible, and perhaps even more so, practical? Is to really be with and for each other and to work together collaboratively and collegially possible in a world that puts such a value on the functional and efficient? If I think about my life experience of some 53 years in the community, a constant element has been our resistance, perhaps due to our desire to do good in the world as well as our fear of intimacy and connection, to spending the time it takes to cultivate a life together. It is merely too inefficient as well as too personally demanding. Yet, one of the greatest wounds we bear are the buried and ever-festering resentments of not being accompanied and respected in the decisions others have made in our regard. Communion requires presence, openness, and a sharing with each other. It requires of us to spend the time so that we truly work together, not separately. It requires an inner authority on the part of all of us that is always about the service of the unique call of our brothers and sisters.
As Pope Francis says, we are all weak in service. The call of Jesus to a transformed heart, that seeks not power but rather accompaniment and service, is a great yet compelling challenge. To challenge the place of power in authority is also to challenge our demand to have power and control over our own lives. It is to dedicate ourselves to the service not only of the other’s true call but of our own. To be called to community means to accompany each other and be accompanied by each other in service to God’s will for us.
Maria Sagrarios Ruiz de Apodaca, RNE
If you feel powerful after having been in the United States with your schedule and having been successful?
I don’t know if I had success, no. But I am afraid of myself. Why am I afraid of myself? I feel always – I don’t know – weak in the sense of not having power and also power is a fleeting thing, here today, gone tomorrow. It’s important if you can do good with power. And Jesus defined power, the true power is to serve, to do service, to do the most humble services, and I must still make progress on this path of service because I feel that I don’t do everything I should do. That’s the sense I have of power.
Vatican Radio, Interview with Pope Francis, 9/28/2015