By whose authority..?

In his first blog, Wilson Wong encourages us to think about the nature of authority and our response to it.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask
Dr Wilson Wong

This past week, the High court dismissed London’s Metropolitan Police’s (the Met) appeal against a ruling that it had breached the rights of the Sarah Everard vigil organisers, Reclaim These Streets (RTS). At that time, the Met successfully opposed the RTS application stating that proceeding with the vigil would be a breach of the lockdown restrictions. RTS cancelled the vigil, but people gathered anyway to mark the murder of Sarah Everard, including the Duchess of Cambridge.

This set me thinking about the nature of authority and our response to it. In Matthew 21: 23, Jesus was asked by the chief priests and elders while teaching in the temple –

‘By what authority are you doing these things? And, Who gave you this authority?’

From this, we can deduce that authority has a source. The Met Police derives its authority from statute law but also claims that it operates under the principle of ‘policing by consent’ (of the people). Jesus spoke of his authority to his disciples in Matthew 28: 18-19 – “…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…in the names of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

The exercise of legal Authority here has accountability. The Met police are accountable to the law in the manner they exercise their authority over the citizenry. In this appeal, two High Court judges dismissed part of the Met’s case as “hopeless attempts to challenge factual conclusions.” The judgment affirmed guidance on the lawful policing of protest under the pandemic regulations and that the Met had erred. The accountability to the law as determined by the judiciary ensured that the need to maintain law and order is balanced by citizens’ civil liberties.

Authority also has to be salient. In the instance of the Met police, save in very restricted circumstances, a Met police officer would have no authority say over an Inuit in Nunavut. And similarly, atheists may not regard Jesus as having any authority over their lives.

In the Gospels, the chief priests and the elders would have authority over many people, dictating what was acceptable behaviour, what was sacred and what was profane. In the media, there are endless streams of ‘talking heads’ professing authority over domains of knowledge. There are experts on warfare analysing the Ukraine situation. And with the resurrection of #partygate, endless talk about whether the UK Prime Minister has ‘lost’ his (moral) authority, while still retaining the authority of his office.

There is the question of how you respond to that authority. Most of us are law abiding and will journey through life never even getting a parking ticket. But there are those who refute the authority that ‘X’ has over them, as was witnessed when hundreds gathered for the cancelled Sarah Everard vigil.

Was it right to show up to mark Everard’s murder and highlight the dangers to women in London – in defiance of the authority of the Met police? What of the non-violent, civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi when he defied the British Salt Act of 1882 prohibiting Indians from collecting or selling salt so that they had to buy heavily taxed salt from official colonial suppliers?

And there were many who followed Gandhi’s example of non-violent protest. Martin Luther King believed that it is possible to resist evil without violence and to oppose evil itself without opposing the people doing those evil actions. For him, those on the path of non-violent protest must be prepared to suffer without retaliation, internal or external. The bright light of resistance to racism was seen on the March on Washington in August 1963, when some 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was there that Dr Martin Luther King delivered his speech – I have a dream…

These men did what Jesus did in the temple courts when he upturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Matthew 21: 12). The result is to disrupt the status quo and force an evaluation of what most just take for granted as the way things are, however, unjust.

Today, we face the climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion (XR) believes that those in power lack the courage, conviction, and creativity to do what is required to avert this global disaster. They disrupt the normal flow of the city’s life to highlight the crisis, oftentimes breaking the law. This week, they forced Lloyd’s of London to shut for the day to highlight their collusion in the crisis by underwriting fossil fuel projects. The XR Declaration of Rebellion states – “We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations.”

I remain personally conflicted about the intentional breaking of the law by groups such as XR. Here, I am not talking about those who join in opportunistically to loot or cause criminal damage but those who act in defiance of the authorities to highlight a great injustice. By not joining in the actions that defy the law, am I colluding with those who protect the status quo? To what authority do I submit when I break the law for a greater cause? Could I even contemplate ever risking a criminal record and possible life-changing injuries like Gandhi for such a cause? Would I have joined with XR to shut down Lloyd’s of London?

What I do know is that if I felt I had the authority to overturn the Temple tables like Jesus, I need to be truly clear of my accountabilities. It goes right back to the first question asked of Jesus by the Chief priest – By whose authority (do I act)? Who am I a disciple of and what do I worship? Sometimes resistance is part of obedience to something else, recognising some other authority – perhaps, an ideology. In our actions we enact our beliefs – we become like what we worship. While there is great power to transform, there is also great danger as in the actions following radicalisation.

I remember a time when I was far more of an activist, recognising (violent) action as the only way to change the world. A wise friend and theologian said to me – when acting for change, remember that violence begets violence. Remember the example of Jesus where the action was borne of love. That has stopped me from doing some things and spurred me on to do others. In a world so desperate for justice, peace, and love, we could do worse than look to Jesus, Gandhi, and King before launching an action. So, by whose authority do you live your life?