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Leadership not just for authority

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 2, 2006

Have you noticed how the reality of authority – in those who have it and those who don’t – has surrounded us recently? People who have newly come to positions of authority, others who’ve claimed it for a long time, and still others who hope to acquire it soon have all been in the news of late.

And the Gospel reading last Sunday dealt with Jesus’authority. He taught with unmistakable authority and even the unclean spirits obeyed him.

President Bush spoke Tuesday night with all the authority of his office on that most “presidential” of occasions – the State of the Union address. The Hamas party scored a decisive victory in recent Palestinian elections, surprising even themselves with the new authority they had gained. Ben Bernanke (admit it, you’re thinking, “who?”) stepped into what many call the “most powerful economic post in the world” Tuesday following the official retirement of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

But what gives these people and parties real authority? President Bush spoke Tuesday at a time when about half of the country views his authority skeptically: they disagree with his handling of the war in Iraq and don’t believe he’s an effective president. Hamas now controls 60 percent of the Palestinian parliament, and yet the United States and other governments around the world have stated that they will not deal with the Hamas party because of its history of commitment to the destruction of Israel. Ben Bernanke may hold the same title as Alan Greenspan did for the last 18 years, but will not be able to lead with the authority of Mr. Greenspan until he puts some time and wise decisions in the bank, so to speak.

On the other hand, remember the Gospel reading we just heard this past Sunday? Jesus entered a synagogue and began to teach, and “the people were astonished at his teachings, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Some leaders can command real authority, and to paraphrase the immortal words of former Justice Potter Stewart, we believe that “we’ll know it when we see it.”

Something about Jesus’ person and words gave him instant credibility; in fact, this story tells of one of his very first ventures into public ministry. As Jesus would come to prove over time, to the growing dismay of both state and religious leaders, the unfailing consistency of his words and actions only strengthened his authority as he continued to teach and heal. His followers knew and saw that even unto his own death he would teach forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, and care for the poorest of the poor.

We also grant authority to those whose words and actions fit what we know about the wider world. Jesus articulated wisely the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and others, for whom the human traditions that had arisen around the teachings of the Ten Commandments had grown to become more important than the Commandments themselves (see Mark 7:1-13). Jesus himself never strayed from Truth, for his words were the Word of God, and still speak to the deepest realities of our lives.

Which brings us to the question we can each ask ourselves, “What qualities about my own words and actions give me authority?” Obviously, we don’t have to be the president or chair or director of anything to want credibility and authority in our families, with our friends, in the classroom, in our chosen profession, and perhaps most importantly in our lives of faith. Do our words and actions show that we consistently reverence the Word of God and appreciate the power of the Sacraments? If we worship on Sunday and pray throughout the week, do we then make every effort to allow that relationship with God to influence how we speak about others, how we treat our friends, how we dress, how we socialize, or how we spend money and time?

We may never have the opportunity to give the State of the Union address or make decisions that will affect financial markets around the world, but if we would claim to be Christians, we have a most important role to play: each of us has as our highest calling a part in bringing about the Kingdom of God here on earth. We can begin to do that with Jesus’ example of authority in our minds and hearts, to help us speak and act consistently, compassionately and honestly, our lives and words reflecting Jesus’ life and God’s Word.

Kate Barrett is Director of Resources & Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.