A guest post from our dedicated commenter Scoot and his colleague and interlocutor Hambone:
The virtue everyone loves to hate is obedience. Obedience is easy when it is easy, but there’s a common misconception that having a bad authority exempts us from the duty of obedience. As the late great Zippy Catholic used to say, it is a fallacy of modernity to confuse the question of which authority is just with the question of whether authority in general is just. There’s a fundamental truth hiding behind this misconception that we as fallen humans are often afraid of: That all authority comes from God. Not just good authority – all authority.
If democracy has every man as a king, then the collapse of spiritual authority that snowballed out of the Reformation has every man a Pope. This endlessly fractures the Body of Christ and allows wounds and heresies to fester and spread. “Bad” Popes, Bishops and Priests have been accounted for since the beginning, like their predecessors in the Temple of Jerusalem who did not live up to their offices. How many more such rotten priests might we expect, when every man is a priest untrammelled? The same goes then for political authority: the usurpation of the royal office by the demos is just as unjust as the usurpation of the demotic or familiar offices by the tyrant.
There are three reasons we ought to humble ourselves and bend the knee to unjust men.
1- Bend The Knee to the Office, not the Man
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.
Before excoriating the Pharisees (qua men) as vipers and worse, Christ stresses that they wield valid authority in virtue of their offices. Then, to summarize, he says, “do as they say, but not as they do.” Did this submission to a hypocrite perhaps injure the pride of the common man? To see the duplicity of the man in his active disobedience to the mandates of his divine office? I’m sure it did. Is that not itself however, a source of sanctifying grace?
The important thing about the Pharisees is that they are “sitten on the chair of Moses” – and not that they, as men, stand on their own authority. They validly, legitimately, hold offices which were passed down from Moses! The presence of God incarnate did not invalidate their office. Christ himself affirms their authority! But he doesn’t praise them as men – in fact, he rebukes them. Their misdeeds as men do not violate their, authority which comes to them from God through Moses, by way of their offices.
Christ himself admonishes us through these scriptures, to obey authorities who come to us from God through Jesus, and if they do not serve as good examples as men then we ought not follow their example as men, even as we bend the knee to them and obey their lawful commands as authorities. Bending the knee to an unjust man is a twofold grace: first, in stretching our virtuous obedience to God given authority; second, as noted above – sanctifying us through humiliation under the lawful authority of an unjust man.
2- Bend the Knee as an act of Trust in God
So David and Abisai came to the people by night, and found Saul lying and sleeping in the tent, and his spear fixed in the ground at his head: and Abner and the people sleeping round about him.
And Abisai said to David: God hath shut up thy enemy this day into thy hands: now then I will run him through with my spear even to the earth at once, and there shall be no need of a second time.
And David said to Abisai: Kill him not: for who shall put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and shall be guiltless? (…) As the Lord liveth, unless the Lord shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go down to battle and perish: The Lord be merciful unto me, that I extend not my hand upon the Lord’s anointed. But now take the spear, which is at his head, and the cup of water, and let us go.
Here we see David standing over his enemy, the unjust King Saul. Abisai praises God for delivering the enemy into their hands. Yet David chooses not to kill him. Responsibility for exacting justice for misdeeds in God’s holy office belongs to God, not to David.
Modern analysis would suggest David is a big stupid idiot, and complicit in Saul’s continued injustice, for not killing him then and there. But David knew that Saul was still anointed by God, and so was an authority to whom David owed allegiance. David could rebel against Saul’s injustices, but could not perform the final act by killing Saul. David accepted this fact, and entrusted proper justice to God.
This is what we miss, as residents of modernity: we forget that we must trust God in all things. That as we patiently bear injustice, we also trust that God is keeping score and will relieve us from injustice according to His will – not a moment sooner, not a moment later. It is a virtue to extend our trust to God in patiently bearing wrongs from our peers, subjects, and especially our authorities.
3- Bend the Knee as an act of Humility
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me!
From the desire of being esteemed … from the desire of being honored … from the desire of being praised … from the desire of being preferred to others … from the fear of being humiliated … from the fear of suffering rebukes … from the fear of being ridiculed … Deliver me, Jesus!
Excerpt from the Litany of Humility
Ultimately the problem is a question of humility. Do we think we are due some special deference from our authorities, or do we think we owe some special deference to our authorities? The most common response is that we think that they owe us some special deference – why wouldn’t we think that? Modernity trains us to expect special treatment, to think our wounded pride is worse than their unjust act – that our feelings are more important than, and trump, the majesty of their offices, that hold authoritative sway over us, willy nilly. Modernity trains us to think we are responsible for exacting justice, and not God. Modernity trains us to think we must keep the tally, and remind God what is owed to us.
Maybe we have problematic authorities because God wants to teach us these lessons. Maybe we are being humbled by God so that we can learn to trust him again, with our lives and livelihoods, that He will in the fullness of time under his Providence exact justice on the unjust authorities in our lives?
The Litany of Humility is a powerful prayer. It calls out by name each of the faults of modernity which, if left unchecked, will grow like weeds that overwhelm the garden, and which we are generally too blind to notice until things in the garden have got catastrophically out of hand. So then we, blind gardeners, start by protecting the weeds! So doing, we scorn the flowers of virtue that struggle to grow amongst them.
Obedience to what seems to us to be unjust authority is the ultimate act of humility, because it is a type of our fundamental act of obedience to God in the face of our overwhelming impulse to reject authority as such. Will we succumb to countervailing winds, are we merely fair-weather sons of Christ, are we only obedient when the times are good? Or, will we obey our governors to the limit of personal justice we can attain, even when find wanting the justice of their mandates?