Monday, February 18, 2013

On Illegitimate Authority

I was in a Fry's Electronics store recently with a co-worker, picking up some Ethernet cables. As we walked towards the exit after paying for our merchandise I said, "Oh, I should probably warn you, I don't allow them to see my receipt." Sure enough, consistent with Fry's policy, an employee partially blocked our way and said curtly "I need to see your receipt." I smiled back, "No, you may not." and continued walking out the door. As we got outside my co-worker said "I didn't know you could do that!" I reminded him that at the moment we completed our transaction at the register--during which Fry's received my payment--the merchandise (as well as the bag and receipt) became my property. After that point, the "door-checker" had as much right to look at my receipt as a stranger does on the street who asks to look in your wallet or purse.

My family and friends tease me about my "no receipt policy" (which does not apply to Costco, since I signed a membership agreement in advance stating I will allow them the privilege). I have been followed through a Circuit City parking lot by a shouting manager and have been banned repeatedly from Guitar Center (yet, strangely, have never been prevented from returning).

The thing is, my little rebellion against receipt checkers is about a matter that is very important to me, and that matter is how easily we submit ourselves to illegitimate authority. As humans, one of our greatest gifts from God is the gift of our free-will. We ought to be very careful about who we surrender that gift to.

As Jonathan Dymond (1798-1828) wrote in his brilliant essay entitled An Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the Principles of Christianity: "He who, with whatever motive, resigns the direction of his conduct implicitly to another, surely cannot retain that erectness and independence of mind, that manly consciousness of mental freedom, which is one of the highest privileges of our nature. The rational being becomes reduced in the intellectual scale: an encroachment is made upon the integrity of its independence. God has given us, individually, capacities for the regulation of our individual conduct. To resign its direction, therefore, to the despotism of another, appears to be an unmanly and unjustifiable relinquishment of the privileges which He has granted to us."

There is no shortage of people and corporations (oh, wait, corporations are people) who will boldly claim authority in our lives. The trick is discerning when that authority is legitimate and when it is not. More often than not, I suspect, it isn't. But we give in, in order to get along. Perhaps that is what illegitimate authority counts on.

I became a Christian outside of any church--as the result of a divine encounter. Because of that, I began as a Christian knowing almost nothing about Christ or the Bible or church or doctrine or theology. Upon entering the Christian world I discovered a legion of voices--on TV and radio and behind pulpits--claiming to be authorities. For a long time, I kowtowed to their audacity and tried to be what they told me I ought to be and believe the way they told me I ought to believe. But gradually, as I matured, I came to see that--in many cases--their authority was not legitimate and was, in fact, misguided at best and abusive at worst. Many of those self-proclaimed authorities were not well educated. Many were lacking in integrity and character. Some were bullies. Some were extremely narcissistic. But there were also a few good ones: Wise and humble people who, rather than proclaiming their authority were content to simply allow it to be recognized gradually as relationship developed. Quakers refer to such people as "weighty." And Quakers, God bless 'em, know a thing or two about challenging illegitimate authority.

So yes, as the bumpersticker says, I do question authority. And something isn't God's will just because someone boldly claims it is so and quotes scripture or tradition. And no, you cannot see my receipt.


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