Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Learning How to Respect and Exercise Authority

Students at U. of Missouri caused their president to resign.
Yesterday, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned in response to increasing pressure from students over racial tensions on campus.   Racial injustice continues to be a problem in America.  Authority figures in America are not without blame whether they are university administrators, civic leaders, or local police.  However, what is most disconcerting to me is the manner in which objecting parties approach the injustice or perceived injustice.  Different opinions or philosophies are no excuse for the absence of mutual respect between authorities and their subjects.

Authority figures are responsible to govern and enforce laws or protocols on the basis of their own integrity and respect for their constituents.   Likewise, subjects of authority are obligated to show respect through polite behavior and a respectful appeal for change in cases where reformation is needed.  Otherwise, the structure that upholds our communities and our nation will be weakened and destroyed.  

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland this past summer clearly reveal what happens when the relationship between authorities and their subjects comes unraveled.   Therefore, we must ask, “How does a person learn the proper exercise of authority?” and, “How does a person learn to respect authority?”  According to the Word of God our “Ultimate Authority”, the respect that fuels healthy relationships between authority and subjects must be learned and incorporated into ones character beginning at a young age.

In Genesis, the “Book of Beginnings”, we read how God created humans, male and female (Genesis 1: 17) and ordained that a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2: 24).  This separation from the parent generation and the union of man and wife provides the foundation for distinct families in which children can be nurtured and taught to become responsible adults.  Ephesians 6 explains the fundamental commands that provide for a healthy and loving respect for authority by children (upper case lettering distinguish parts quoted from the Old Testament (Torah)): 

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise), SO THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH.   – Ephesians 6: 1-3

Likewise, the Scriptures teach the importance of parents exercising loving authority over children:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord – Ephesians 6: 4

How many of the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri; or, the protestors on the University of Missouri campus had the privilege of being nurtured in a loving home with two parents in which respect for authority was taught?  How many were taught not only to exercise reverent respect for mom and dad, but also reverent respect for the men and women teachers in their school classrooms; or authorities dressed in the uniform of law enforcement in the community?  How many were taught American history and how our nation was founded on the basis of Christian virtues and a proper understanding of the depravity of man, how power corrupts, and hence, the need for checks and balances in government?

Surely, we live in a sin-corrupted world, and this corruption has infected all authorities—parents, teachers, church and civic leaders, and law enforcement officials.  Many of our young people have been mistreated at one or more levels of authority in the home or in the community.  Many have never been respectfully challenged to objectively consider how their own narrow experiences may inaccurately “color” their view of the world around them.  As a result, many have grown up to despise authority at all levels, and have joined the voices of those who reject God and His plan for biblical marriage, family, church, community, and America.  Biblical teaching which was fundamental to the founding and sustaining of America for nearly two and one-half centuries is being eliminated from our homes, schools, churches, and communities. 

Sons and daughters of dysfunctional families, schools, churches, and communities are encouraged to see themselves as victims by selfish or well meaning politicians who offer false hope of relief through empty promises from big government.  Paul Krugman, leading liberal economist and columnist of the New York Times, lamented yesterday, there is a darkness spreading over part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.  He seems confused about the possible causes of increased drug abuse and suicides in the face of recent government offerings that include universal health care, higher minimum wages, and aid to education.  Could it be that these achievements, instead of delivering a better quality of life, are simply reminders that outside of God’s plan for family and government, we can only expect an increasing population of “victims” existing in a culture of dependency and despair?

Welcome back to the University of Missouri campus, where student groups and boycotting football players have just caused the resignation of the president of the university.  Surely, there are more civil and respectful means of advancing racial reconciliation than this.  I can only speak from my own personal journey toward learning to respect authority and later, to exercise authority in a godly manner.

My childhood was largely free of verbal and physical abuse.  I feel great sorrow toward anyone, including one of my dearest friends, who has been abused by someone in authority.  My parents disciplined me lovingly and with “loving force” at times when necessary.  However, when I began elementary school in first grade, I quickly learned that my social interaction skills were in need of major adjustments.

Mrs. Nile Johnson
Enter Mrs. Olive Johnson, my first grade teacher.  She was a mature, godly woman who seemed very old and stern to me at the time.  I do not remember the exact nature of my infractions of her rules, but I do remember “feeling” her consistent and loving discipline whenever I stepped over the line.  In one instance, while I was being kept in detention for one offence, I was unwise enough to commit another and received a double dose of discipline.   I very much needed Mrs. Johnson’s expenditure of time and energy, sometimes physically applied to my bottom, to bring discipline, respect, and order to my wild, farm boy nature.

Mrs. Johnson was more than simply my first grade teacher.  She worshiped and served at Dundee Methodist Church where my family and I attended.  In summer, she and her husband, Nile, would invite members of our church to gather on their lovely farm for a church picnic.  And, when I graduated from her class, she continued to remember my special day each year for several decades by mailing a birthday card and a poem which she had written.  I understand that Mrs. Johnson practiced this loving ministry to many if not all of her former students until she was unable to continue.   She also gave me a book filled with short stories; and, she lovingly marked her approval in pencil those stories that best taught good character qualities.   Thank you, Mrs. Johnson, for teaching me reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But also, thank you for your example as an authority dressed in love, consistency, firmness, and fairness.

Mrs. Lloyd Gardner
Thankfully, God knew this farm boy well enough to know that one year would not be enough to straighten me out.   My second and third grade teacher was Mrs. Kathryn Gardner, a much younger lady, but no less committed to an orderly classroom and playground.  Whereas, Mrs. Johnson had to break me from some of my wild behavior, Mrs. Gardner’s approach was best suited for helping me develop my attitudes and character.  She set a high standard of achievement for me and was not reserved about putting me on the spot in front of the class when she perceived that I was being careless or lazy with my work. 

Like my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gardener’s life was also visible to me beyond the classroom and playground.  She and her husband, Lloyd, the Dundee postmaster, were friends of our family.  On Sunday mornings, my teacher demonstrated herself to be an accomplished organist as well as a good Sunday school teacher.  As I grew older, I attended Lloyd’s Sunday School class.  He was among those who first sparked my interest in the subject of politics.  Lloyd’s training and experiences as an officer in the armed services and his godly character provided a good example of what it is to be a gentleman.  Meanwhile, in Kathryn I saw a godly woman whose adornment was not merely external, but which included the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God (1 Peter 3: 3-4).  As an adolescent, I regularly remember the admiring and respectful smiles she gave me as if speaking confidence and approval into my life.

I thank God for providing many good teachers throughout the years of my formal education, some of whom deserve similar recognition here in Oikonomia.  However, Olive Johnson and Kathryn Gardner provided a critical part of my education at the beginning there in Dundee School.  It was through them that God taught me a very important lesson about honor and respect for authority.  This lesson is perhaps best articulated by Doctor Luke in his Gospel, Luke 6: 39-40  

A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he?
Will they not both fall into a pit?   
A pupil is not above his teacher;
but everyone, after he has been fully trained,
will be like his teacher.

This Scripture teaches a principle may be lost on campus these days; namely, the principle I will call the “stewardship of education.”  The teacher/professor and administrator must understand the importance of exercising authority in a loving, purposeful, consistent manner to everyone on campus.  In turn, the students (disciples) must exercise the discipline of showing honor and respect toward those in authority.  Both teacher and student ought to recognize that they are under the authority of God.  This notion is firmly based in Judeo-Christian Scripture, and to the extent that it is applied in the lives of today’s teachers and students as it was at Dundee School, America’s schools and colleges can expect a brighter future.  May God inspire and give courage particularly to Christian educators who are now the minority voice on campuses like the University of Missouri.

Dundee School Revisited:  

Mrs. (Gardner) Weber delights in a former student.
In October, Abby and I were blessed with the opportunity to attend the 100th anniversary of Dundee School.  In addition to getting reacquainted with some of my former schoolmates, we were able to sit and talk with Kathryn (Gardner) Weber, who, like Dundee School,  is also 100 years of age.  At this reunion, sixty years after I sat in her classroom, I sat again and learned from this teacher.  I learned that one can be an honored, 100-year-old teacher who has taught for 35 years, and yet masterfully deflect attention away from herself to a stream of former students in whom she took great delight.  I am privileged to have been one of those in whom she expressed delight.  When Abby asked to take our picture together, Kathryn said, “You take the picture.  I just want to look at my student.”

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