The Question of the Age
I’ve recently been reading a powerful little book by Professor Tim Snyder, a historian at Yale, called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder studies the rise of totalitarianism, a word that doesn’t even appear in our language until the 1930s. The idea of his little book is to distill in a very short and easily read set of statements the things we have to do to keep our democracy healthy and our society intact.
The lessons he offers are simple, straightforward statements. Things like “Do not obey in advance.” “Contribute to good causes.” “Establish a private life.” “Remember professional ethics.”
Right in the middle of the book is what for me is the most important lesson of all, or maybe the one that feels most urgent these days. It’s simply this lesson: “Believe in truth.”
What Snyder really means by those words is “Believe in the possibility of truth,” or “Believe in the idea that some things, some assertions, some ideas are true—and others are false.” Here is what he writes:
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
The idea at the very heart of this is that our whole system of self-governing democracy, our whole set of ideas about equal justice under law and the dignity of individual citizens, all of that is founded on the seemingly basic idea that there is such a thing as truth—facts, statements, ideas that are true. That there are things that are true no matter whether we agree with them or not. And that we give a special kind of preference to truth—we give it authority.
We may not like the idea of authority, at least until we try to live in a world that has no rules and no clear source of authority. That world is anarchy, and a world in which everyone is equal not in their dignity but in their vulnerability. No matter what your political beliefs are, that would be a great and tragic loss. All of us, no matter what our leanings, have something to lose if our public discourse becomes somehow fact-free.
So we have to be willing to insist on the truth of basic facts and basic ideas. We have to hold our ground on these things even when there are voices around us that want to challenge those them as just our opinion, or crazy, or just plain false.
Facts like the earth is round, or that it goes around the sun. Facts like there is no link between childhood vaccination and autism. You can find that fact on the Autism Speaks website. Ideas like all people are created equal and should be accorded equal rights under the law. You can find that idea in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Facts are stubborn things, John Adams said, and perhaps that is why people who want to discredit them try to do so with tactics like being loud and threatening, and sometimes violent. Ideas are stubborn things, too, but even so there are those who would rather live in a world that gives preferential treatment to some races or some genders or some cultures, and they use many of the same techniques to try to tear those ideas down.
We are living in a moment in which we need to be clear and calm about standing up for facts and ideas. As Christians, that should come to us very comfortably. Because going all the way back to the very founding of our faith, we have always been challenged about the claims we make.
In each of the three synoptic Gospels we find Jesus being challenged about what he is saying—about the truths he is proclaiming. God cares more about the disposition of your heart than about your rigid adherence to religious rules. All people are precious in the sight of God, and all people have exactly the same tendency to go off the rails and act in ways beneath the dignity God has given them. The structures of power that we build are always flawed in some way, and need to be held to account.
In each of those Gospels, the people in power hear these messages and they respond by confronting Jesus with a question: By what authority do you say these things? By what authority do you do these things? Who are you to teach us the meaning of the scriptures? Who are you to heal people who are sick or feed people who are hungry? Who are you to suggest that we are not being good leaders of these people?
You’re not trained as a rabbi; you’re not a seminary-trained ordained minister; you’re not a graduate of a top-ranked institution. Who are you to say these things?
In the story we have from the Acts of the Apostles today, what we learn is that the question they asked of Jesus is the question they will ask of his followers, too. And that means us. The story we heard today happens after the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, after the Ascension. Peter and John have healed a man lame from birth. The crowds gather. They want to know how this happened.
Peter preaches a short sermon to them. He explains that it happened through faith in the resurrected Jesus, and that the offer of that faith is made to all of them.
Well, that gets them into trouble. They get hauled before the authorities. And they get asked the very same question Jesus was asked: By what authority do you do this? By what power or by what name do you teach these things, heal these people, make these claims?
The lame man walking again is a fact. It may be difficult for us to grasp, but the reality of it was standing right there in the midst of this whole scene. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus to life is a fact—a fact so concrete to the disciples that they keep asserting it, practically with one voice, at great peril to their reputations, their liberties, and their lives.
Now if we are disciples, too, if we like them are followers of Jesus, we are going to stand for things that the world around us finds challenging. We are going to insist on the truth of things that the rest of the world finds ridiculous or outrageous.
And we are going to be asked: By what authority do we say these things? What gives us the right, what gives us the credibility, what gives us the knowledge to say these things?
We do not say these things on our own authority. We say them on the authority of our faith in God. We say them on the authority of the things we know to be true—not because they have been proven to us, but because they have been planted in us.
And as followers of the God in whose image we and all people are made, as disciples of the truth that is God’s hope to transform us through love and to equip us with grace, we must be bold to be in this world as people courageous enough to ask that same question ourselves of those who would seek to deny the dignity of some people, or imagine the superiority of some people, or fail to see the humanity in all people.
We must be prepared to ask: By what authority do you say these things? By what authority do you do, or fail to do, these things?
That is the question now being posed by young people in high schools all across the country when it comes to our culture of violence and our confusion of rights with weapons.
That is the question being asked by those who take in refugees and give shelter to those who are undocumented.
That is the question being asked by those who are demanding the simplest of all dignities: the right to work in an any workplace free from the fear of being pressured, assaulted, molested, or abused by someone else.
And that is the question that we, as Christians, must always be just as ready to ask of the corrupted schemes and structures of this world as we are to answer it when it is asked of us.
They were surprised by the teaching of Jesus because he spoke not as their usual leaders did, but with what they all recognized as unique authority. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” And it is because of that authority that we hear the voice of the good shepherd when he calls us, too.
As his disciples, his authority must now speak through us—through the church, the living body of the risen Christ through all of us together.
We live in a time of contested authority. By what name or by what power do we do these things? It is the question of our age, to which our answer must always be, the authority of Easter, the authority of resurrection, the authority of God’s unyielding insistence to reconcile the whole world through love. Amen.