Authority and rebellion

John Adams is one of my heroes. Why? Because he was an American patriot who defied the mob, defending the harassed British soldiers in the Boston “massacre” trials. It is doubtful that a man of his character and independence will ever be elected president again.

Mobs are inherently dangerous and not to be trusted: therefore my instincts are always on the side of authority. Whenever I read a news story about a riot, a protest march, a strike, or an insurgency, the first thing I look for is some kind of moral justification for the rebellion. Increasingly, none is offered. Perhaps journalists think that the mere fact of lots of people desiring a change is its own justification. Desire is enough.

Rebellion can sometimes be justified on moral grounds, but today we live in a culture of rebellion in which justifications are irrelevant. Authority is never given the benefit of the doubt. Majorities are simply assumed to be right by virtue of being majorities. Individuals with power or authority are assumed to be villains, especially when they refuse to kow-tow to popular desires. In such a culture it is almost impossible to distinguish the good rebellion from the myriad of petty, malicious, arbitrary, vengeful, envious, and greed-driven rebellions everywhere.

I pity anyone with authority today. America’s most popular pastime is to hurl mindless criticism and abuse at authority figures (I am not exempt from this damnable habit). There is nothing more popular in America today than standing around the water cooler badmouthing one’s employer, one’s government, or one’s church. For an individual to exercise authority is to risk becoming a martyr in our culture. That is, unless you sell out to the mob, which many do.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which our anti-authoritarian culture delivers a kind of poetic justice. Many of our leaders are themselves rebels and/or usurpers. They use their authority to foment rebellion, are contemptuous of their own superiors, and in some cases they acquired their positions through acts of sedition. Having shown little respect for authority themselves, they receive little respect in their turn. Such men will never seek to create a culture of respect for authority because that would incriminate their own actions. Democracy = perpetual revolution and rebellion.

As a practical matter, the formula for restoration is rather simple. Give respect and deference to the authorities God has placed over you, no matter how unworthy in your eyes – be it your president, your governor, your city council, your highway patrolman, your priest, or your employer. To these we owe obedience in all things lawful. We owe them respect even when they make prudential mistakes. We are to “bear wrongs patiently” when there is an occasional injustice. Granted: at some point there can be so much abuse that rebellion is necessary, even obligatory. That hour may well be approaching fast. When that hour comes, if you have lived a life that is deeply respectful of authority, your “rebellion” will arise from grave necessity rather than habit; it will be meaningful and persuasive, not just another tantrum of the spoiled mob.

2 thoughts on “Authority and rebellion

  1. Jeff, you say:

    “Granted: at some point there can be so much abuse that rebellion is necessary, even obligatory. That hour may well be approaching fast.”

    I think Burma passed that point many years ago. In fact, I think they’ve gone around the track and lapped that point several times. That’s why I believe what the monks have been doing is entirely justified.

    I’m all for obedience to authority, and am as a big a fan of Edmund Burke as the next fellow, but citizens have no obligation to obey tyrinnical authorities such as these.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris. In light of further reading, I have to agree with you. Burma appears to have been a spectacularly bad example on my part. I have removed the reference.

    Edmund Burke, as you know, gave qualified support to the American Revolution – so your comments are not un-Burkean. I may be more Burkean than Burke himself on that count.

    We are living in a revolutionary age, in which many governments are themselves the result of violent rebellions and usurpations. The presumption in favor of authority is therefore more difficult to maintain in our time. Nevertheless I think it is an important habit-of-mind to develop, and certainly the weight of Christian tradition encourages the same.


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