You know from reading previous essays that I had a question about the source John the Baptist’s authority. What was his authority for doing what he did? I asked that of a bunch of my clergy colleagues and got mostly blank stares. A few suggested God or Jesus, but how would the people standing around the banks of the Jordan have known that? What evidence would they have had that God’s authority was at play? What authority could a young carpenter from Galilee have had for them?
I get together with my friend Tom for coffee each Saturday, but the Saturday morning gang is loud, so our conversation is generally limited to inconsequential nonsense that gives us something to laugh about. Laughing is very refreshing, I might add. I highly recommend it. However, on to more serious things. Now and then we get together for dinner and deeper conversation, and so it was that we took up the question of John’s authority, and of authority in general. What is authority, and how does one get it? More particularly, what was the source of John’s authority? Tom suggested that it came from John’s responsiveness. John was responsive to the needs, hopes, and anxieties of the crowd that gathered at the river’s edge. He knew who they were, what they needed, and how to provide it. He recognized them as persons worthy of being recognized. He understood them. And they, in turn, recognized his authority to do what he did. They trusted him.
Responsiveness to a group’s needs as the source of authority is powerful. Of course we recognize that John was a prophet sent by God. His ultimate authority stemmed from God. But, as Christians we know that only through the testimony of scripture and two millennia of tradition that we, in turn, recognize as authoritative. The crowds gathered on the river’s edge had a more visceral and certain knowledge of his authority because they gave it to him. The Sadducees who ran the temple knew better than the unwashed rabble because they had the real authority of position backed by the might of Rome. The scholarly Pharisees who ran the schools of law and religion knew better than the uneducated rabble because they had the real authority of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. The crowds gathered on the river’s edge couldn’t care less what they thought they knew so much better. What did the Sadducees and Pharisees have to do with them? Nothing! But this John, he knew them, he understood them, and he offered a new life for them, a life from which they had felt excluded for far too long.
Here’s where it gets sticky. We now recognize John as a man of God and heartily endorse all that he said and did. But in terms of the dynamics, they were the same ones that Donald Trump is using today, and that Ted Cruz would like to use if he knew how. For a certain large portion of Americans, Trump has the appeal and carries the authority of a John the Baptist. For the most part, they are white members of the struggling, and shrinking, lower middle class. Once they were the owners of the American Dream, but no longer. Ownership has been passed on to foreigners, people of color, and the wealthy who have already achieved it. Once they were the majority, but now they are not. Once they felt safe, even privileged, but now they are beset on every side by terror, real or imagined. Trump appeals to them with the same kind of authority that John once demonstrated to the crowds gathered at the river’s edge, and he does so by cursing the authorized leaders of established American institutions, just as John declared that the Sadducees and Pharisees were a brood of vipers.
Trump is a deceiver, an agent of evil personified. He offers a false hope, a chimera, an illusion of delusion, but it sounds so attractive to a certain audience. They are mesmerized, as were many of the people of Germany and Italy not so many decades ago. It must be taken seriously.
I’m not sure what the right response should be, but I have a guess. Leaders with a sense of responsibility for the common good should craft well thought out, truthful, messages aimed directly at Trump’s audience reminding them of who they are as bearers of the American heritage at its best. They need to be recognized for their contributions, and assured of a future that will not exclude them, but that will also not exclude any others. How will it not exclude them, or any others?
It won’t be easy, but rebuilding a confident middle class has to be the highest priority. That will require a domestic agenda calling for higher taxes on the very wealthy, more competitive tax rates for businesses, a higher minimum wage indexed to the CPI, and expansion and corrections to the ACA. It will require full and understandable disclosure about why we are not going to repeat past mistakes in the Middle East, and are not going to be the world’s police force. It will require clearer explanations of the why and how of international diplomacy. It will require a complete reversal of the Citizens United decision. It will require common sense gun regulation. Perhaps most difficult of all, it will require national leadership forcefully explaining to the corporate leadership that they have a lasting responsibility to their rank and file employees, and the communities in which they are located, that is as important as the bottom line. Finally, something must be done to restrict “super salaries” but I don’t know what that might be. I suspect it will have to do more with moral persuasion than regulation.
Well, those are some thoughts, and I’d welcome conversation about them.