Authority is a tricky thing. Without it, chaos is inevitable. If there is a vacuum of authority, something will always develop to fill the void. But when that happens – when authority develops without proper Authority over it – there is often the risk of abuse of authority. Absence of Authority is a real danger – but so is its misuse. Thus, it’s really important that we get Authority right.
I was thinking about this after a recent round-trip flight. If you’ve gotten on a plane anytime in the last 20 years, you know the drill. You line up at the TSA checkpoint, and go through the process of taking things off, emptying things, getting rid of things – making sure you don’t have anything you’re not supposed to bring with you, while also making sure what you do have goes in a bin.
I couldn’t help but notice that the process was directly affected by the agent who was handling me. Some TSA agents are patient, even humorous through a process no one likes, but that we all need. Other agents, however, get exasperated – even bossy and demanding – at unresponsiveness, confusion, or passenger frustration.
Certainly, TSA agents have a thankless job. They do the same thing for hours on end, with all manner of people who no doubt display all manner of attitude. I get it; their job can be equal parts monotony and frustration. Even so, they are in a place of Authority – a sacred trust that isn’t easy, but must be done well.
We – okay, I – need them to show common courtesy and kindness as I try to figure things out, even if I’m fumbling through the process. And this is where the challenge of authority comes in. The person with the TSA badge gets to tell me what to do and how to do it. And I need them to do that. I want to be safe, and I want to follow the rules, and I want everyone else to do so, as well.
The challenge comes in when the TSA agent gets frustrated or tired or annoyed that I’m the 35th person today who has forgotten to take out his water bottle (speaking completely hypothetically, of course). And it’s at moments like these where Authority can tip over into annoyance, and even into arrogance.
In other words, the challenge for anybody with authority is to remember that they are serving the people over whom they have authority. This holds true for the TSA agent, the clerk at the DMV, the elder in a local church, and the police officer arresting a suspected criminal. To have authority is to take on the responsibility of continuing to do the same thing over and over again with people who may not always know what to do – or, who know what to do, and choose not to do it anyway. And the importance of authority is to handle those people with courtesy and respect – and yes, proper authority – while making sure that what is right is done, and what is done is right.
Of course, we who are on the receiving end of authority have a responsibility, too. We are to respond appropriately, with dignity – even when we have concerns with that authority.
All of this is a reminder: there are a lot of things that can go wrong when those with authority interact with those on the receiving end of that authority. (In fact, we so often notice – rightly so – those times where authority is misused. But it’s also easy to then overlook all the times it is done well. It’s kind of like focusing on the bad pothole on the road – while missing the 99% of the road that isn’t pothole. Both need to be seen.)
In the end, I want grace and understanding from TSA agents when I’m just a little clueless about what to do and when to do it – just as I must offer grace and understanding for the difficult work they do. Both of us need to understand proper Authority – and its proper use. Through all of this, we are reminded how difficult it is to get Authority right, but how vital it is that we never stop working toward that end. Our society, our community, our churches, and our families depend on it.