Challenging Authority, Redefining Leadership: Trusting Your Own Authentic Power
In my last two posts I have been talking about authority and leadership, and the vital need we have to challenge and redefine our current understanding of these things in order for feminist theology to develop and thrive within the church. In my first post I wrote about my own experience challenging authority and how that opened me up to understanding and claiming feminist theology. In my last post I proposed a redefinition of leadership by changing our thinking of authority as something that is based on external positions of power, to something that is internally developed.
I realize that that is not where we are at yet in the world or in the church. It is human nature to look for external authority because it’s often easier to place trust there than to trust in our own internal authority. Some of that is the conditioning of our culture. When you are taught your whole life to trust in the prophet, your trust in external authority is going to smother your ability to trust in your own authority. This is perhaps especially oppressive to a woman’s trust in her internal authority, as she has no potential of ever obtaining the external authority that men can possess within the power structure of the church. Also, because the world does not yet fully value authentically empowered people, it’s easy to get caught up in the ladder climbing to receive external power.
When I began to develop my own internal authority to question the external authority of church leaders, I lost all of my external power within my faith community. It was hard to walk away from my own need to climb ladders toward external power. As a member of the young women’s presidency and primary presidency I had felt like I had power within my faith community, even though my power only reached as far as I was willing to comply with social norms. When I was publicly shamed and released from my calling, it became clear to everyone around me that I was a disempowered person. Seeing my disempowerment, many people took it upon themselves to counsel me and call me to repentance.
I found this behavior of others odd, especially in light of the fact that losing my external power actually empowered me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. For the first time in my adult life, I was making decisions that align perfectly with who I am. I felt my power as a woman who no longer needed to acquiesce to certain social rules, seek authoritative acceptance from “leadership”, or fit into a narrow role that Mormon culture had cut out for me. There is little value for that kind of empowerment within the current church because of the emphasis placed on external leadership and authority which requires people to follow certain social rules. There is also a greater emphasis placed on people having authority over other people, rather than individuals developing internal authority. It’s what makes Mormons feel like they are a chosen people of God with authority to declare the truth to everyone. It’s what makes people think they can counsel their neighbors. It’s what makes a bishop think that he can determine the worthiness of an individual he knows nothing about. It’s the reason why any thought becomes more authoritative if it stems from a scripture or “general authority.”
This isn’t exclusive to Mormon culture. It’s human nature. It’s the reason people quote studies or authoritative voices on subjects they are debating. External authority feels powerful. Somehow it feels more powerful than your own ability to take in information and decide for yourself. It’s easier to take the information produced by an authoritative voice and make it somehow fit and feel right even if it isn’t, than to stand up and say, “No that’s wrong.” I have seen conservative politicians lately squirming when they are asked whether they support the Republican nomination. They use circuitous language to get around the question, yet they won’t come right out and say what they really think and feel.
I’ve heard people take sexist, bigoted, racist quotes or actions made by general authorities in the church, and make it feel okay to them rather than looking inward to their own authority to determine its rightness or wrongness. Right after the policy regarding children of gay couples came out, I had friends posting on social media about it, saying no way it could be true. The church would never have such an awful policy. Only hours later, these same friends were defending it saying, there must be a reason for it.
I see the pain that comes from that, especially when it involves someone’s personal life. Lately I have felt the pain of many women who, after an intense inner battle, chose to get divorced rather than to live as slaves to an unhappy marriage for the rest of their lives. I have felt their agony, even after they listened to their own authoritative inner voice and made a brave choice, as they continue to try to fit the authority of “leaders” into their lives and their decision. They should be feeling incredibly empowered, but instead they feel weak, sinful, and lost. Some have been given horrendous counsel that stamped out any trust they had in themselves.
I don’t believe that we are living up to our full potential as humans when we place the counsel of others above our own inner feelings. We are especially limited in our capacity for greatness when we accept arbitrary hierarchies of leadership for authority. That isn’t to say that it isn’t valuable to share experiences and to learn from people around us and people who have gone before us. That’s a very different thing. We can even learn from people who are in external positions of power, or from books that are considered the authority on a matter. The problem lies in seeing those things as an authority greater than our own.
“…we must be willing, for the sake of others and the children who come after us, to examine how we view the world. To think about what we have learned from all those around us and who came before us, and see if it is really helpful…And if we discover that a worldview does not work—if it does not help people, if it does not really bring real happiness to people—then we must have the courage to stop following it, to correct it, and not blindly pass on to our children something which will not work for them either, something which may even hurt them.” How Yoga Works, Gesne Michael Roach, pg. 257
In my first post I mentioned the analogy of the maze that I heard so often during seminary. This analogy perfectly illustrates the comfort that comes from trusting in external authority. How easy life becomes when you feel that in the maze of your life you have exclusive information coming from above to tell you exactly how to get through it. This comfortable thought can lull you so effortlessly into a sleepy walk. In fact, you could get through the maze with your eyes closed if you wanted to. But now I wonder, what is the point of a maze where you have someone telling you exactly how to get through it?
When you open your eyes wide and look up to find that there is no one up there with a perfect view of the whole maze, you discover an internal ability that you didn’t know you had to find the right path on your own. You hit dead ends, you make wrong turns, you brush up against the sides and cry out in pain, sometimes you fall to the ground in exhausted confusion. Then you pick yourself back up and move forward. Sometimes you meet a fellow maze traveler who tells you about a dead end they have already found, or a path that has worked for them. Their words help, not because they know how to get through the maze, not because they have a perfect path for you to follow, but because their experience with the maze had some value for you. You learn from them, you learn from all of it. You are forming a relationship with the maze that is invaluable in empowering you to discover a path of enlightenment. That is what the maze is for. That is how we will evolve as authentically empowered beings.