Dancing Queen...

This isn't a blog post about the only song that can get me to dance at a wedding.* It's about authority. The reference is already a few months out-of-date, but it's a nod to our Prime Minister's attempt to laugh off the mockery she faced for awkwardly dancing during a diplomatic visit to Africa. The video quickly went viral. At the Conservative Party conference, she marched onto the stage to Abba and did a little mocking boogie on the way to the podium.

I'm not going to criticise Theresa May for a bungled attempt to repair an embarrassing PR situation. I'm not going to pass much comment on whether she would have received the same scorn had she been a man.** I'm going to talk about the very need to attempt her "Dancing Queen" save:

We live in a deeply anti-authoritarian society. Kids increasingly have little respect for teachers and adults in general. Teens and middle-aged alike dismiss the elderly. Police officers are publicly abused. No one living in the public eye - whether "celebrities", politicians, or the Royal Family, is free from the unbridled mockery of the mass media.

We ridicule and undermine those in authority over us. I'm sure there's some very interesting psychology involved - is our society's collective psyche so insecure we need to pick on such easy targets? Newspapers, internet clickbait and TV panel shows make comedy mincemeat out of any authority figure (this, of course, extends to God, though that isn't my main focus here).

There are two things that need to be said:

1) Firstly, those in authority must be held to account. They ought to be held to higher standards, and where there is misbehaviour and misdeed, they don't get a "pass" because they're important or highly-paid.

This is the abuse of authority that has been rife in every society since Cain. This is the false view of authority that will allow police officers and politicians to be involved in the evil and systematic abuse of young people and women. This is the historic view that "important" people have a lower moral standard to maintain because of the unequal pressures and demands on them, or because in some ontological sense they are "higher" and follow a different set of rules to the hoi polloi.

A Biblical view of authority does not simply permit leaders to do what they want and get away with it because of the respect in which they are held. This has been a problem in churches where the Pastor has been held in such reverence that no accusation against him - however legitimate - has been considered. It allows wolves in sheep's clothing to feast on God's flock, whether sexually or by lining their own pockets.

The Biblical view of leadership is that of servant-leaders: Shepherds. They have a responsibility to sacrificially serve those over whom they exercise authority. They are answerable for their actions.

2) Secondly, we can't deny that there is an appropriate use for satire. Some Christians might be completely opposed to the idea, but it's a Biblical reality. In many ways, the apocalyptic writing of the Prophets and the book of Revelation are deeply satirical: Like a modern political cartoon, they use veiled imagery, symbolism and picture-language to describe political realities. Sometimes the imagery is comedic, even grotesque.*** The use of this imagery elevates purely worldly satire to the spiritual, highlighting the reality behind the mundane.

In a free and democratic country, we ought to be free to speak. Guaranteeing this freedom of speech is one way we can ensure that leaders and institutions are held to account. Satire has been a powerful weapon of those under abusive authority to undermine the unfair esteem in which ungodly authorities are sometimes held. It's a tool that gives the disenfranchised - the powerless - a kind of righteous power to highlight the faults of their oppressors.

But, there's a big difference between satire that shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy of those who abuse their authority, and the unrelenting disrespect and scorn towards those who falteringly attempt to exercise it, more or less, for the public good. A few weeks ago, one of my friends posted a quote from Terry Pratchett, “Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it is not satire, it is bullying.”

Theresa May's dance was awkward and frankly, laughable. So is mine when "Dancing Queen" comes on and someone drags me off my comfortable chair to jive around at a wedding. But her inability to dance has no bearing on her ability to govern. She ought to be held to account for the decisions she and her government make that affect the future of this country, not for unimportant issues like the way she dresses or wears her makeup.

Christians are called to pray for all those in authority over us (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We're not called to mock or deride them.

The more Christians participate in the undermining of those in authority over us, the more we undermine the very idea of authority itself. "Authority" is not a dirty word, even if much authority is abusive: Husbands should exercise authority over their wives. Parents exercise authority over their children. Church leaders exercise authority over those entrusted to their pastoral care. We should all submit to God's authority, especially as mediated to us through His Word - the Bible.

Romans 13 tells us that it's God who ordains governments - even ungodly ones! As history has shown, there's a place for Christian civil disobedience,**** but it shouldn't be done with scornful mockery of authority, but with Christlikeness; humility; respect and obedience to God's law.

What a difference it would make for the Gospel if Christians were thoughtful citizens. Let's not engage in the same petty debates and discussions as everyone else, but with appropriate respect, and prayerful contemplation, serve our country by supporting and fairly critiquing those placed - by God - in authority over us.

P.S.: In the months since I wrote this post (which remained unpublished due to getting either sent to the wrong email address or deleted by an overzealous spam-filter), the mockery of Theresa May has only intensified:

Since “Dancing-Queen-gate” we’ve had Andy Serkis’ clever but cruel parody of Theresa May as Gollum (from the Lord of the Rings); countless spoofs on “Dead Ringers”; and a seemingly endless parade of social media posts. Most of the ones that catch my eye make fun of the crisis, especially Theresa May, without having anything meaningful to contribute to the discussion.

My parents always used to tell me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As the popular saying goes, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” There is a place to speak the truth to power – it might not always be “nice” – but it always ought to be constructive. So much for gentleness and respect (see 1 Peter 3:15).

At what point does ridicule stop being satire, and start to be bullying?

Notes:
*It started as a joke among my friends, then I grudgingly grew to love this song. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to not join in: "Not until my jam comes on."

**Although it's an interesting question. Compare for example the demands for critical success placed on women directors in Hollywood. Male directors make terrible movies that lose their studios millions of dollars, and yet somehow they're allowed to keep on. If a woman makes even a less-than-amazing movie in a mainstream franchise the fans bay for blood.

***Such as Rome being depicted in Revelation not as a beautiful, pure warrior woman, held in awe by the nations, as Rome saw herself, but as a drunk slouching harlot despised by her sexual partners, whose only care for her is in their own financial gain.

****I would recommend Eric Metaxas' excellent and moving biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor who served as a spy in the Abwehr, worked against the Nazi government, and was ultimately murdered for his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.