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Appeals to proper authority, and the use of it
One question I’ve seen among casual fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium is why the Valar, highest of the Ainur, Eru Ilúvatar’s “angelic” creations, would not intervene in the War of the Rings. I smell some high geekdom about to happen, but I want to chat about authority for a minute. Not just authority, but proper authority.
Tolkien was big on the role of proper authority. In the Peter Jackson movies, one of the best lines was Gandalf telling Denethor, “authority is not given you to deny the return of the King, Steward!” That’s not directly in the book (because it was well understood by both of them), but Gandalf said something similar, and it would not have been out of character for the story.
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One place in society where authority has a place is our legal system. There’s a big fight going on in Wisconsin right now over a Supreme Court seat up for election this Tuesday. A liberal judge is running against a right-wing candidate, and you’d think, by the $29 (or $45!) million spent on it, that the future of every living or unborn human in Wisconsin was at stake.
"It shows that Wisconsin just tends to be the center of the political universe," says Anthony Chergosky, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "And it also shows that money is flowing into this high stakes battle over abortion in the post-Roe v. Wade political landscape."
The authority of a state supreme court is actually pretty limited, compared to, say, the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Or the House of Representatives, or the U.S. Senate, or the Executive Office of the President. But we’ve pretty much messed up authority, and proper authority these days. Populism holds that the ultimate authority for governing is the people’s will. And, I guess, at the end of the day, that has some truth to it, but not as much as populists think. Our founding fathers knew that populist passions would lead the country into some pretty stupid, and dangerous, places, so they placed strict limits and high walls for those passions to climb.
Eventually, if American society keeps climbing those walls, like zombies in World War Z, perhaps it could be overtopped, but with all the division in our country, it’s more likely that nothing will happen without proper authority making it happen.
That means the Manhattan, N.Y. District Attorney has proper authority to issue an arrest warrant against Donald J. Trump, current Republican frontrunner in the 2024 presidential race. It means Trump’s power, based on influence and populist passion, lacks proper authority.
It means whatever tea leaves the pundits read into the Wisconsin judge race don’t amount to a hill of beans in divining Trump’s future, or the future of the Republican Party (except perhaps within Wisconsin).
But proper authority goes beyond mere politics, because it touches all kinds of relationships: boss and employee, university president and student body, parent and child, author and reader. (And that’s a foreshadow: LOTR geekdom is coming.)
The Ainur, as Tolkien wrote them, had immense power, to shape or even destroy parts of Eä, the physical creation, and by extension, Arda, the Earth, which contained Middle Earth, where most of the action in the books occurred. But the Ainur were not given authority to harm Men, for those Children of Ilúvatar belonged to Eru (God), and were imbued with life from the “secret fire” which remained within Eru alone. As much as Melkor tried to find the “flame imperishable,” he never came to grips with the fact that it was unobtainable.
There’s authority and there’s proper authority. Authority gained through power alone is not necessarily proper. Actual human history offers books full of examples; conquerors became governors, while rebels and governments in exile retained their authority to fight back. The winners usually write history, but not always, and in time, the pendulum sometimes swings back to offer proper authority its place. Just look at India, or the Philippines, or half the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Back to Tolkien.
After Melkor’s defeat at the end of the First Age, his former lieutenant, Sauron, influenced the man Ar-Pharazôn, King of Númenor, to invade Aman. Aman was home to the Valar, and men were jealous that Elves and the Ainur lived immortal lives, while Men were doomed to death. Ar-Pharazôn’s huge fleet landed on the shores of the “undying lands, but the Valar, despite having the power to destroy entire continents, were prevented from harming them. The Valar appealed to Ilúvatar directly, and he answered by consuming the fleet into a chasm opened in the sea, and also sinking the entire island of Númenor under the ocean, taking Sauron’s body along with it. After that, Sauron, an Ainur, could no longer appear in a “fair” form, and could only assume a monstrous appearance.
In the Third Age, when faced with the problem of the One Ring that Sauron created, pouring a great portion of his soul and power into it, the Valar would never have accepted it into their possession. Men (and the other races of Middle Earth) had to solve their own problems, and the Valar understood it was not in their authority to interfere. Gandalf said as much during the Council of Elrond in Book Two of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Now I want to talk about one more relationship of proper authority to power, and that’s between God and Man—not in Tolkien’s world, but in ours. Tolkien’s books were based on theological principles that he himself held, without being explicitly allegorical (Tolkien despised allegory, unlike his friend C.S. Lewis).
Today is Palm Sunday. It’s the day in the Bible when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on the foal of a donkey, in fulfillment of Scripture and prophecy, with the populace lining the streets shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Palm Sunday occurs a week before Easter, and (in the western Christian tradition), always follows the placement of Passover, which is set on the Hebrew lunar calendar on the 14th of Nisan. The events of Palm Sunday were documented in the synoptic Gospels and in the book of John, chapter 12.
The crowds believed Jesus was coming as the Messiah, the political savior who would lead them forever. A voice from heaven spoke to the crowd, then Jesus said “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The crowd, puzzled, since the Messiah was supposed to rule forever, asked “Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”
Daniel chapter 7 verses 13-14 provides the reference:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
The Son of Man is given authority, glory and sovereign power. He was glorified, and will be glorified again. But the form of His authority had to be proper authority. The prophet Isaiah was given the words of how the Son of Man would appear and suffer first, in Isaiah chapter 53, “the suffering servant.”
After Jesus was crucified, He returned for a time, and before he rose to the heavens, He told his disciples in Matthew 28:17 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Tolkien’s legendarium held that power without proper authority was invalid, and lawful power would not assert itself without proper authority. In the spiritual world, angels could devastate the face of the earth. Jesus could have summoned 10,000 angels to remove Himself from the cross. His tormentors mocked him, saying that if Jesus was truly God, why doesn’t he come down from the cross? There was only one way for Jesus, truly God and truly the Son of Man, to exercise His authority: that was to suffer and die for our sin.
Anyone who places their trust in power without proper authority, whether it’s in the political, legal, government, military, or spiritual realm, is placing their trust in something that will ultimately fall to nothing. Tolkien wrote that Hobbits, Men and Elves were left to deal with Sauron on their own, with Eru Ilúvatar’s sovereignty guiding the journey. Likewise, Christians—and those who have their own free will to study the Scriptures for themselves—are left with our faith and the Word of God to understand the times.
In Psalm 20, King David wrote:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
8 They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
9 Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!
On Palm Sunday, some 2000-odd years ago, the Scriptures record that the King rode into Jerusalem. He will come again, in the clouds, and in power that cannot be denied. It is not in our authority to determine the time of the coming of the King. It is not in our proper authority to exercise power outside of God’s good order. As much as society wants to call things that are not, as if they are, or as much as our current president wants to make pronouncements of what shapes “our nation’s soul”—he does not have proper authority to pronounce it. Nor does the former president’s supporters have proper authority to prevent their idol’s arrest, and possibly his conviction and sentencing. Nor do they have proper authority to declare him a spiritual savior.
We do not live in a novel, nor do we live in a self-centered indulgent fantasy. There is only the real world, and our lives in it. In this world, there is only one proper authority for those pronouncements, and He rode into Jerusalem on the foal of the donkey, a week before He was crucified.