Several years ago a small board examined me, asking me to reflect on my time in the Boy Scouts of America. This examination was the last requirement necessary for earning the rank of Eagle Scout; and their questions took on a somewhat philosophical tone. One particularly memorable question they asked was what point of the Scout Law, a 12 point list of virtues, I thought was least important. Of the options, “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” I told them that obedience was not a particularly good thing and that the scouts did not need to promote it.
Obedience was an ugly word. It brought to my mind images of disasters and war crimes and stories of megalomaniacs using whatever power they had over other people to impel them to absurdity for the sake of their egos. It seemed that a lot of cruelty, evil, and stupidity could be chalked up to people being obedient to things like, “Report all dissidents to the state” “The war will end at 11 am, but I want a promotion. Charge at 9!” “Stab the sea!” “Raise the number of bombing missions to 60!” How could it be helpful to submit our wills to anyone, especially men like Caligula and Colonel Cathcart?
Several months ago, I knelt in front of my Prior Provincial and professed to him, God, Mary, and St. Dominic a vow of obedience. Needless to say, as a slightly younger man I would have found this incomprehensible.
I’ve come to realize that obedience, properly understood, is a good thing. It is first and foremost owed to God and a way of serving him. “He made us, we belong to him, we are his people, the sheep of his flock.” (Ps 100) The Christian life is about doing God’s will in all things. To do so we must allow ourselves to trust him. God loves us and is perfect, and so he gains nothing for himself from us following the moral law. Instead that obedience is for our benefit, it helps us to be happy by conforming us to his wisdom. God’s command doesn’t make things good, but rather God commands good things. Obedience does require humility. When we don’t understand why God asks something of us, we must recognize our limitations and trust that God, in his wisdom, knows far better than we do what is good for us.
Obedience requires even greater humility and fortitude when it is to owed to people instead of God. People are fallible. It remains a reality that some people use their authority for evil ends and compel others to evil. But no one has legitimate authority to command evil because evil violates obedience to God’s wisdom. Every evil act done in obedience to a human authority is an act of disobedience to the highest authority. Christians cannot acquiesce to commands of evil, but must pray for the strength to always resist such coercion.
Even if not commanding something evil, authorities don’t always want to do things our way. Regardless, when we’re not in charge, we’re not in charge and it benefits no one to act like we are. Humility, however, acknowledges the reality and proper order of relationships. The child Jesus modeled this for us. After being found in the temple, “he went down with them (Mary and Joseph) and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” (Luke 2:51) If God can condescend to be obedient to the legitimate authority of people he created, no one can claim obedience is beneath their dignity. Jesus’ life of humble obedience shows us the way to the Father. “He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross!” (Phil 2:8)
I am grateful to now see how good a thing obedience is. It gives me daily opportunities to imitate Christ.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)