Is it possible to have power without competition?

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In previous article (here), we discussed rational authority, or the belief that authority stems from expert consensus, and not divine favor or calling. Those who elevate this form of authority often assume that the only real alternative is that authority is inherently political in nature; people are treated as authorities by virtue of their superior political maneuverings, charisma, or connections that place them in positions of institutional power. In this view, institutions that are not based on rational authority and expert consensus are inherently competitive hierarchies.

In contrast to this sort of competitive hierarchy, we argue that the Latter-day Saint culture promotes a sort of cooperative hierarchy, a term we use to refer to a view of priesthood authority in which callings and stewardship are neither sought nor coveted, and in which influence and authority are not treated in a competitive manner. Those not in positions of authority do not covet nor resent those who are in such positions, and joyfully serve in whatever vineyards they are called to serve.

Hidden Assumption: Competitive Hierarchy

Church leaders ascend into positions of power and authority through political maneuvering and personal connections.

A rational authority is someone who ascends into a position of authority — or is just accorded respect as an authority — by means of expert consensus. Those who elevate rational authority as the template for genuine authority often reject the idea that authority can come by divine commission. Those who reject the idea of divine commission assume that priesthood governance is based on power, influence, connection, and political or social skill.

Therefore, they seek out other ways to explain the hierarchical structure of the Church and the ascendancy of individuals within that structure. The most common explanation given is that positions of authority are filled through political maneuvering and personal connections rather than through divine revelation and inspired calling. In other words, competitive hierarchy is the “go-to” secular explanation for priesthood organization and government.

A key characteristic of a competitive hierarchy is that it is, well, competitive. Those who aspire to authority see others within a leadership structure as rivals (or, at least, potential rivals) against whom one must compete in order to secure power, prestige, or other forms of status. To achieve authority, then, individuals must engage in superior maneuvering, make better connections, and gain larger followings in order to avoid having their aspirations to authority preempted by others who are doing the same. Ambition is the order of the day.

One could argue that any organizational structure that is not based on divine commission can easily become a competitive hierarchy. After all, without divine commission — and without consensus of experts/rational authority — there is no reason to think that they didn’t become attain their position through perceived privileges, arbitrary social connections, political stratagem, personal ambition, or mere happenstance. Political and government institutions seem to inherently embody this worldview — though they are not alone in this, as many business and social organizations do as well.

This means that authority and power, in this view, is something that is both coveted and resented. Because there is no perceived legitimate grounding for someone’s authority in this view (outside of expert consensus), there is no reason to submit except as a matter of personal preference. When there is no reason to see their authority as merited, it becomes easy to resent that authority and to seek it for oneself. If they didn’t earn it (rational authority), or if it wasn’t granted by God (priesthood authority), then why is it rightfully theirs and not mine? Further, if you think your ideas have merit, you should aspire to institutional authority; for without ambition, others with inferior ideas might ascend into authority instead. So ambition is not merely characteristic of competitive hierarchy, it becomes a duty for the ideologically minded.

An Alternative: Cooperative Hierarchy

Church organization is founded on the assumption that leaders are called through divine inspiration, and that the size of one’s stewardship is unimportant.

As we discussed in a previous article (here), priesthood authority is not meritorious; it is bestowed by divine commission. Priesthood authority reflects a radically different view of authority than does rational authority, since it does not rely on expert consensus generated through peer-review, scholarly debate, and other such vehicles. Those who view Church leadership through the lens of priesthood authority see the institution as led by imperfect, mortal men who have been chosen by God to serve in positions of leadership and to direct the Church.

This means that the LDS Church has nurtured and cultivated a culture that we might call cooperative hierarchy. The term “hierarchy” is a dangerous word to use in this context, since it can have negative connotations we don’t intend. Many see the word “hierarchy” and think only of competitive hierarchy. We know of no other authority structure than competitive hierarchy, so we often assume nothing else is possible.

By hierarchy, however, we simply refer to the fact that, in the Church, some individuals serve with spiritual stewardship over others. And even though competitive hierarchy gives hierarchy a bad name, cooperative hierarchy is a good and healthy thing. In the end, we all are subordinate in every way to our divine King, our Father. He is the locus of moral accountability and responsibility, but, we believe, he can share His authority with chosen servants as He will. In this worldview, it is more than acceptable to be subjects to a higher authority; it is, in fact, our truest goal. We aim to become subjects to Christ and His authority.

“Obedience” is a dirty word in our modern culture, as it implies that one individual might be subject to the will of another. But it is not a dirty word in a worldview that believes in this divine hierarchy. Indeed, we see scriptural articulation of this worldview in the Book of Abraham, as when Abraham sees in vision the intelligences that existed before the world was forming a hierarchy grounded in obedience to the moral sovereignty of God. Intelligence, in these passages, is measured by and defined as responsiveness to divine authority (e.g., obedience to God).

Clearly, the Christian view of hierarchy is radically different from the world’s view of hierarchy. In the world, we see power as something to covet. Perhaps this is the worldview that Satan has tried to share with others:  he does nothing but covet the power and authority of God (and has done so from the very beginning — see, e.g., Moses 4:1). The worldview that sees power and authority as objects of envy is, in fact, a defining essence of the adversary’s character. But true Christianity is about doing what Christ did: offering to serve, but giving all the glory to God.

Because of our view of priesthood authority, members of the Church do not see it as appropriate to aspire to positions of Church leadership. It’s impossible to leverage your connections or influence to obtain such a position; in fact, even trying to do so might make it less likely to happen, as it will be perceived as a signal that you are not truly humble and penitent, and, thus, serve in such a capacity with the wrong motivations (the advancement of self instead of the kingdom of God). As Elder Neil L. Anderson explains, “The selection of a prophet is made by the Lord Himself. There is no campaigning, no debates, no posturing for position, no dissension, distrust, confusion, or commotion.”((Neil L. Anderson, “The Prophet of God,” Ensign, May 2018.))

This isn’t to say that personal connections don’t play a role — it’s almost certain that Church leaders often choose people who are known to them for high profile positions. This doesn’t undermine the idea of priesthood authority; it’s almost certain that there are hundreds of “qualified” individuals for any given calling, and it’s unimportant if many of those individuals are not known to Church leadership and are not ever called to Church leadership. Further, God can influence the arc of our life trajectories to bring those He wishes into contact with the Church and its leaders.

In a view informed by the Restored Gospel, people are raised to authority by divine calling in local and regional settings, and when they have served for a time, they are usually “released” and another person called to serve in the same position instead. Those who have been released might find themselves serving in (what may be perceived as) more “lowly” positions.  However, in a cooperative hierarchy, this is not something that is resented (as it would be in a competitive hierarchy, in which “promotion” and “ascendency” are the primary goals). It is normal and expected to see regional and stake leaders released, only to then serve in their local congregation’s nursery.

Also, because unanimity in the highest quorums of the Church (where callings can be lifelong) is required before major policy decisions are made, this undermines the very idea of factions vying for power and influence over each other. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve report that although they don’t always agree on everything, they study, converse, and prayerfully ponder about issues until they can wholeheartedly come to unanimous agreement on the right course of action. All members of the quorums are willing to lay aside preconceptions and learn from each other as they seek this unanimity.

Illustrating the Difference Using Narnia

We can illustrate the difference between competitive and cooperative hierarchy by highlighting the difference between the C.S. Lewis’s book Prince Caspian and director Andrew Adamson’s cinematic adaptation of the same story. Put simply: C.S. Lewis’s story illustrates perfectly the worldview of cooperative hierarchy, and Adamson’s cynical treatment of the same story highlights his rejection of this worldview. It may be that because Adamson comes from modern, western worldview that treats only rational authority as legitimate, he may not see any other alternative than competitive hierarchy. For this comparison, I will borrow insights from theologian Steven D. Boyer, who we will quote at length. He explains:

Narnia is a great repository of hierarchical images and relations—of good kings and noble knights, of laborers who are not disgruntled and servants who are not demeaned, of Aslan the great Lion who rules over all, who is never safe, but always good. One can hardly turn a page of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or of Prince Caspian without encountering compelling images of royal authority and knightly virtue—and we see now that both of these themes are intimately connected with Lewis’s positive construal of hierarchy, which in turn is foundational to his distinctively Christian vision of reality.((Steven D. Boyer, “Narnian Invaded,” Touchstone, November 2010.))

In other words, Narnia is a place where cooperative hierarchy is the order of thae day. There are those with stewardship and authority over others — kings and subjects, so to speak — and yet this authority is neither coveted nor resented. However, Adamson has a very different view of Narnia, and aimed to tell a more “realistic” story. In the beginning of the film, Peter is resentful that he is no longer a king, and that he no longer has the power and autonomy that comes with both adulthood and royalty. He resents his loss of authority. Boyer continues:

This emotional realism was Adamson’s explicit aim, and as a result, the screenwriters who put this scene together were actively encouraged to think about what it would be like to go from “king” to “schoolboy”—not a pleasant prospect, of course, and one to which any of us might react with bitterness and resentment, just as Peter does.

Right, any of us might react that way—but that is because we have not breathed the air of Narnia. We are thinking like ordinary persons (and worse, like self-sufficient, twenty-first-century, Western intellectuals) instead of like knights or kings. In Lewis’s telling of all of the Narnia tales, the children’s experiences as kings and queens in Narnia consistently transform them into nobler, more virtuous people in their own world. They are not spoiled children wanting to be kings again; they are noble kings who carry that very nobility back into their non-royal roles as schoolchildren.

But not so in Hollywood. To be a king at all is to hunger for power forevermore, like a tiger that has tasted human blood and ever afterwards is a “man-eater.” To lose imperial power by being transported back to England is to become a bitter, sullen, acrimonious brat. That is just what Peter has become, and his folly is the driving force behind most of the action in the movie.((Steven D. Boyer, “Narnian Invaded,” Touchstone, November 2010.))

In other words, in Adamson’s worldview, power and authority are coveted. And this is especially true for someone who once had authority but who no longer does. It is inherently galling to have once been king and to be king no more, or to see another sit in your throne. And so it is that Adamson sets up a rivalry between Peter and Prince Caspian that drives the film — a rivalry wholly absent from the book. Any hierarchy at all is a competitive hierarchy. Boyer explains:

The film version shows us a relationship of almost unrelieved hostility, suspicion, and animosity. It begins when Peter and Caspian first meet and mistake one another for opponents. They finally realize that they are fighting on the same side, but the civility that is practiced thereafter is obviously a thin veneer that masks a seething competition between them. …

Consider just a few lines from the drastically different story that Lewis tells of the first meeting of the kings. In Lewis’s story, that meeting takes place just after Peter has leaped in to help Caspian in a fight with the deceitful Black Dwarf Nikabrik. As the heroes catch their breath after this deadly clash, the following remarkable exchange occurs:

“We don’t seem to have any enemies left,” said Peter. “There’s the Hag, dead. . . . And Nikabrik, dead too. . . . And you, I suppose, are King Caspian?”

“Yes,” said the other boy. “But I’ve no idea who you are.”

“It’s the High King, King Peter,” said Trumpkin.

“Your majesty is welcome,” said Caspian.

“And so is your majesty,” said Peter. “I haven’t come to take your place, you know, but to put you into it.”

We are clearly in a different world, with a conversation like this one. Caspian is not overbearing and self-important; he knows that his army is in trouble, and he is glad for assistance. And when he learns that the assistance comes from the High King, he is not put off or threatened: “Your majesty is welcome,” he easily declares. Peter’s reply is equally striking: “So is your majesty.” Each side happily welcomes and supports the other. There is no pompous ego or arrogant competition here. Instead, we find nobility, authority, courtesy, and humility all wrapped into one.

Indeed, for Lewis, the whole notion that kings must live in competition and suspicion of one another reflects the outlook not of Peter or Caspian or the noble Narnians, but of Miraz. It makes all the sense in the world that Miraz should be threatened by any authority other than his own, for his own authority is only that of a tyrannical usurper. Miraz doubts the very existence of such a thing as legitimate authority; for him, there is only power. And power is always threatened by any other power.

In fact, when we first meet Miraz in Lewis’s story, we find him disbelieving the ancient tales of Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy on precisely these grounds. He cries out in a rage, “How could there be two Kings at the same time?”

How could there, indeed! Such a harmonious, supportive, virtuous understanding of hierarchical rule is foundational to Lewis’s deeply Christian worldview, but it is utterly incomprehensible to Miraz—and also to the unwitting disciples of Miraz who wrote this Hollywood screenplay. In Miraz’s view, kingship is all about who calls the shots, who gets his way, who is top dog. Those who adopt this view cannot but find the notion of courteous, cooperative kings to be impossibly unrealistic.((Steven D. Boyer, “Narnian Invaded,” Touchstone, November 2010.))

In other words, Adamson adopted King Miraz’s view of authority and kingship, one in which power is coveted, rightful authority either wholly unrecognized — since all authority is merely a product of political power — or where it is recognized, it is still resented. And so it is that the film adaptation of Prince Caspian got the entire worldview of Narnia wrong. Miraz the Usurper also represented a worldview that was invading Narnia, a worldview of competitive hierarchy, a “Game of Thrones” mentality. The book tells a story in which rightful authority is restored to Narnia once again, a king with a divine mandate and subjects who neither covet nor resent his authority over them — where not only is Miraz expelled from the throne, but his entire worldview is as well. Yet the film presents a different story, one in which Miraz’s view is the order of the day for both the usurper himself and the Narnians he pretends to rule.

Perceived factionism and competition within the Church

We argue that the cooperative hierarchy of Church leadership has more ideological kinship with the contented subjects, happy servants, loyal knights, and noble kings of Narnia than the factionism and charismatic authority of Miraz’s (and Adamson’s) usurpation of Narnia. But those who reject the priesthood authority of Church leaders — who reject, for example, the divine commission of those who serve in the Church — they cannot help but see the Church as a competitive hierarchy instead.

Consider the questions and the worries that abounded among ex-Mormon and similar forums when President Uchtdorf was released from the First Presidency. Many considered this a “demotion,” a slight against Uchtdorf, a punishment for his (perceived) more liberal and generous views towards dissenters within the Church. Some could not see President Nelson’s decisions as anything other than the consolidation of power needed to enact his visions for the Church against competing ideological factions within the quorums, each vying for influence and eventual ascendancy to the highest office.

But those who see and think this way haven’t “breathed the air of Narnia,” or in this case, they have not felt the power of cooperative hierarchy. They have not participated in a quorum where, for perhaps decades of their lives, they live and breath in an fellowship that normalizes a deep and abiding humility, where it is never about them and always about God’s will. To those who lead this Church, there is no coveting the authority of the prophet or of the First Presidency. Those who lead the Church do not aspire for that authority; they see it as a divine commission that comes from above, and are willing to serve wherever they are needed. We have little doubt that none of them would resent it if — for some reason — they were told that the Lord needed them to relinquish leadership altogether and serve in their local ward’s nursery instead. As President Uchtdorf taught, addressing those who aspire to leadership:

There is a better way, taught to us by the Savior Himself: “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” When we seek to serve others, we are motivated not by selfishness but by charity. … In spite of this shining example, we too easily and too often get caught up in seeking the honors of men rather than serving the Lord with all our might, mind, and strength. … The Lord judges so very differently from the way we do. He is pleased with the noble servant, not with the self-serving noble.((Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Lift Where You Stand,” Ensign, November 2008.))

Finally, to be clear, in this article we are talking entirely and only about spiritual authority. At this time, we make no claim about how these principles might apply to political authority, and nothing we say here should be interpreted otherwise. We do not know of an existing political system that is not a competitive hierarchy. Further, cooperative hierarchy should never be used as a pretext for unrighteous dominion, since unrighteous dominion is precisely the kind of dominion exercised by the usurper Miraz (in the above analogy), not the humble cooperation of Peter and Caspian in the book.

In summary, the organization and structure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a competitive structure, it is built on the belief that leaders are called of God, and grounded in this belief, members and leaders work together to create a culture where none covet nor resent those with spiritual stewardship. Of course, there are occasions throughout the body of the Church where these aspirational ideals are neglected from time to time, but they remain ideals we collectively strive to realize nonetheless.

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