I hope I had the sense to think this thought before the year 2000, but my second trip to Romania is the earliest example I can bring to mind. Even then, I didn't fully put the pieces together until I came home. We had been on a food-delivering run to the village of Cucuceni, and on the way back swung by the train station in Rieni and picked up this guy. How the driver knew he would be there I have no clue. Planned things never happen in Romania, unplanned ones go off without a hitch somehow.
Someone said he was the pastor of a house church in one of the villages. For Baptists, almost all the churches were house churches, meeting in secret or at least unobtrusively even in the 1990's. They were still nervous that the Securitate would go back to its old ways and start carting them off or even shooting them. I was later told that he wasn't a "real pastor," just a guy who tried to run things. His English was passable, and as we passed an orthodox church he started in telling me how terrible the orthodox priests were. They were all drunks, he said. One was so drunk that he fell in front of a train. They never went and visited the poor. They hated The Christians and turned them in to the secret police. We had not even exchanged pleasantries before he launched into this. I expected the Romanians in the car to slow him down a bit, but none did.
It seemed strange because one of the points stressed by the ministry during my two weeks there is how much they were working to cooperate with the Orthodox who used to persecute them, and the government that used to persecute them, and the powerful neighbors who used to persecute them, and to reach out to the gypsies who everyone hated and persecuted. This guy hadn't gotten the message, apparently. I certainly wasn't going to contradict him. He was in his 50's and had likely experienced some bad things, so rich Americans who had always lived in peace shouldn't be preaching to him. Still, he wouldn't stop. Then he started to drift into what "we" Christians were going to do about it now that "we" were more free. Nothing violent, just put them out of business, close their monasteries, he was going to see to that...We dropped him off in Beius near where we were staying. "He has had a hard time," the driver said. Nothing more.
Only long after did I wonder why he thought he was authorised to speak for The Christians. Did he mean those within a ten-mile radius? All of Transylvania? Romania? There were other lines of thought, but that one escaped me until months later. It leads to unanswerables. Is he dangerous? Are there others like him so that collectively they do speak for some undefined group of Christians? Are tyrants simply effective versions of this angry man who seems to have no followers? And yet, the people I was working with also used the word "we" when discussing the activities of Baptists in the area. They have clear authorisation to speak for their ministry, which was a major part of the local activity. But I knew there were plenty of people not formally affiliated involved in all this. How far did the authorisation of my friends to say "we" extend?
I now think of this fairly automatically when I read about people who speak for others. Who authorised you? They even speak for the dead - that's convenient - of those who were in one of their groups generations ago. We crossed the prairie and founded this town. We were brought here as slaves. We won the state championship in 1985. We have always been generous to the poor. We have been oppressed by men for a millennium, one of the professors at a local university recently said. "We? You got a mouse in your pocket?" used to be the teasing correction to that. You crossed the prairie? You've been a slave?
It's a tactic. It is a declaration of authority, so that one looks important. If you can get away with it, at some level it's true. No one stops the school principal from saying "we" about that championship even though she was living 472 miles away at the time. She does have some authority to say "we," as the institutional representative. Politicians do this in an effort to look like people who are authorised to speak for us - or for some percentage of us. It is not always a lie. We sometimes do have authority to speak for others. If we are good speakers or leaders or negotiators, the people we claim to be speaking for won't stop us when we make the claim. They might heartily endorse it, or might just uncomfortably go along for the moment, but they do allow people to slip into that slot of representation.
Be suspicious of who you allow to slip into that slot, and don't be afraid to challenge, openly or quietly, those who make the claim without earning it.