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Dictators are lazy. Good leaders listen, empower, and change.
Donald Trump was elected president of the United States a year ago, in case you haven’t heard. It has been more of the most historically fascinating years of my life. I’ve written and thought a lot about it, and paid attention to the specifics. We learned a lot about the moral strength of the United States in its resistance to Trump’s most fascistic tendencies, but we also learned about how broken the country is, how racist and sexist it can be, how hate and fear can drive it more than love and hope.
This whole debacle, which I feel very comfortable naming as such, has taught me a lot. But most importantly, it has strengthened my faith. I do not put my trust in chariots of horses. I do not put my hope in the powers of the world. I don’t put my hope in the police or the military. I do not put my hope in who controls the guns or the butter. The chief social agents have no limit on my imagination. I put my hope in God, in the power of Jesus, incarnate and resurrected. So I do not feel discouraged, despite the horror of the world. But I am listening. I’m trying to pay attention. I can come close to the pain because Jesus has saved me and stands with me. No weapon formed against me shall prosper. Even Trump’s nukes.
Besides awakening me to the darkness in the world, Trump’s style of leadership has awakened me to how close authoritarianism and totalitarianism are to our so-called liberal society. My family has had run-ins with dictators (on the left and the right, mind you), so I particularly loathe that style of leadership and governance. Regardless of political ideology, bad leadership hurts people all around.
I don’t think toxic authoritarianism is limited to the Middle and Far East or Sub-Saharan Africa, though, nor just to Donald Trump. It is tempting to use violence and position to dominate one’s followers and coerce them into following you. It is easier to lead on high, or even lead through a series of principles. It’s Trump-style leadership, but seen all over the world, too. We saw it last week in Zimbabwe when Mugabe wouldn't resign; Trump's buddy Duterte is another example; Putin another one; President Xi; the Middle East is full of them, King Salman, President Sisi, President Assad, etc. It's a cheap but too common way to lead.
Fear is one way to control a population. “Control” is one way to lead. But I think it is a lazy way to lead. I think it’s a tiny way to lead. I think it shrinks us down into our own capacity. People inadvertently lead this way when they are afraid to empower someone else. When they are afraid to let go. When they “bottleneck” the organization by making every decision go to them. Even well-meaning leaders are often stressed out at their lack of capacity, which is exacerbated with their need to control everything. If we’re not careful, our passion might express itself in ugly ways.
I think our society values authority enough to not challenge these things; we like assertive leaders, who are "steadfast," don't falter, and are resolute even in times of trouble. I appreciate some of that, but it can definitely get out of hand and lean toward authoritarianism. It can lead to stubbornness, defiance, and not listening well to our constituents. Good leaders are dependent on God and their followers, not their own will.
I do not think I am overstating it when I say that Christians, at their core, must be anti-totalitarian and anti-authoritarian. The Incarnation of Jesus does the opposite. Jesus does not lead through violence or position. In fact, quite the contrary, he lowers his position and succumbs to violence to change the world. Jesus is the anti-authoritarian savior. Jesus’ perfect love casts our fear, and Jesus puts to death coercive control and invites into a whole new thing.
I think we can model this together, and I think Circle of Hope at its best does. That’s the very heart of our polity; leadership is a team process, it is communal. We need to keep submitting to one another and to God, to keep listening to the Spirit, and move in directions that seem contrary to our will. We are not a democracy, in that majority oppresses the minority, we are a discerning body and that is a group project.
We are open to change our minds and want to flex our hearts with how Jesus is moving His body.
Leaders are servants, shepherds, guiding a flock. We are moving with the Most Moved Mover. We don’t hold on to power or try to collect it, use violence and coercion to convince. We aren’t just bureaucrats submitting to a structure or system or a set of rules. We lead through love and sacrifice. We listen, we entrust, we set free, we replicate ourselves, distribute power, and open our hearts and minds to where the Spirit is leading next.