Thursday, February 17, 2011

At least one important lesson to take from Egypt, et al

Last week a woman in our church came up and asked "what's this 'postmodernism' I keep reading about?"

In some ways, Egypt and the continued chaos across the Middle East sheds some light on the question. And it teaches us all an important lesson about leadership. What you had in Egypt was a power clash between two distinct worldviews, aided and abetted by technology unforeseen a generation ago. Mubarak, like so many other leaders in the Middle East and around the world, ruled because he was the ruler. His authority was in his position. The world has a structure, with leaders (often divinely-designated) and followers. Kings/presidents/Prime Ministers/Despots/Juntas rule because, well, because they're the rulers. And the rules of civilization state that the rest of society will follow these rulers, because that's the way it is. Mubarak's claim to authority was mostly that he was the leader; therefore, everybody else should follow.

A new world is upon us, in which the playing field has been leveled. No longer are rulers divinely appointed, no longer does their position hold any authority. They can say whatever they want, but the power of the individual voice, magnified in the massive echo chamber that is the internet, holds equal sway. In fact, in Western Culture at least, the voice of the leader is suspect simply because he or she is the leader. The voice of the common person, tweeted for all to hear, is seen as the voice of reason. Experts and politicians and authorities are distrusted, they are held in contempt. Public Opinion as culled from Facebook and Twitter is much more trustworthy than anybody with a degree or experience.

Thus, the leader says "follow" and the masses get on their twitter feed and say "rise up in revolt." And the masses win.

Sometimes this is a wonderful thing. The story on Egypt (as well as the other Middle Eastern countries) remains to be written, but we may be seeing the dawn of a new age. We may see freedom and openness in societies known for secrecy and internal violence. We may see some form of democracy plant its feet in the deserts of that ancient land. Our 'enemies' may move closer to our own worldview. Some are already comparing this to the fall of the Iron Curtain 20-some years ago. These are historic days and, for Egypt, they may be very good days.

But there is a difficult lesson to be learned for those of us who are called to leadership in our lives/communities/churches/organizations. Too often the Church behaves like Mubarak. We in pastoral/priestly leadership carry a divine authority to speak truth and righteousness, to call people to a certain moral behavior, to challenge false belief and action. And for too long the justification for our pronouncements has been "because the Bible says so." Or "because God says so." Remember that lovely song in the 1970s - "God says it, I believe it, and that's good enough for me"? That's Mubarak-type thinking.

We say "same-gender sexual activity is a sin." Our kids ask "why?" And we say "because the Bible says so."

We say "abortion is a sin." Our kids ask "why?" And we say "because God says so."

We say "you need to tithe" and people in the pew ask "why?" And we respond, "because I said so."

And we think we're going to win the argument that way.

Unfortunately, our kids all go home and get on facebook and find 1000 other people who think "Church is lame" and "Christians are bigots and haters." And even if we've spent countless hours studying the scripture, seeking God's face, discussing theological trends and meditating on God's work in the world, the countless online choir chanting "church is for losers" will still win.

Authority and leadership based on "because I said so" no longer works, as Mubarak just found out. Authority based on "because the Bible says so" pretty much stands the same chance. Which is going to be a monumental difficulty for established, institutionalized churches to overcome.

The good news is this. We don't serve a God who said "I'm God because I said so." Our God isn't like Mubarak, resting in his position of authority. Ours isn't a God who rules because of an Office or a Role. Ours is a God who climbed out of that presidential office and got his hands dirty. Ours is a God who ruled by washing the feet of his followers. Ours is a God who proved his authority not by coalescing power, but by giving power away; God doesn't rule by making edicts and then waiting for everybody to obey. Our God rules by loving, even to making the ultimate sacrifice.

It seems to me that too many Christian leaders want to lead according to the autocratic, Mubarak-style of leadership. It also seems to me that, rather than being frightened by this new, postmodern, voice-of-the-masses, bottom-up leadership issue, we can find our answers still in the pages of Scripture, in the face of Jesus, who led by being a servant, and didn't care about the trappings of power. Jesus built up quite a following that way, and he certainly remained a leader in spite of his lack of a P.R. campaign.

To be certain, there is a dark side to all of this. Sometimes, as we just saw in Egypt, the voice of the masses can be a good thing. But all too often the masses are idiots. You can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that mankind landed on the moon, and still have a large percentage of the population believing its a hoax. You can prove that continued burning of fossil fuels is bad for the environment and bad for our children, and still the masses will demand their over-sized pickup trucks and SUVs. You can give an award to a talented musician known for her dedication to her craft, and still have hundreds of thousands of 12-year-old girls rise up in a twitter frenzy calling for a Biebolution. And this is where it becomes difficult.

Again, Jesus didn't seem to worry about that. He spoke truth, he humbly lived out the truth, he challenged misguided thinking, but he didn't seem to need to prove his point beyond that. When others rejected his teachings, he let them walk away. When the masses abandoned him, he remained faithful to the task, trusting that God was working behind it all and would take care of the details. His only work was to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And this is the leadership challenge to us all. Those who want to hold on to their authority, a la Mubarak, will eventually lose it. But those who give up their need for power and authority in exchange for the opportunity to love and serve others, will eventually find themselves leading, because the world is drawn to those kinds of people. In this postmodern world, the authentic voice of love and compassion will win over the authoritarian 'because-I-said-so' leader every time.

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