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Leadership for a Divided World

What does it mean to be an effective leader in an unjust society? We live in a time of polarization and pendulum swings. Politicians stoke the fires of our worst fears and grievances; they point out all the flaws of their opponents while lacking the introspection to contemplate their own.

Grievance politics has tapped into these deep-seated feelings of being wronged and has weaponized them. The feeling of being powerless or being treated unfairly strikes at the core of our ego.

Politicians and media talking heads know how to tap into that frustration. They make a living by generating feelings of resentment. They promise vengeance. This style of leadership is tribalistic and ultimately ineffective.

To establish legitimacy, those in authority have to demonstrate they understand and care. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, explaining that legitimacy is based on the following:

“First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice — that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another."1

These principles are timeless. We may be tempted to believe that leadership is harder now than it has ever been — that if we could somehow bring the country and the church back to an earlier era, we could make it great again. The truth is leadership has never been easy. Consider the polarization and politics of Christ’s day.

The Jewish nation was under control of the Roman empire. They were looking for liberation and wondering why God was not sending the promised Messiah to set them free. To deal with the cognitive dissonance of believing they were the chosen ones while at the same time in subjugation to Rome, there were four main political expressions.

1. The Pharisees thought if they kept the law perfectly God would restore them. They viewed Romans as pagans who eventually would be destroyed by God. The Pharisees clung to their identity at the expense of their relevancy. Instead of engaging the Romans with kindness, they privately despised and hated them. They thought God's answer for the nation was to make Israel great again.

2. On the opposite end of the political/religious spectrum were the Sadducees. The Sadducees grasped for relevancy at the expense of their identity. The way they coped with Roman subjugation was compromising with Rome. They exchanged religious conviction for political gain.

3. The Zealots were essentially radical Pharisees. They were not content to wait for God to overtake the Romans; they were political terrorists who believed their cause was righteous. So, in the name of religion, they slit people's throats.

Speaking of this mindset, professor Jacques Doukhan explains, “Missionary zeal that points a raging finger and calls upon the wrath of God seeks only to divert attention from one’s own responsibilities. It is wrong ever to consider religious violence as an expression of profound conviction. Murder and war, the tortures of the Inquisitions, and all the repressive measures taken in the name of religion are symptomatic of spiritual cowardice and anguish.”2

4. The Essenes were the smallest of the four main groups. They isolated themselves completely from the political fray by moving to the mountains. They comforted themselves with religious rituals to maintain their cleanliness.

This was the political environment Jesus entered. As Jesus became more well-known as a teacher, people wanted to know what side He would choose. He chose disciples on the completely opposite sides of the political religious spectrum: a tax collector and a Zealot.

Tax collectors were seen as traitors by most Jewish people; they made money by charging even higher taxes than Rome demanded. This sellout was a constant reminder of Jewish subjugation to Rome. They were not only seen as unethical cheaters, but as traitors to their homeland and kinsmen. A tax collector may have had money, but that was just about all they had. They were pawns of the Roman government and objects of scorn among their own people. And yet, from among them, Jesus chose Matthew to be His disciple.

On the other end was Simon the Zealot. He was part of a political party which worked to incite violence and rebellion against the Roman Empire. Anyone who sided with Rome was perceived as an enemy and therefore a target of their violent attacks. And yet, from among them, Jesus chose Simon to be His disciple.

The fact that Jesus united people on opposite ends of the political spectrum is instructive for the polarization that exists in our own day. Jesus took a “terrorist” and a “traitor” and made them His disciples. How did He unite them?

True leadership begins not with leaders imposing their will, but with an understanding of the importance of expression of legitimacy.

On the night of the last supper, at the most critical point of His ministry, Jesus demonstrated His power by getting down on His knees and washing His disciple's feet. It was customary for servants to do this, but a Rabbi? The Messiah? Peter noted the dissonance and immediately rejected this offering. Jesus responded, “Unless I wash your feet you will not belong to me” (John 13:8). This was a lesson in legitimacy.

Jesus explained, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord their authority over one another, not so with you” (Matt. 20:25). Status, hierarchy and power are the typical measurements delineating insiders and outsiders, but Jesus presented a different way.

He was a servant leader. He washed the feet of His betrayer, a tax collector and a Zealot. He demonstrated His authority not with force but by self-sacrificing love. Legitimacy as a leader is established by the ability to unite political and religious opponents under a common cause.

His message was a message of mercy and radical love. His kingdom was based on compassion, kindness, and justice. Jesus didn't avoid political debates, He reinterpreted them. If Jesus could unite a Zealot and tax collector, do you think He could unite a Republican and a Democrat today?

We are called to make disciples as Jesus made disciples. We should not be so aligned with one side of politics that we lose the ability to minister to the needs of another. Legitimacy for the Christian is not established by winning political or religious debates, it’s established by walking in the footsteps of Christ.

1. Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (1st ed.). Back Bay Books.
2. Doukhan, J. B. (2000). Secrets of Daniel: Wisdom and Dreams of a Jewish Prince in Exile. Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Featured in: September/October 2023