Sunday, September 18, 2016

How to Choose a Leader

In any group of people, certain folks arise as leaders. If you need to get a task done together, it helps to have someone organizing it and if not telling people what to do, then at least asking or suggesting what needs to be done. In the early days of humankind, it often fell to the alpha male of the group to protect the family or clan from other groups. When we were in Ireland, my family toured a reconstructed ring fort that went back a good 1000 years. There was a little hole in the ground that the kids found they could crawl into and they asked about it. It turns out that was a hiding place for women and children in case the neighboring tribe attacked and tried to take them for slaves. Hence the popularity of the strongman ruler. The first leaders were basically military leaders, selected for their fighting prowess and strategic ability.

But life is not just dealing with conflicts outside the group. A leader has to deal with internal conflicts as well. He could just favor close family members and friends, or, in the interest of peace, try to set up rules and decide disputes on their basis. In fact, when times were good, a wise and diplomatic ruler made more sense than one who was simply a fighter. Some Native American tribes actually split the position into a war chief and a peace chief. In most governments, we want a ruler who is both good with domestic issues and with foreign affairs. 

Until just a couple of centuries ago, most rulers were kings. But after World War 1, a lot of countries got rid of their royalty or severely limited their power. We now think of elected leaders as the norm. So we live in a quite different world than that of the people in the Bible. We can feel that our leader is ours in a way that they couldn't: we vote for them. Even if we personally didn't, the majority of our countrymen did. But nobody voted for the Roman Emperor. It was a dynastic position. He served until he died. Or, in the later part of Roman history, until he was deposed or assassinated.

One of the other things ancient leaders like kings and emperors did was serve as a spiritual focus for the people. In Biblical times, the tribal leader would make sacrifices to God for his people. However, the emperors of Rome and the pharaohs of Egypt were treated as living gods. Obviously, the Jewish people, unlike pagan subjects of the empire, could not make a sacrifice to Caesar as a god. But they could make sacrifices in the Temple to God dedicated to the emperor and pray for him. And it seems from passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-2, that early Christians continued the practice of praying for the emperor and the appointed leaders. And each week our church also prays for our leaders.

That may bother people. They may think it is a violation of church and state to do so. Or they may not want to pray for a leader they voted against. But as we said, in the Bible no one got to vote for the king or emperor. But still they prayed for political leaders.

What we can do that earlier peoples couldn't is select who our leaders are. But because the requirements of government are a lot more complex than before, we need to use wisdom. And part of wisdom is knowing what the job requires.

When the Hebrews settled in the land of Canaan, they functioned as a rather loose federation of 12 tribes. When they were attacked they rallied together under leaders they called judges. But that meant they didn't have much unity except when under assault. So the elders of Israel approached Samuel, the judge, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don't follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” (1 Samuel 8:5) Samuel was none too pleased with that but God told him to go ahead but to warn the people just exactly what they were asking for.

Samuel says, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you. He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make weapons of war and his chariot equipment. He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks and bakers. He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.” (1 Sam 8:11-17) In the Hebrew the word for “take” appears 6 times, about once a verse. The people of Israel will get a lot more than they bargained for.

Administration, conscription, and a professional standing army are just some of the costs of a nation state. You also need a justice system to administer the laws and judge those who break them. You need people to advise the leaders; you need ambassadors; you need trade policies; you need support personnel. There is a certain irreducible cost to it all. And so, as Scripture points out, you need taxation to support it all.

Because of the complexity of modern government, what you want in choosing a leader is a process rather like that of selecting someone for the job of CEO. What we have is more akin to a popularity contest. Seriously, a good way to predict who people will vote for is to ask them which candidate they would like to sit down and have a beer with. That's actually the basis of a poll by Survey Monkey. That's not a good way to choose who will run a country.

As we said, choosing a leader requires wisdom. So let's look at a few things the Book of Proverbs, the pinacle of biblical wisdom literature, says about rulers. And right off the bat, I want to thank the website for leading me to the verses I will discuss. Of all the lists that popped up when I googled the subject, they had the best. The commentary on the verses is mine.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom itself is personified. And it says in verse 15, “Kings reign by means of me...” So the first principle is: a good leader is wise. That means a good leader not only knows the price of everything, as the cynic does, but also the value of everything. A leader needs to know the value of intangibles, things that can't be measured by money or other metrics. An insurance company puts a price tag on how much a life is worth in terms of dollars. You want a leader who knows that lives are priceless and thus will not spend them carelessly.

A wise leader needs to understand other people and how they think and act. Because a leader needs to work with other people—members of Congress and the leaders of other nations. A leader really can't do things by decree. He or she needs to persuade and motivate others. Which means listening to other people, not just talking at them.

A good leader has personal integrity. Proverbs 16:12 says, “Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.” Proverbs 29:4 adds, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Even in ancient Israel, money's influence on politics was felt. In fact, the Bible tells us that it was one of the reasons why the elders of Israel wanted a king. Samuel's sons went “after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Sam 8:3) As Jesus says in today's gospel, you cannot serve both God and wealth.

And you can't run a nation if you are putting the wealth of a few ahead of the welfare of the many. Just this week, an episode of Adam Ruins Everything revealed that vitamins and supplements are shielded by law from the same kind of scrutiny that drug companies come under. So when you take, say, echinacea, you have no assurance that the plant is even in the pills you ingest. One study says you have a 60% chance it's not. Our laws keeps Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower drug prices. On the other hand there are no laws prohibiting Luxottica, a virtual monopoly which owns most brands of eye wear and most places that make and sell glasses—Lenscrafters, Peale Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical et al—as well as the vision insurance company Eye Med, from using its power to keep your glasses costing as much as your smartphone.

This state of affairs didn't happen by accident. Today 42% of former House members and 50% of former senators become lobbyists. An academic study showed that the rate of return on lobbying was 22,000%. In other words for every dollar spent by an industry on lobbying it got back $220 in subsidies and tax breaks. Perhaps if Zika victims had a wealthy lobby, we could actually get our Congress to do something about it.

In biblical times, as today, money distorts justice. You want a leader who will do something about getting money out of the process of writing and enforcing laws.

A good leader has good advisers. Proverbs 11:14 says, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.” Running a nation has a lot of facets. Nobody knows everything. You want a leader who surrounds herself or himself with good advisers. The other advantage to this is that different people have different perspectives. To get a detailed and three-dimensional view of a complex problem you want more than one viewpoint. Lincoln has been praised for his so-called team of rivals, a cabinet that included at least 3 men who had run against the president for the nomination in 1860. You want a leader who will listen to those with perspectives different from his or her own. You want a leader who can still learn.

A good leader has self-control. Proverbs 28:15 says, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over helpless people.” You wouldn't buy a car with wobbly steering and bad brakes. You wouldn't let someone with road rage issues drive your kids to school. The person at the helm of the ship of state needs to be able to control him or herself. You have alliances to maintain and enemies to keep an eye on. You have a worldwide economy that catches cold every time the U.S. sneezes. If you are a good leader, you have to choose your battles. You have to choose your words wisely. A good leader is never out of control.

A good leader is compassionate. Proverbs 29:14 says, “If a king judges the poor with fairness, the throne will always be secure.” It's saying the security of the nation depends on how it treats the poor. In Jeremiah 5:27-29, it says it more forcefully. It says of the wicked “'...they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Our country is the wealthiest in the world and yet has the highest poverty rate in the developed world. You've already heard how the top 1% of wealthy families own more than a third of the total wealth in our country and how the top 20% own 85% of the wealth. That means the rest of the population, including the upper middle class, are left dividing up the remaining 15% of wealth. Upward mobility is pretty much dead these days. Studies show that if you were born poor you will likely remain poor throughout your life. Wealth inequality hasn't been this high since the Great Depression!

The Bible mentions the poor around 300 times, or about once every 104 verses. It stresses how much God cares for the poor and it emphasizes our duty to them. It forbids oppressing or cheating the poor. It even says that the sin of Sodom was that “she did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Technically as points out, sodomy should more accurately be defined as not helping the poor! So Proverbs 31:8-9 says to kings: “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” A good leader speaks up for the powerless and defends their rights.

A good leader is kind and truthful. Proverbs 20:28 says, “Mercy and truth preserve the king; and his throne is upheld by mercy.” In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain the host interviewed Dacher Kelner, a psychologist who wrote a book called The Power Paradox. In his studies, he's found that people who are kind and empathetic and who work for the greater good are more likely to rise to power, rather than those who are Machiavellian and self-seeking. The danger, he found, is that the more power you get, the more it erodes that kindness and empathy. When people are fawning all over you and treating you as someone special, it's easy to become accustomed to such treatment and start thinking you deserve it. It is easy to forget what it's like to be an ordinary person or even a powerless one. It's easy to start to look down on those who haven't managed to do as well as you have and blame them for their misfortune. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton famously observed. 

One way to fight that loss of mercy is with truth. A good leader is truthful not only with others but with him or herself. They should admit to having faults, which will make them more merciful to other imperfect people. And a good leader seeks out those who will tell the truth to his or her face. They can't be thin-skinned. They must be able to accept the truth of a situation. Stable leadership is based on mercy and truth.

There are other characteristics of being a good leader and again I recommend reading the whole page on But the key qualities are that a good leader is wise, has personal integrity, has good advisers, has self control, is compassionate to the poor, is merciful and is truthful.

And if you are confused because no candidate fits all of those criteria, then good! That means you are paying attention. No candidate is perfect. We are electing a president, not a savior. As Paul says immediately after his admonition to pray for secular leaders, “there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus...” It's an important election but we must never lose sight of whom our ultimate leader is.

As Martin Luther pointed out, we are citizens not just of the Kingdom of God but also of one of the kingdoms of this world. Balancing the two is tricky. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We must use our God-given wisdom to make the best choices we can for the common good. We must not be swayed by popularity or likability but who will be the best steward of this country's resources and the wisest governor of the people who live here and the best person to represent us to a complex world that includes allies and enemies. We are also electing a lot of other people to national, state and local positions. Without good leaders in those offices, the president can't do much.

Study and pray before you vote. And then, whoever is elected, even if you didn't vote for them, pray for the person who is our new leader. Whoever it is, they will need it.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to share this on Facebook, but the attention span of many folks wouldn't get them through all of it.