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Mar2FriResolving the deathly dilemma of leadership. March 2, 2018 by Donald E. Burke
The story of Joseph is usually told with the simplicity of a Sunday school lesson—he is presented as a hero who rose to power in Egypt, guided by God. But as we saw in the previous article (“The Perils of Power,” February), a close reading of the biblical text shows that some of his actions had dire consequences. Joseph was caught in the deathly dilemma of leadership—the use of power, even when motivated by a genuine desire to help, is frequently harmful. And yet, such leaders have many virtues and often accomplish much for the good of others. How can we account for this reality? Even more importantly, if we are so susceptible to the perils of power, how can we even dare to wield it? In this article, we will explore how Scripture and our doctrines can expose these ambiguities and provide a way forward.
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The Human Condition
A Christian understanding of human nature runs in two directions at the same time. First, Scripture tells us that we have been created in the “image and likeness of God” (see Genesis 1:26). On the sixth day of creation, God saw all that he had made and called it “very good” (see Genesis 1:31). This is a profound affirmation of the value and dignity of human beings and the goodness of creation. On countless occasions throughout the Bible and ultimately in the sending of his Son, God confirms this assessment.
But alongside this view of the intrinsic glory of humanity, the Scriptures also affirm that human beings are profoundly flawed—not by design, but in reality. From the beginning of the human story, we have been susceptible to self-interest, pride and pretense. This, of course, led to disobedience and the dramatic entry of sin into the world (see Genesis 3). The consequences of sin are so pervasive that the church teaches that human beings are fundamentally flawed—or, to use theological language, “depraved.” This word acknowledges that despite our best efforts and intentions, our every action is tainted in some way by sin. Of course, this is not the way God created us or the world; but it is a fundamental reality of the human condition as we experience it in a world defiled by sin.
The Ambiguity of Power
In practice, this means that when we are tempted to think we are motivated purely by service to God and our neighbour, we need to discern more clearly the elements of sin at work. We often operate with the grand delusion that we can transcend our self-interest, pride and pretense.
But Scripture and experience show us that this is not true. Within a Christian understanding, it’s not a matter of whether but how even my best actions are tainted by sin. The result is that we live with constant tension between our desire to do the right thing for the right reasons, and the limitations of our perspective and knowledge, enlisted in the service of our own interests.
The crushing irony is that even in those moments when we think we are serving out of pure motives, we are simply blind to our self-interest. This is true especially for those who hold positions of leadership. Thus there is a fundamental ambiguity inherent in the use of power that our actions always have both intended and unintended consequences, and that frequently it is impossible to separate them.
Joseph reassured his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”We saw this in Joseph’s plan to save Egypt from famine. Even if we assume his efforts to stockpile food during the years of plenty were well-intended, the cost of implementing the strategy was severe for those Egyptians who didn’t turn over a portion of their harvest. And during the seven years of famine, Joseph may have thought it was reasonable to expect people to pay for the stockpiled food. But the impact was that most Egyptians were forced to exchange everything they had, including their freedom, to survive.
What, then, is required of a person who exercises power over others? First, we need to cultivate the humility to recognize and acknowledge our limitations. We do not know every factor that might shape the impact of our use of power. To act as though we do is surely a recipe for the abuse of power.
Second, we must acknowledge the ambiguous nature of our motives and intentions. Not only are our decisions limited by our knowledge, but also by our self-interest, pride and pretense. It is common for leaders to assume that their decisions are the best—if not the only reasonable—ones. For religious leaders, it is especially tempting to sanctify our decisions by identifying them with God. In the process, we fall into the trap of assuming that those who question or disagree with us are questioning and disagreeing with God. But such assertions are dangerous. The antidote is a healthy awareness that our decisions are only relatively righteous, at best.
Third, we need to recognize that most of the decisions we make will have both intended and unintended consequences. While we may pursue an outcome for the good of all or to serve a larger purpose, we need to acknowledge that significant harm may be done as a result. Without this awareness, we may blindly inflict harm upon others without mitigating that injury. Before we know it, the damage resulting from our decisions may well outweigh any potential good.
Leaders who have this measure of self-awareness and insight often face decisions that torment them, because they know they will have hard consequences for others. It may even paralyze us into inaction. If we understand all this, and especially if we recognize the sin that is at work in our decision-making, how can we make any decision?
Fortunately, the Christian gospel does not leave us in this dark place. Alongside its teaching about the depravity of biblical characters such as Joseph, we also learn that they were capable of acts of nobility, generosity and faithfulness; and we attribute this to the work of divine grace. Therefore, while we affirm that sin taints our actions, we also affirm that the prevenient and continuing grace of God works relentlessly to counteract our propensity to evil. As the Apostle Paul affirms in another context, “... where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Properly understood, this tension between our sinfulness and the work of divine grace illuminates the good and ill that is at work in us and the complexity that this creates. It exposes the limitations of our altruism and the extent of our self-interest—and even our self-deception—while at the same time affirming that through divine grace God is capable of helping us transcend these limitations. And when we are trapped in this miry clay of our humanity, the grace of God lifts us up and transforms even our most paltry attempts to do good into deeds of grace. This is not a license to excuse or bless wrong actions; it is, rather, a confirmation of God’s determination to have grace overcome sin. Even in those moments when our decisions produce a mixture of good and evil—just as Joseph’s did—God is transforming events so that good graciously triumphs over evil.
Near the end of the Joseph story, there is a verse that reverberates through the Scriptures that shows us the way out of this deathly dilemma. After Joseph had been reconciled with his brothers, they nevertheless were still worried that once their father, Jacob, died, Joseph would take his revenge. In response, Joseph reassured his brothers with these words, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20 NRSV). This statement shines into the darkness of our human condition to affirm the miracle of God’s grace, which works to transform evil into good. This certainty is not without pain, but it does give us confidence that grace can redeem our leadership.
Dr. Donald E. Burke is a professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.