“Scoffers set a city aflame, but the wise turn away wrath.”
— King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
— Jesus of Nazareth
“By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”
— King Solomon
Cursing the darkness or leading people into light: which is leadership?
In this series of posts I am reflecting on the habits I formed during the restrictions and controversies surrounding COVID. Today I want to look at a habit that is long standing but has now been put to the test. Let’s just say I have held to this pattern of heart in the face of fierce headwinds in the culture and the church. I call it the habit of “solutions not problems.” Let me explain by starting with an analogy.
The work of conciliation 1
I am a professional conciliator. This means I help people in conflict to reconcile and rebuild their relationships. Helping people reconcile is not papering over the issues, minimizing the harm or sin, or apologizing in generalities (as in, “I am so sorry for however I have offended you”). True conciliation is hard work. It requires a call to people to make a clear evaluation of their own words, actions, silences, attitudes before God. More than that, I call people to true forgiveness in Christ. Most people do not find this easy. That’s because . . .
People in Conflict Always . . .
My first step when I first meet with each party to the conflict is to learn their story. Knowing their story and how they perceive the problem is foundational to helping them. With very very few exceptions 2, here is what I find:
- We think we are innocent of causing the problem, or at worst we played a very minor part.
- We think the other person is evil. While they may not be the devil, they are a close relative of his.
Please understand, I am not being simplistic. Without exception, angry people color the “others” in the darkest shades of character. Scripture puts it this way: hatred stirs up strife 3. After a first hearing, I discover how absolutely credible the person is. There have been times when, after hearing someone portray their enemy, I want to hire a body guard to sit with me when I meet with that other person. In short, angry people are masters of minimizing their own evil, and exaggerating and damning the other person’s. There is more to it than that.
In addition, I find that alienated people usually prefer to live in the bitterness and rage of the conflict than to pursue reconciliation. Perhaps they have no hope of finding peace. Or they think that the work of making amends is more painful than the wrenching of their souls in bitterness. But sometimes it seems they take pleasure in venting their rage to a third party. It feels, to them, oh so right.
Hope for Peace
Such obstacles are not easy to overcome. God must work. My part is to hold out hope. People in conflict will not step into the hard work of reconciliation unless they have hope for a good outcome. The hope I offer them is that God is at work in the conflict. The question I ask them is this: Are they prepared to hear from him?
The only way out is to change the past
That is how I help people with broken relationships. I lead them out of the darkness of blaming and bitterness. By admitting they have been wrong (in very specific ways) and by forgiving wrong done to them, they actuallly change the past. That idea comes straight from the good news of Jesus the Savior.
Solutions Not Problems
All of this relates to my own lifetime, heart-habit of refusing, as much as lies in me, to live in a problem. While I have often failed to live by this principle, it has been the trajectory of my life. Becoming a Certified Christian Conciliator grew out of that commitment.
My Dad lived as a leadership. He mentored me. Many times he told me that ineffective leaders spend a lot of time pointing fingers, exaggerating the problems, stirring up anger, and standing on high moral ground in doing so. Bad leaders absolutely refuse to take responsibility. They insist the problem is the other person. Any fool can find faults. Cursing the darkness is not leadership. True leaders, he said, focus on solutions, and bring people together to find win-win opportunities.
True leaders assume good intentions and a readiness to find such solutions.
So how does that relate to me, to COVID conditions, and the habits of my heart?
We are a nation in fierce conflict
Here is my Captain Obvious assessment: we are a nation at war with each other. For 10 months our national distress has brought to the surface so many of the hostilities and acrimony that lay dormant until awakened. Recent events at the Capitol have heightened our awareness of how deep is the divide. Again, quite obviously, this is not new. I can trace the roots of the strife to long before Trump.
We are a nation dominated by people cursing the darkness
Blaming and finger-pointing dominate. That is not leadership. Fault-finding and rage fill the airwaves. Any idiot can find fault.
Whether because of the value of click-bait, or for the sake of ginning up their base, our public voices in media and politics and business have given themselves over to throwing wood on the fire. Fear sells. Anger sells. Everyone is saying the sky was falling (pandemic-ally, racially, politically), but no one is proposing the building of a shelter.
We are a nation of damning words
To make matters worse, the people on the right and the left are engaged in painting the other side in the worst possible terms. They cancel them. Cancellation is just another word for damnation — sending people into outer darkness.
Sounds a lot like the people I work with in conciliation.
In our current state, mere disagreement brings an avalanche of slander: “they are an X-phobe.” The particular phobe is the one suited to the issue. With such sweeping generalizations about others we malign them as people unworthy of our attention. Caricatures abound: “they” are people who are racist simply by existing, or who are anti-American for admitting that we have some dark stains in our history. Science is not exempt. Even highly trained epidemiologists disagree among themselves not by debate, but by attributing the worst of motives to each other.
Have you noticed that every day we are called to make judgments about the character of people we do not know, simply because of their statements about a given hot button issue? Whoever is leading us there is not a leader, but a demagogue.
We are a nation with win/lose “solutions”
Clearly, the loud mouths of politics and business and media have one objective: they want to win. Domination is the goal. I am not talking about the Left. Both sides seem intent to duke it out until no one else is left standing.
Our influencers (they are not leaders) are willing to burn the house down in order to win.
Sowing suspicion about the vote, calling for “excommunication” of the opposition, and forming factions around our particular cause — NONE of this is leadership. Leaders, true leaders, look for solutions. They look for win/win opportunities. This is tearing down, and only tearing down.
Renewing the habit of good leadership
These bitter factions of our public discussion have pulled at me again and again. They have tested me. But my habit of good leadership made me turn away.
Hand-wringing is not leadership. Protesting is not leadership. Whataboutism is not leadership. Sowing discord and suspicion is not leadership.
Good leaders look for win/win solutions. They assume good intentions. More than that they refuse acrimony, and resist public posturing and divisiveness. This is how I am seeking to apply good leadership to my life. This is what finding solutions looks like for me.
So what does this look like for me?
In Christ, as a citizen
To paraphrase the apostolic greeting, I am “in Christ” and “in Tucson” and “in the United States.” In other words I am first of all a Christian. After that I live out being in Christ as a citizen. What does that mean? God defines my calling:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 4
Jeremiah says that a Christian citizen is not indifferent to the peace of their own community and nation. Angry violence is not peace. There is nothing godly about violence, revolt, Christian nationalism, and undermining the rule of law. Whataboutism is perverse. Christians seek the peace and preservation of our community.
For a Christian to stoke the fires of strife is to join the devil in his work. Why? because heightened acrimony will bring great harm to many people. I refuse to absorb the judgments and censorious spirit of the influencers.
For a Christian to stoke the fires of strife is to join the devil in his work.
I discovered some “light.”
What is the alternative? Sometime in the early summer, I came across some groups of people looking for true win/win solutions. More in Common shows that the majority of citizens are tired of the endless squabbles. We are Not Divided offers good resources. No Labels is about people in Washington DC who know that Congress is divided and are working to fight that division.
Humanizing and building relationships
But how was I to be a Christian and a citizen in light of these insights?
I became part of Braver Angels. They trained me to be a moderator in their excellent workshops. Through them I discovered how deeply I have been stained by polarization.What a remarkable experience to have respectful, candid conversation with people I disagree with and still respect each other.
With Malice Toward None
Taking its cue from Abraham Lincoln, Braver Angels called on people to make this pledge: As a member of Braver Angels, I did.
“Regardless of how the election turns out, I will not hold hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently from me. Whether I am pleased or upset about the outcome, I will seek to understand the concerns and aspirations of those who voted differently and will look for opportunities to work with people with whom I disagree.”
Many want to work toward solutions
This last week I was a participant in a meeting with over 4500 people (yes, that is the correct number) from the right and the left, from every State. We gathered because all of us grieve for the national divisions, are committed to preserve the union, and are prepared to help others. I invite you to take the time to listen to it.
In Christ, following good examples
Many pastors and elders have quietly done good during this time. Our own church has served people in our city and worked hard at serving each other as best we can with all the restrictions.
God calls us to put to silence the ignorance of our enemies by good works, not by protesting for our rights.
Better to show the mercy of Christ, to abound in good, pursue peace and lose our rights than to tarnish the name of Christ by politicizing the Gospel.
I found a great example in Rick Warren. He has been a true leader, serving others, and he stands out from other pastors who defy and protest and posture. How is this for seizing the moment to do good?:
“We looked around and made a list of all the different problems that COVID was creating. For instance, the first one was food. People needed food. There are a lot of people out of work, and they’re hand-to-mouth, and 126 food banks shut down in Southern California when COVID started, because there was a rush on food. …. Saddleback had three food pantries already up and running. Typically, in a normal month, we feed about 2,000 families. The first month of COVID, we fed 45,000 families.” Then the church created pop-up food pantries at schools and in neighborhoods, he explained. “We partnered with every school district in Orange County. According to the recent report I got, over 13,000 Saddleback volunteers have served over 3.5 million pounds of food to over 300,000 families. We’re the largest food distributor in Southern California.”
Contrast this with neighbors protesting outside a church whose pastor defied public health. All the protesters asked for was that this church to think less about their rights and more about their neighbors.
Which of these leaders made the Gospel beautiful to the outsider?
A higher calling and true solution
Yes, I have come to understand my citizenship in new ways. But I have a higher calling. I also hold an office in the church. Someday, when history as we know it ends, the church will remain — perfected, beautiful, full of love, made up of people of all nations and races.
That calling does not prevent me from being a good citizen. But it gives perspective to what ultimately can change the past — what is the ultimate way out of the darkness. God did not curse the darkness. He sent the Son, the light of the world, to crush the darkness by a sacrifice of himself to bear the curse of darkness and carry it off into oblivion.
Forty years ago I was set apart to tell this great news of the work of God in Christ.
It is not an option for me to elevate any other message of redemption to the same level of attention. Whatever I have said above should not be taken in any way as equal in power or significance to the message about God’s true saving work. Being a good citizen is an act that mirrors his love, but it is not the ultimate solution.
The message obscured
For the last 10 months, I have observed the exact opposite. Christians have loudly aligned themselves with Trump or BLM. Pastors have filled their posts and tweets with messages about race, patriotism, structural evils, their political tribe, and face masks.
To paraphrase Paul, when someone in Christ says “I am of Trump, I am of BLM, I am of Kendi, I am of Biden” they are acting like mere humans. Was Trump crucified for your sins? Did Biden or kendi rise from the dead in triumph over death?
It appears to me that some ground their identity in these superficial and passing moral causes and political purposes. To build my identity around such minor issues (minor next to the eternal and blood-bought kingdom of God) is to trivialize the glory and majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord of Glory: the center of our personal solar system
He must dominate the horizon of our lives.
Our elders did a series of message in September, calling the church to unity around the main thing: Christ. In my message, I used this metaphor: The identity of the Christian is like the solar system. The Sun is the center. the planets are all the other issues of life. What people may not know is that the sun is 99.9% of the mass of the entire system. Thde weight or majesty or the Son holds the planets in their orbits. So it is with Christ and the Christian.
As a minister of the Gospel I call people to begin by keeping the main thing (Christ) as the center, the 99.9%. This means that Christ, redemption, eternity and judgment, good works, love for others, and being one body in him should fill our identity and purpose. Then we can be good citizens. The planets of our concerns can find their place.
Only the weight of his masterful saving work (he leads us out of darkness into his light) can steady us in our orbit. The gravitational pull on our lives must be the weight of his glory.
- you will find the process I use outlined here
- those involving criminal activity, or abuse
- Proverbs 10:12
- Jeremiah 29:7 ESV