Category Archives: Leadership

When Identity Clashes With Evidence

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”      (Hebrews 11:1)

Some time ago, I published a piece which made a case for leaving room in the Church for those who valued their tribal, language and/or national identity.  This call for space was, in part, an acknowledgement that these markers reflect our respective cultural comfort levels, and are valid from a Christian perspective to the extent they do not presume superiority of one to another.  Despite differences in tongue, historical culture, or church emphasis, there remains “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).  These identity markers must be subservient to Christ if identity is to be Christian.

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Last night (I am drafting this on a Monday afternoon) I was working my way through a book review I regularly read, and came across a statement in a review of a book which analyzes contemporary identity politics (I’ve paraphrased the comment to make it a little more readable): Identity attachment accepts arguments only from an authority closely tied to that particular identity, because evidence is always subordinate to identity.1

The author means, by “identity attachment” the way some folks assign a psychologically pleasing definition or set of characteristics to themselves and others in whatever particular group they are jointly members of.  The “evidence” the author references are the facts which may contradict the preferred definitions of a group.  An easy example might be a view that says: men don’t have a need to express their emotions.  Men who like  being perceived as stoically unemotional can easily buy-in to this view, despite ample evidence that the emotions of men run just as deeply as those of women, but are often expressed differently.  Different expression is not the same as no expression.  Sadly, gender self-bias may just scratch the surface of the ways “identity attachment” is manifest in the circles in which most of us travel.

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 Buy-in to unsupportable views of self is encouraged by persistent fellowship with those who think similarly.  The result is group-think identity that ignores the facts because the facts inconveniently undermine the preferred way we want to think of ourselves, particularly when someone we regard as an authority figure encourages us to do just that.  Another way to state the author’s point is that some people choose to ignore truth because they prefer the distortions promoted by another person, persons and/or institution.  This, according to the book’s author, is the basis for the kind of reactions in attitudes and behaviors that advance divisions among people.  There certainly appears to be sufficient support for this in the world’s socio-political environment, both in empirical evidence (i.e. sensed and observed) and by data-driven evidence.

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An important issue for me is the implication(s) for the effective functioning of the body of Christ if the identity attachments of its members are not rooted in and submissive to Christ.  Even now, I hear the voice of Paul in my head warning against divisions and factions in the Church (Romans 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 3:3; 11:18-19), calling it carnal and therefore not worthy of Jesus Christ.  This is not to denounce identity attachment as being fundamentally non-Christian; we need not deny our humanity nor how that humanity is expressed outwardly.  I clearly have my culturally-based preferences, and gravitate to and enjoy them often.  It is, however, a denunciation of identity attachments when they, knowingly, contradict and attempt to subvert the will of GOD.  That is called sin.

There is a little-discussed branch of theology called “Theopolitical” which views theological beliefs through the lens of social and political structures and considers political beliefs that may be implied in Christian teachings.2  A commonly used example of this is the use of Paul’s teaching on submitting to leaders in government because they are placed in authority by GOD (Romans 13:1).  This argument is used by many Christians as an endorsement of their preferred political leader(s) as having GOD’s favor.

What is often missed (or ignored) is that while Paul’s teaching stresses the inherent goodness in a believer’s submission, he offers no explicit statement about inherent goodness (or lack thereof) in the authority to whom submission is to be given.  The focus of Paul’s teaching is on the believer who is to demonstrate faith in Christ by submission; the focus is not on the person in authority.  This is why Jesus was able to say, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17).  Perhaps it is also why men and women like Nebuchadnezzar, Jezebel, the Herods, Herodias and her daughter, Pontius Pilate, Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the various despots and petty dictators currently in positions of political authority today were/are allowed by GOD to be in power.  The Christian response to these may be just one component of faith being tried over the long course of history (see Job 23:10).

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A danger of “theopolitical” thinking that encourages identity politics is that it can facilitate little difference between the attitudes (and sometimes behaviors) of those inside the Church from those outside the Church.  When this happens, those who are called to be the salty, peculiar people of GOD, actually better resemble those around them who are in need of saltiness and the peculiar influence of GOD’s holy presence.  This happens much easier when the goal of faith, and the way it is practiced daily, is about belonging to a group(s) whose socio-political worldview is under-girded by the local church, or in the least, not challenged by the local church.  The goal of Christian faith has always been union with GOD (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17), nothing else.

Settling for belonging to a community of faith with whom we identify without also wholly identifying with the holy Christ and being led by the Spirit of holiness is an immature and shallow faith that is easily dented and is less than the worthiness of His calling.  My first pastor called this “living beneath our privilege.”  Beyond that, it can lead to expressions of heresy.

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It is here that our other-than-in-Christ identity can, if we’re not careful, assume equal status with our proclaimed faith in GOD.  This is a violation of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd commandments…to start with.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is an excellent illustration (Luke 10:30-37).  Both the priest and the Levite saw the seriously injured man, but took no pity on him.  Jesus seems to stress their position and status in the Jewish community, that is, their identity, to make His point.  They were VIPs, and we can assume that they were very well aware of it.  They either ascribed to themselves a superior view compared to this man or so negative a view of him that made his need insufficient to warrant their valuable time and attention.  We can also suppose that this man was a Jew because he was traveling from Jerusalem.  If he was a Jew, his outer clothing may have identified him as such, making the decision by the priest and Levite doubly damning.  The evidence of the teachings of GOD were subordinate to their identity as important people.  It fell to the despised Samaritan to demonstrate the royal law of love.  We can consider this as Jesus’ take on identity politics.

 In ascribing to our other-than-in-Christ identity positive traits aimed at supporting our superiority, we also seek to define those outside of our identity.  Our sense of superiority allows us to assume we can define others, and we do.  We find ways to minimize them in our eyes, and we may even attempt to project those views outwardly.  We assign to them traits that, when revealed, can range from subtle discounting all the way to pernicious hatred.  We seek to legitimize our views and attitudes with arguments that, though sometimes well-crafted and seemingly astute, ultimately reflect human wisdom that is at odds with the logos of GOD.  And we all have done it, and we have all experienced it.  We all have been group stereotyped, sometimes in multiple ways.  I’m thinking of at least four ways in which I’ve been subjected.

I believe this is the spirit of anti-Christ at work in people who we would otherwise say are good people.  It is that spirit because it subordinates the explicit expression of GOD’s will with views that ignore the commands of Christ in favor of those which support our preferred way of seeing ourselves and others.  This amounts to ignoring the evidence for faith in Christ Jesus, His teachings, His commands, and the redeeming, sanctifying work He accomplished at Calvary.  Anything that does this cannot be considered Christian.

I understand why this other-than-in-Christ approach to identity has so much appeal.  It feels empowering to those who feel disaffected and disenfranchised (somewhat like the Zealots of Jesus’ day).  With that, we must ask the question, ‘What is the origin and source of this powerful feeling?’  If it is not of GOD (and hopefully I’ve made the case that it is not of GOD), then it is to be disregarded and discarded, for Christ’s sake.

Identity politics which pits, whether with great subtlety or brazenly, tongue against tongue, tribe against tribe, nation against nation has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Where it exists, may GOD root it out!  Where we may have been complicit, may the Holy Spirit convict us of it, lead us to godly repentance, and give us a hunger to be united in Christ.                                         

1. In a review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Reviewed by David Frum in the NY Times Book Review, July 7, 2019.

2. Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology. “Theopolitical Theology” by Nathan Kerr, p.536.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved for text content unless otherwise noted.

Appreciating What We Have

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

 “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1Timothy 4:4-5)

 

Since starting this blog a year ago, I took on a part-time ministerial assignment: partnering with several pastors and churches whose primary language is other than English.  I’ve been involved in this ministry for close to 10 months, and it’s been very rewarding to say the least.  As I have gotten to better know these pastors and their congregations, my appreciation of their preferred language and cultures has been edifying in unexpected ways.

One of those ways is the ability to fully enter into the worship of GOD even when I know very little of what is being sung or said.  I attribute this ability to the Holy Spirit who is never confused or limited, and is able to lead us across boundaries that are, otherwise, impenetrable because of our human frailty or, perhaps, because of a lack of will.  I count this as new learning for me.

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Reflecting on my attempts to cross cultures has drawn me to another conclusion: sometimes we are more appreciative of the “new” than we are of what has been present and available to us all along.  This, I think, is common to most of us.  We certainly see it in our young children, but the dynamic is not limited to them.  It’s as if the newness of something opens our eyes with joy and appreciation in ways that the equally valuable, but previously present “thing” failed to do.    Here, I refer specifically to women who are 50%+ of the world’s population, and, more often than not, the primary doers of work and sustainers of ministry in the local church (there’s much objective data, both historical and contemporary, to support this last point).  Women have been a major part of the Church, working and often leading, from the beginning, and have been under-appreciated, stymied, and stunted, for my two cents.

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Our “appreciation and celebration” of diversity in the Church need not take on over-sized proportions if we allow ourselves to be molded by the Spirit and the Word.  When we fail in this molding, we often try to make-up for it by making “big deals” out of what should be an accepted reality: unity in the Church.  If the Church of Jesus Christ reflected more of a Trinitarian model of inter-relationships between its members rather than a spiritually outmoded and divisive model more reflective of the hierarchical, patriarchal, and dominant culture dynamics common under the Old Covenant, valuing some members over others, the separations of groups so common in the world would not be so common in the Church, as it still is today.  This model, so inconsistent with the New Covenant, is the Church’s version of the doctrine of separate but equal.1  The dynamics of separation create inequality, a fact underscored by Galatians 3:28.

I’m grateful for the teachers, mentors, and colleagues in the faith (of all hues and genders), who have and continue to influence my faith.  Each has blessed me.  I want to highlight one, Rev. Shirley Goodman whose recently published book, Riding In Cars with Men2, was an eye-opener.  I’ve been privileged to call her friend and to work with her for many years, and I highly recommend you consider reading what she has to say.  Who knows how it may impact you.

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  1. The doctrine of separate but equal was codified as the law of the land by the Supreme Court in 1896 through Plessy vs. Ferguson. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, were not discriminatory, if they did not otherwise violate the constitution.  It was not overturned until 1954 when the Supreme Court heard and ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education.

  1. Riding In Cars with Men by Shirley Goodman (TheSheRev, LLC, © 2019) is available through Amazon in both paperback and electronic formats.

 

 © Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content unless otherwise noted.

LET’S REMEMBER

 “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”              – Ecclesiastes 3:1

 

 REMEMBERING IS OFTEN A CONSCIOUS DECISION

                   TODAY IS A DAY FOR REMEMBERING                         

 

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“The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness…” (John Wesley)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Let’s press on.  Blessings.

 

A Leadership Cliché

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…’” (Matthew 16:24)

 “In order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower.” I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve heard this, or some variation, said.  I’ve even said it a time or two…or three, myself.  This cliché is deeply embedded in the canon of leadership wisdom.  It is also an axiom that I don’t ever recall hearing anyone ask, “Why?”

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Perhaps it shouldn’t be necessary, but I believe we should revisit and reassess our traditions and areas of common wisdom every now and then to test their continued relevance and value. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should discard them; we may need only to renew and refresh our understanding and appreciation of them.  Otherwise, we can become complacent with our beliefs, relying on the thinking of others without thinking much ourselves.  Albert Einstein said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”  I believe, similarly, that unthinking respect for other peoples’ thinking is the greatest enemy of our ability to think for ourselves…which brings us back to our cliché.

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Why is it that good leaders must first be good followers? The core reason, I believe, is that committed following deepens humility.  Have you ever had to follow someone who was into themselves a little much?  It’s always interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable (except perhaps to them).

Humility is a leadership core competency, particularly in a Christian context (which, for a Christian, should always be the context). Consider what Jesus said to His disciples on the shore of Caesarea at the foot of Mt. Hermon, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Humility and self-denial are glove mates.   Recall GOD’s instruction to Solomon following his prayer in 2 Chronicles 7: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray…” This was a call to self-denial at the most basic level.

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I’ve worked with and for a good many people who were designated as leaders, and quite frankly, the ones I appreciated the least were the ones who seemed more interested in others denying themselves without being a model of self-denial themselves. Having to work with them took as much effort as the responsibilities associated with whatever role I was in.

Humble followers are adept at two things which enable them to become good leaders: receiving instruction and taking correction. Years ago, still new to pastoral ministry, I was told this by an experienced pastor about choosing the people I would disciple.  He said they needed to be faithful, available and teachable, which meant that I needed to be that as well.  Each of us who claim Jesus as Savior and Lord are spiritual descendants of a group of men named Matthew, Andrew, Peter, James, John, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, James (son of Alpheus) Judas (not Iscariot), Thaddeus, and Paul.   They were all faithful, available and teachable.  The legacy they established as leaders of leaders was rooted and grounded in the instruction (often intense) and correction (sometimes hard) they received from the One to whom they humbled themselves.  And let us not forget women such as Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Jesus, James and Jude, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Lois, Lydia, and Priscilla who were among the first to be faithful, available and teachable in the infant days of Christ’s church and who were the Apostles’ needed partners.

What has changed?  The needs for this kind of leadership is as acute as ever.  The responsibilities of leadership are many, the burdens significant, and the impacts on the lives and futures of followers are potentially far-ranging. The test for those who aspire to leadership or who are called to assume leadership should include more than the ability to influence others, high intellect, knowledge, and decisiveness.  It should also include the willingness to be last and, a servant of all, so that others may be first (Mark 9:35).  I’m grateful to have known and worked with more than a few who modeled this.

This cliché about leadership has stood the test of time; and I don’t think more time will change that at all.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2018. All rights reserved for text content.

Jeremiah Still Speaks

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I have an affinity for the Prophet Jeremiah. I think it’s because, when push came to shove, he never backed-down to the powerful forces aligned against him, even when it seemed those forces were sure to have their way.  Instead, he was faithful in calling kings and people back to the ways of Yahweh. Speaking truth to power became the way he served GOD, not as an occasional verbal foray in response to a specific set of circumstances, but as a consistent irritant seeking to recapture the minds and hearts of a people saved and set-aside for a holy purpose.  The deep sadness and suffering he experienced because of the continual resistance of his audience, ultimately morphing into hatred of him (and hatred of GOD, see Mark 13:13), is far removed from the feel-good, prosperity-based teachings so prevalent in recent years.

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Jeremiah was broken-hearted as he watched his people descend farther and farther down the dark road of false worship and apostasy (outright, intentional rejection of GOD and His standards for living).  His ministry required him to withstand the blows of deeply felt animosity that were really aimed at GOD and His attempts to correct and redirect His misguided, stubborn people.  Jeremiah wasn’t called the “Weeping Prophet” for no reason.

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It is fairly common for Christian preachers and teachers to talk about the need for all of us to have people in our lives who can “speak truth” to us, to say those things that are hard for us to hear but which are necessary to our well-being. This truth-speaking is a manifestation of agapé (unselfish love that benefits others) (see Prov. 12:1; Heb. 12:8-9, 11; Rev. 3:19).

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There are times when we need someone, like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, to tell us that we have no clothes on (at least figuratively).  In Anderson’s story, it took a child to speak a truth that the adults were too afraid to speak for fear of the emperor’s reaction.  To these adults, it was more important to protect themselves from the emperor’s wrath than to let him know he was walking around naked and vulnerable.  This is certainly a risk because some people really can’t handle the truth (to borrow from Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men).  And the more powerful the truth is, the more severe the potential repercussions.  When we don’t have people in our lives who will tell us hard truths or when we reject what they offer us because we don’t like what they say, we just prove that we prefer the illusions of our egos and our insecurities.

Leaders, like all people, need to be open to hearing and receiving the hard truths about themselves, for the benefit of those they lead. Leaders who resist truth about themselves (like Judah’s leaders during Jeremiah’s time) not only deceive themselves by preferring myths and illusions, they also wrongly influence the thinking of those under their stewardship.  When defenses against the truth are activated in order to ignore the truth, even more forces supportive of the preferred ‘realities’ are unleashed.  The truth may be undermined so that what is true is viewed as being untrue, or in the extreme, power is used to prevent the truth from being spoken altogether.

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In Jeremiah’s time, king Jehoiakim gave his ear to what Scripture calls false prophets, that is, religious leaders who reassured him, encouraged him, and gave him ‘air cover’ for his spiritual disobedience. The Bible says of these men “They encourage those who are doing evil so that no one turns away from their sins” (Jeremiah 23:14, NLT). Their constant feel-good assurances helped to make the voice of Jeremiah intolerable to Jehoiakim.  Jeremiah was even thrown into a well once because his prophecies of GOD’s coming punishment and calls to repent were too offensive to hear (Jeremiah 38).

When the leaders of churches, businesses, communities or nations are selective about the truths to which they are open and receptive, when they resist hearing and responding to hard truths about the true condition of whatever entity they have the responsibility to lead, when they rely on the encouragement and air cover of “respectable authorities” to refute inconvenient truths, when they seek to undermine and even punish truth-tellers, they repeat the sin of Jehoiakim and all of his successors who took the same tack.

The long-term effect of this happening in Judah was deep national suffering.

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The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says that nothing is new under the sun.  History and its patterns repeat themselves.  We’ve seen it often.   But Jeremiah still speaks…and needs to.  Will we listen?  We all need to listen and seek the truth and follow it, even if it is about us.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2018. All rights reserved for textual content.