“If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood”
Martha and I finished watching the Netflix documentary, “Challenger: The Final Flight”. Not dissimilar to how I felt after watching “Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich”, the Challenger documentary left me feeling sad and haunted. The viewer is made to endure a gut-wrenching expose of bureaucratic group-think and subtle manipulation. Ethical corners are cut, and employees are compelled to compromise their integrity and training as the voice of enterprise bellows: “take off your scientist’s hat and put on your manager’s hat”. A mythology is at work, the American dream: to be good business men, not prudent scientists; game changers, not conscientious objectors; trail-blazing pioneers, not squatters. One by one, you meet the Challenger’s team of managerial yes men, and you begin to understand the cool, calculating, almost inhuman rationality of the mythology responsible for the catastrophe; you sit back in your easy-chair and reassure yourself, “thank God, I’m better than that.”
I met The Rev’d Dr. Justin Lewis-Anthony in Rome. It was the fall of 2018, when he was Deputy Director of the Anglican Centre. I was taking advantage of my continuing education allotment, enrolling in a course he facilitated on politics, leadership, and the church’s relationship with domination mythologies.
So, under the sunny skies of our ‘summer sabbath rest’, I sidled up to Lewis-Anthony’s work (Bloomsbury, 2013), You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (And Probably a Heresy). I was eager to pray my way through his book, especially after reading his essay, “Ecclesiastical Bureaucracy: A Gregorian Critique of Managerialism” (available in PDF online).
Having studied Gregory the Great, I was excited to find an interlocutor who knew about Gregory’s theology and influence in Anglicanism. Moreover, Lewis-Anthony had arrived at very similar conclusions as I had about priestly formation in the Church.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that we priests, and licensed ministers of the Church, want to be good, competent, and relevant Christian leaders. Notwithstanding, we don’t often evaluate where our ideas about [leadership] come from; we assume they are grounded in gospel values, enough said. What Lewis-Anthony’s authorship does quite well is to offer a reflective counter-narrative to the values, attitudes, and assumptions grounding our contemporary ideas about [leadership]. He argues that they may be more deeply influenced by the mythology of the American entertainment industry than the cruciform model of Jesus.
Is it possible that our religious leadership-imaginary has been informed by “members of a gang, whose leader is a mouse with white gloves…[who] will lead you to your grave, singing Mouseketeer songs as you go.”? The Kingdom of God (oops, I meant to say the American Dream) belongs to those who produce results: the entrepreneur and the enterprising; the self-sufficient and the self-confident. But the Christian vision is grounded in martyrdom, in dis-possession, obedience, and weakness.
How do we reconcile these divergent imaginaries? The short answer is that we can’t. And that’s probably why rates of depression, exhaustion, burn-out, substance abuse, and career suicide are so common among the clergy. We should all be very, very concerned about this: the irreconcilable incongruity between the mythology of [leadership] and the realities of discipleship. Thus, I’m reminded of a very short, but powerfully worded essay by the Jesuit Michael J Buckley (available online PDF), “Because Beset by Weakness: Are you Weak Enough to be a Priest?”. Not, “Are you Strong Enough to be A Priest?” Are you weak enough?
Lewis-Anthony’s book is a timely work of contextual theology, and, no doubt, he will prick consciences. But if you’re weak enough to pray your way through the pages, you’ll find it refreshing and liberating. To quote him in conclusion, “leadership exercised by a Christian must be based, not on personal skills, not in innate traits, not on charismatic authority, not a will to power, not a willingness to exercise violence, not on a manipulation of others’ fears and fantasies. The end result of all those strategies is to become complicit in the monomyth of redemptive violence.” To put it in another way, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood”