My fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong.” So every president over the past several decades has declared in his annual address to Congress. This is a half-truth in the best of times. Because a new president will be inaugurated in January 2017, there will likely be no formal State of the Union speech next year. Just as well, because it is hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face that our union is strong.
This is not the first time America has faced daunting internal tensions and external threats. But during this year’s presidential primaries, fear, despair, and dissatisfaction have drawn Americans to would-be leaders who promise radical change to restore our country’s strength.
Yet strength is only one part of real health for nations. All truly flourishing communities must also embrace vulnerability. They accept and even seek out meaningful risk for the sake of growth. Great leaders do not just promise strength: they call people to risk as well.
But around the world today we see the rise of leaders who offer various forms of authority without vulnerability—strength without risk. This is the promise of every authoritarian government and every dictator, and it is increasingly the currency of American political campaigns. One candidate promised to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico—and to make Mexico pay for it. Another promised free tuition at public universities—and to make “Wall Street” pay for it.
These promises have several things in common, and not just that they are entirely unfeasible. They promise goods without a price, protection without effort, and benefits without costs—at least to people like us. They depend on extracting the effort and cost from others—others who are treated not as potential partners but as permanent enemies.
We also see a level of bluster in American politics unparalleled since the Jacksonian excesses of the 19th century—proclaiming one’s own power and reveling in others’ weakness. The unrealistic promises have been matched by crude displays of bravado and disdain for “losers.” The same people who flaunt their power complain incessantly, airing their grievances against the powerful forces arrayed against them. Authoritarian leaders flaunt their power, manipulative leaders flaunt their supposed vulnerability—and the most toxic leaders do both at the same time.
Christians, of all people, should be able to resist the temptation to cheer at shallow policy proposals, and for politicians who are shallower still. We must recover the politically radical dimensions of the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” To say Jesus is Lord is to establish a standard against which all human exercises in power can be judged—and, in time, will be judged.
Jesus never flaunted his power. His public miracles were often followed by deliberate withdrawals from sight—as when the crowds, amazed by the miraculous provision of food, sought to make him king. He chose a title, “Son of Man,” that for all its messianic overtones identified him with simple humanity, not godlike invulnerability. He knew that a fatal confrontation was inevitable, but he never stirred up grievance or indulged in self-pity.
No leader, whether religious or political, will always live up to Jesus’ standard of leadership. But for this very reason, we need leaders who avoid stoking the worst in us.
America has sometimes had such leaders. John F. Kennedy called the country to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation.’ ” Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest American president, refused to demonize his opponents even as he prosecuted a dreadful war, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
Our real vulnerability is not the result of some easily specified—and eliminated—group of enemies. It is the result of living in a world that would be complex and risky even if it were not also ridden with brokenness and evil. Great leaders resist the temptation to create scapegoats even in the face of difficult choices.
Until Christians ask for that kind of honesty and courage from our leaders, we are likely to continue to prop up the worst kind of American idols.
Andy Crouch is executive editor of CT. His latest book is Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (InterVarsity Press).
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