Totalism: a dangerous playground

A quick look at Jesus life, and one realizes that his most difficult audience wasn’t the folks who, today, would be living on the streets, or spending time in the bars.  The morally dubious, the sick, the marginalized, the people who today the church seems to have a difficult time reaching, were the very people most responsive to the presence of Jesus.

Resistance and challenge to Jesus authority, on the other hand, came from the people who knew their Bibles quite well.  We’re fools if we don’t pause, ponder, and ask why this is the case.  Some clues can be found, perhaps, in the writings of Erik Erickson, who coined the word “totalism” (derived from his study of totalitarianism), a view of the world which stands in contrast to his vision of “wholeness”.

Totalism is characterized by a person’s utter identification with a group, race, or leader.  This totality is manifest by the person’s mistrust of anything different than its existing loyalties or view of the world.  As Erickson says:  “An absolute boundary is emphasized…nothing that belongs inside must be left outside, nothing that must be outside can be tolerated inside.”  With such a view of the world, new ideas, dialogue, challenge, questions, are all forbidden.  “Be loyal or get out” is the mantra, and the result is a sort of groupthink, a refusal to consider other ideas at all.

People who have been hurt are especially vulnerable to totalism because it offers a place of perceived safety.  Answers are certain, and provided for me.  The people with whom they associate all agree with them, thus reinforcing the notion that they’re on solid ground.  The huge problem, though, is that all this is predicated on the assumption that the leader is infallible.  There’s only been one of those though, and while many of us lead in His name, none of us do it perfectly.  We are, all of us, still learning and growing, even as Paul was until the end of his days.

Totalism is the stuff of any totalitarian rise to power, but it’s also the stuff of cults.  Jim Jones, back in the 70’s led to the coinging of a new phrase:  “don’t drink the kool-aid”, as a way of warning one another to be careful who you follow, and to avoid those leaders who demand utter and unquestioning loyalty without accountability.  Even a very good leader who makes these demands is leading his group higher and higher on a steep slope, without any means of arresting the fall.  I sat with a man on a flight from Bangkok to Tokyo who’d been in a cult and, after the humanity of the leader was exposed, was left rudderless, yet afraid to join any group.  Disillusions totalists often become cynics, because no other option seems palatable.

This, though, isn’t a warning only for cults.  It speaks to churches about the dangers of mindless loyalty to any single leader.  Paul was worried about unswerving loyalty to only one leader 2000 years ago, indicating that our alignment with any single leader other than Christ himself would inevitably become a source of division, and was a sign of immaturity.

Totalist leaders can always build followings.  That’s not the question.  The question is, “what kind of followers are totalist leaders building?” and the answer, too often, reflects the warning of immaturity that Paul addressed.  This is because followers in such an environment learn to parrot answers, rather than grow in discernment.  Growing in discernment allows a person the capacity to engage with those of differing views with neither fear or combativeness, and this is a sign of health.

Totalist leaders preemptively reject other views, revealing a dangerous insecurity.  Colin Powell always wanted someone at the table who would present an alternative view, and he always listened, while making it clear that the final decision was still his.  Bill Hybels of Willow Creek church has the same leadership style, as does my friend and mentor through the Torchbearer ministry.  All these leaders share one thing in common:  they are more interested in finding the right answer than in defending what they already believe.  I put those words in bold because they are so very important.

I spent last week with some senior citizens who are still studying their Bibles with genuinely open and curious hearts.  They were eager, not just to hear what they already believe, but to learn and be challenged.  They remind me that good leaders are forever teachable.  One of the women in attendance last week was a leader from the Hitler Youth movement in her region in Germany, well acquainted with the subtle and powerful dangers of “group think”.

Of course there’s a danger on the other side of this slope as well.  There are leaders with no convictions at all, who are so open to new ideas that they’ve no fully formed convictions.  But this isn’t really leadership at all, and in fact, it’s this kind of chaos that is often a breeding ground for fundamentalist easy answers.

Good leaders need well formed convictions, and most important of all, a clear authority from which their convictions are derived.  On this solid foundation, there can be great dialogue, and ongoing clarification of the values, vision, and ethics that will enable families, churches, and other groups to represent the heart of Christ, not statically, but with increasing clarity, so that the hope and light of Christ will shine into our darkening world.

What do you think?  How can leaders strike the balance between teachability and firmness of conviction?

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  • Lee

    Great post! I think Philippians 2:1-4 is a great scripture for all believers as well as leaders. Humility is the key. Thanks Richard.

  • Steve Craig

    I’ve known too many people who have been abused by leaders in the dangerous way you have described. I think that when Paul says we’re to submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21 — that he’s reminding us that submission to other people is never in one direction (it is mutual) and it is never unqualified (i.e. it’s always qualified by the example of Christ and the fruits of his Spirit). Thanks for this.

  • This is an issue that’s perpetually on my mind. This balance is so hard to achieve, but I agree humility and submission to God play a huge part in building conviction and also teachability. Discernment is something that everyone, but 20 somethings especially, need to be nurtured in. Perhaps a combination of mentors and peer accountability is the key.