Real Leaders Don't Use Fear

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On Sunday morning one of the older members of the church that I attend was carrying herself with uncharacteristic fatigue. When I said "hello," I was certain that something was wrong. Typically bright and cheerful, she didn't respond at all.

So, I asked, "What's wrong?"

Her response: "I am afraid that if they don't get things worked out in Washington, I won't receive my Social Security check."

Frankly, the fact that she is living in that kind of fear made me angry. She is single, in her 80s, and lives alone.

Now if you think that based on that brief story you know where I stand on the debt crisis, you are probably wrong. We didn't talk about it and my friend didn't make any specific observation about the kind of decision that she thought would address her fears.

What made me angry is the way in which fear has been used to shape public opinion on all sides. You could call my friend and others like her "collateral damage" in the debt wars. They don't know what is happening. They are not placed to shape the decisions being made. All they know is that they are afraid. The last ghost story that they are told will be the one that shapes the way that they vote the next time. That, of course, is what some in both parties are counting on and it is irresponsible.

Real leaders don't use fear. Period. Not for any reason. Not under any circumstances—but not just because it frightens the elderly. Real leaders don't use fear because of its devastating consequences for the leadership task itself. To name a few:

  1. Fear forecloses on creativity and the ability to imagine new solutions.
  2. Fear drives people into fixed positions.
  3. Fear makes it impossible for people to discuss a problem rationally and draw widely on a variety of viewpoints for a solution.
  4. Fear feeds suspicion, splintering and shattering a sense of the common good.
  5. Fear creates a sense of scarcity, promoting enmity and bigotry.
  6. And fear breeds mistrust and cynicism, which finally erode confidence in the institutions themselves.

These are difficult times: Our government has spent too much. The size of the boomer generation and improved life expectancy will saddle our country with entitlement burdens that younger generations cannot finance. The fundamental nature of the way we work is changing in many ways. The downside of globalization has made itself felt, adding to the complexity of our lives. What do real leaders do?

Real leaders do their job. Get off the television. Stop campaigning. Go back to work. We can't write legislation, vote on it, or veto it. You were elected to do the job. Do it. You diminish our regard for you when you try to scare us.

Real leaders take responsibility. Charley Reese was right about you. The debt crisis was the work of the 545 people who govern our country. The debt crisis was not an asteroid from outer space or the invisible work of sinister forces. No one in power can blame the current malaise on the past. The challenges we face are the work of elected officials who created the problem. Having created the problem, they shouted "wolf," and waited to see how we would vote. Take responsibility.

Real leaders tell the truth. Truth is not the same thing as fear. Don't patronize us. Don't bully us. You aren't lying because, in the words of Jack Nicholson, "We can't handle the truth." You aren't telling the truth because you are afraid that we won't vote for you. Drop the ideology and tell us what the numbers are. If you lie to us, shame on you. If we can't face the facts, shame on us.

Real leaders offer specific plans for a way forward. If you are spending time trying to scare us, you aren't working on the details. Leaders work. The efforts of the real ones are marked by long hours of effort. It's unromantic and accomplished behind closed doors, far from the cameras.

Real leaders hold out hope. You have no idea how diminishing expectations for our common life robs us of creative energy. We are well aware of our history's ambiguities. No country's story is unmixed or uniform. But no country thrives on being told that it is broken.

And therein lies the spiritual nature of the leadership task. Only the self-serving will use fear. They use it to get re-elected. They use it to consolidate power. Then they scramble for the exits or they hold on until they can retire.

Chronicling the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David in his masterful translation of the Old Testament, Everett Fox observes that when David announced that he would take a census, he exercised God-like power over the lives of his subjects—"unchecked, kings will take and not give." By numbering the heads of his subjects in preparation for taxation and the creation of an army, David arrogated to himself a power that belonged only to God.

The place of leaders, the census, and taxation in our own world is different from that of ancient Israel. But the principle is the same: The task of nurturing the freedom that only God can give us should be a responsibility that fosters humility, not arrogance in those who lead—reverence, not callous disregard for the trust that they have been given; sober judgment, not sound bites; and a respect for those whose lives are in their hands, not the careless exploitation of their fears.