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The Greatest Leader

Another president has died, and the media hosts obituaries and reviews. Inevitable comparisons are made between the one being eulogised and his incumbent successor. Those who knew the late great leader reflect on his personal attributes, his values, the decisions he had to make, his legacy. With the passage of time, arguably a more balanced account has emerged, free from the emotional intensity and political rivalry that surrounded the original events and decisions. All this is framed in the current context of animosity and division. World leaders at odds, major issues bumped around between political agendas, personality cults, personal animosity and alliances and an increasing nationalistic selfishness. We observe the array of current world leaders, their personalities, agendas, mutual influence and interactions; the tension between their domestic and international pressures. We form opinions based on the information fed to us by official and social media, framed by our opinions and values forged by our own personalities, alliances and agendas. There may be leaders we each admire, at least to some extent, and doubtless a number we each abhor and distrust.

What makes a great leader? Perhaps there are two broad perspectives. One might be termed the nationalist or patriotic perspective, that sees a leader’s foremost duty to the interests of his or her own country. That’s obviously important; a leader is the advocate, the champion of their people. They are chosen to represent and govern a particular nation or state and further the interests of its people. We rightly outrage against corruption, whereby a politician puts personal interest and gain above the common good of their people. We hope that the leaders of smaller, less powerful nations will get a hearing in world affairs and be able to better their country’s lot in a competitive world. Carried to its extreme, nationalism has shown itself to be a force for evil and oppression. The other perspective might be the international or global perspective, that sees each country in a partnership with others, that recognises we have one planet which we all must share, and endeavours to work for the greater good of all human beings, our fellow creatures and the environment. Carried to its extreme, people fear loss of national identity and curtail of personal freedoms. These two perspectives obviously compete. World history is a shameful account of wars, competitive economics, exploitation, colonialism, oppression of the poor and weak and stark inequality. The strong get stronger and the weak get weaker. There is a tension in the responsibilities of a leader to serve their country’s interests and represent their people, yet to be a responsible global citizen who recognises the rights and responsibilities of all who share the planet. If any one country pushes to be “first,” it stands to reason that no other country can equally be “first.” That sounds pretty good when you consider yourself a citizen of the “first” country, but it’s pretty selfish from the perspective of everyone else.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; this is true of every human leader. Even the acknowledged best are tainted, none are completely altruistic, honest or unblemished. The best of them have recognised this and have embraced the necessary checks and balances on their power. Resisting those checks and balances, or repudiating any calling to account of their actions, should be a warning sign of corruption. God has warned people not to be enamoured with fallible human leaders, because no mere human political leader can save us from the real underlying problem that causes conflict, poverty, inequality and corruption in the world; human sin. “Don’t put your trust in human rulers, in whom is no salvation,” cautioned the Psalmist (Psalm 146:3–5). “When a leader dies, he returns to the earth and that same day his plans perish. Rather, put your ultimate hope for a solution in the hands of God.”

The sixth century BC king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, was the sole ruler of the world’s only superpower. He had ultimate authority over his empire, to wage war, to conquer, to enslave and he held the lives of every one of his subjects in the palm of his hand. There had never been a greater king; he was compared to the golden head of a mighty statue, over a kingdom greater than all the human kingdoms which would follow. But Nebuchadnezzar learned, through some painful lessons, that God was a greater ruler still (See the first four chapters of Daniel in the Bible). Yet his descendant Belshazzar scorned those same lessons and was severely reprimanded by the prophet Daniel, shortly before his kingdom fell to the Medo-Persians. Daniel reminded these despots that every leader’s power actually came from God; “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17). “Even the lowliest (worst) of men” means that God’s granting power for a time to a leader is for God’s own purposes and does not imply any “divine endorsement” of that leader or their actions. God is not awed by human power; God respects leaders who are just, merciful and humble before God, knowing that they serve at God’s good pleasure (Micah 6:8). Belshazzar stands for all arrogant rulers who lift themselves up against the Lord of heaven, and fail to acknowledge the God in whose hand is their very breath and all their ways (Daniel 5:17–23).

Strength is relative. To a tribal chieftain, a stronger chieftain might be an awesome threat, but stronger still were the European colonial powers who overran, pillaged and destroyed ancient culture and civilizations, to our enduring shame. So-called superpowers have always risen and fallen and nations continue to lock horns today, economically, politically, militarily. Yet even the strongest, wealthiest, most influential nation today is a transient pretension before almighty God.

“Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did God consult, and who made God understand? Who taught God the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales... All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isaiah 40: 13–18)

Jesus made it clear that when he returns to rule the earth, the basis of his judgment of the nations will not be their military prowess, their wealth or influence. It will be the extent to which they have cared for the most vulnerable people on earth; the poor, the hungry, the homeless (Matthew 25:31–46). This should be a very sobering warning for any nation seeking to be great, or to be “first.”

What, then, defines a great leader? Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man (Jesus himself) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28). The mark of a great leader is service, which is something we recognise even in fallible human leaders; we speak of their service to their country, or to the greater good of humanity. We abhor a self-serving leader who uses their position to further their own power, ego and wealth. The greatest model of service came from the greatest leader of all, Jesus Christ, who being in very nature God humbled himself to our service (Philippians 2:3–11), even to the extent of waging the war to end all wars; dying for our sins to fix the root cause of all evil, strife and corruption in the world.

Can there ever be such a leader? The counter-cultural gospel presents one who transcends anything even the best of human politics could produce. This leader is unrivaled in his power and all judgment has been committed to him. He will judge with absolute fairness, complete justice, because his information is completely correct and uncorrupted by any agenda. “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice,” promised God (Isaiah 32:1). This ruler will specifically promote the cause of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed; the ones who so often seem not to matter. He will unseat all who abuse their power for their selfish ambitions and who destroy the earth (Isaiah 11:1–5; Revelation 11:18). This ruler will welcome all peoples, nations and languages under his rule (Revelation 7:9). He will achieve what the United Nations could not achieve; “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

This ruler is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who came first to deal with the root cause of all corruption and evil and will return again to fulfil the just and merciful reign of God. This is the central message of the coming Christmas season. Jesus was not just a great moral example; he is the ultimate and rightful ruler. This is the Christian hope.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6–7).

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