Leadership Worthy of a Nation

© 2014 Robert Osburn

The latest issue of World magazine carries an article whose subtitle could be: “The political leadership of the Balkans are corrupt thieves!”   When he toured this region that figured so prominently in the launch of World War I, World’s editor Dr. Marvin Olasky discovered that virtually everyone in the Balkans has rendered this verdict on their leaders.

What he didn’t say as clearly is a subtext in many of the complaints of international students with whom I work: Corrupt leaders corrode pride in their nations.

The students want to proudly represent their homelands here in the USA.  They want to carry their flag high as they travel to America for studies, encountering not only their American hosts but also other international students.  But, so often they hold back because of their ravenous political leadership that consumes as much cash as possible while investing their fraudulent wealth in Western stock markets and investments rather than in their home countries.   Thus, national armies, for example, wilt when confronted by groups like ISIS (Syria and Iraq) and Boko Haram (Nigeria).  The reason they wilt is not that they are not competent soldiers (though that can be a factor); their problem is that see little reason to fight on behalf of corrupt national leaders.

Most international students are merely left to cheer for their national soccer team.  At least these sports heroes deserve their praise.  Otherwise, their nations seem like playgrounds designed for the benefit of corrupt elites who, in the way that many Africans put it, eagerly consume “the national cake.”

By way of contrast, Americans (and most citizens of Western countries) generally feel a sense of confidence in their leaders, even when they feel free to aggressively criticize those leaders.  They cast aspersions and make negative claims about political leadership from the other party, while political independents dump on both.  Truth be told, however, Americans have a luxury shared by few in the world: Deep down, most actually behave as if their political leadership is legitimate and worthy of a degree of respect.  A modest level of confidence in national leadership sustains Americans’ very palpable sense of national pride. 

Framing this phenomenon biblically, think of King David, the greatest of the Jewish kings.  His integrity, his gracious forbearance, his courage, his organizational ability, and his artistry all combined to make him a leader truly worthy of the Jewish nation.  “With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand” (Psalm 78:72).  That kind of leadership fuels national pride.

My Anabaptist friends will object at this point.  They believe that the nation state is inherently evil and thus Christians are not called to serve as part of its government (which explains why many of them are pacifists).  For them, the concept of national pride is idolatrous.

I agree that national pride can become idolatrous is if morphs into nationalism (making the state a supreme object of devotion).  Instead of nationalism, on the one hand, and pacifistic resistance to the state, on the other, I believe the Christian is called to a dual citizenship where our Kingdom citizenship is primary and our national citizenship secondary.  We have obligations to both God and Caesar.  Our obligations to God are also incumbent upon Caesar who also owes God a devotion that God never owes Caesar.  When Caesar offers God the devotion He deserves, then Caesar earns his citizens’ respect while fostering an appropriate sense of national pride.

Others might object that I make too much of the issue of corruption; excellence and competence in leadership are sufficient prerequisites for generating national pride.  Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, urged Moses to find leaders with these characteristics: “Look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe…” (Exodus 18:21a).   In short, worthy leadership, whether in the church or in the nation, must be competent, holy, and honest.  

Competence is a necessary but insufficient qualification for inspirational leadership that promotes national pride and loyalty.  Capability alone fails to inspire; rather, we are inspired by someone whose vision transcends earthly realms while possessing the personal character that brings him or her down to earth simultaneously.  America’s founders consistently understood that the American republic would only survive if its people were virtuous and religious.  This has always meant that Americans wanted leaders whose first allegiance was to God, not to their country, because their own allegiance to country depends upon knowing that their leaders respect Higher Leadership, especially when it comes to matters of integrity.

Western education has been long on developing competent leadership, but has paid little attention to holiness and honesty.  Thus, stories abound of returned foreign students, such as one I met several months ago in an African country, who eventually become known for their corruption back home.  In the case of this former foreign student, he governs a large region in his country, and despite his Western-earned PhD, it is common knowledge that he is part of the corrupt elite. This tragic and built-in limitation of Western higher education cannot be transcended with any of our current educational tools.   

Only God can create the holiness and the personal integrity that makes a competent leader capable of inspiring national pride.   Great masses of people around the world long for such leaders.  What will we do to help develop them?