Servant Leadership – a Biblical idea that badly we need now
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the life of humanity without central government as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Realising the basic need of authority, through the centuries there have been many different ways in which societies have been governed. For a significant period in the Old Testament the people lived under a monarchy. Even though it was an absolute one rather than the constitutional monarchy we have, there were clear expectations that the king would defend ordinary people and improve their lot. As Psalm 72 puts it:
1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
2 May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
3 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
4 May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
5 May he endure as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
6 May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
7 In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.
12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.
The Old Testament kings seldom measured up to this. Most “did evil in the sight of the Lord”, or, as we might say today, lost their moral compass. But the hope of government which safeguarded and improved the lives of ordinary people remained.
If we fast forward to our own day, we will see that some remarkable progress has been made.
Much of it has been through the influence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the Christian Gospel itself. People created in the image of God, and redeemed through the death of his Son, were to be considered as worth safeguarding and defending.
Much of this progress was made in the twentieth century, which saw the growing provision of benefits improve the lot of ordinary people and support them through times of adversity. In the 1940’s, William Beveridge set out to slay the “five giants” of “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness” as he pushed for the introduction of the “cradle to grave” support of a welfare state. My generation, the “baby boomers” owe our health and our opportunities to these and other far sighted provisions.
So it is with real concern that I read a piece in New Statesman by Martin Fletcher about a leading politician. The politician’s name is immaterial as my purpose is not to shine a spotlight on one person but to highlight the dangers for society should his attitude and behaviour be typical of others in government. Fletcher writes, “Who seriously believes that [he] gets up each morning and asks himself, ‘How can I improve the lot of ordinary people?’ The notion of him serving the general public, rather than himself, is so manifestly absurd that no answer is required.” Fletcher goes on to describe this ruthless and ambitious politician as “playing fast and loose with facts”, and having no moral compass.
With people like this in high positions, we are in danger of throwing away our hard won progress. Inequality is growing in our country and many people live in poverty, relying on food banks. Life expectancy, a clear measure of a nation’s collective wellbeing, has slipped back. In any situation there is just one truth but an infinite variety of lies. We see the consequences of this is in our government’s confusion and near paralysis as it attempts to negotiate Brexit.
Jesus said that he was “The way, the truth and the life” and that he had not come to be served but to serve. Here is a model for leadership which embodies the highest hopes placed upon the Old Testament kings. That our constitutional monarchy should recognise this in the coronation is no outdated tradition: it preserves a vital principle of servant leadership which sets out to safeguard, defend and improve the lives of ordinary people. St. Paul set out this principle which applies to us all, leaders and ordinary people, “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”The economist Joseph Stiglitz came to a similar conclusion: “Paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.”
Is that too much to ask of our politicians? We cannot expect to be governed by saints: the candidate shortlists would be very short indeed. But I would like those in authority to be sinners who nonetheless get up in the morning and ask themselves, “How can I improve the lot of ordinary people?”
In a democracy, we get the leaders we vote for.