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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Moral Leadership for a Divided Age" (David P. Gushee & Colin Holtz)

TITLE: Moral Leadership for a Divided Age: Fourteen People Who Dared to Change Our World
AUTHOR: David P. Gushee & Colin Holtz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018, (384 pages).

What is moral leadership? Why is it so needed today? Some books tackle the above with a list of best leadership practices or some leadership attributes. Others deal with the leaders in terms of what they do and how they do it. For David Gushee and Colin Holtz, it is about examining the lives of notable leaders, specifically, 14 persons who displays leadership that unite followers toward a common goal. They invite people to join with them in pursuing a common cause. They have moral impact, moral character, and moral purpose in what they do. The test of moral leadership is when the leaders leave, they leave the world in a better shape than before. In fact, for the authors, moral leadership is a far better way to learn ethics than ethical studies per se. This is because it encompasses both theory and practice; concepts and applications; ideas and practicality. Moral leadership is more essential because the world:
  • is increasingly dominated by people moving toward radical extremes
  • is dominated by people trying to make their culture or cultural stance superior to others
  • the world is increasingly being torn apart, divided.

Here is where moral leaders step in. They build bridges. They understand without needing to compromise their stand. They are respectful of others different from them. When we study moral leaders, we can learn from their way of thinking, appreciate the complexity of their contexts, and be inspired to do the same for our own situations. Gushee gives us a ten-point framework on how to study and apply the lessons to our lives.
  1. Examine the historical contexts of the moral examples and learn to examine our own contexts
  2. Study the leader's personal background and be honest with our own
  3. Look at the leader's vocation
  4. Explore professional trajectory
  5. Consider character qualities
  6. Examine their family choices and intimate relationships
  7. Study their social relationships and community affiliations
  8. Consider criticism, conflict, and failure
  9. Practice respectful engagement
  10. Make the personal turn.
By combing through 14 leaders, we learn of many important lessons about moral leadership. William Wilberforce shows us that many moral struggles are tough and takes time to resolve. Abraham Lincoln shows us how to respond to criticisms. Florence Nightingale refuses to let Victorian-era restrictions prevent her from great achievements. The heroism of Harriet Tubman tells us to keep going in spite of obstacles. Ida Wells-Barnett lives a life of fearlessness in pursuing justice in spite of being discriminated against because of her skin colour. Gandhi renounces self desire and persevere against all odds. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lives what he writes and writes what he lives. Mother Teresa is able to live among the poor knowing that life is sacred. Oscar Romero was murdered for his work for social justice and teaches us the importance of communications and listening skills. John Paul II combines intellectualism with spirituality and applies both in his concern for human life. Elie Wiesel's life demonstrates that "memory matters" which is highly important for us living in a world where we are easily forgetful. Dr Martin Luther King Jr shows us that the cause is bigger than any one person. Malala Yousafzai tells of the importance of family and young people. Apart from just examining their lives, readers get to take home lots of lessons to apply and to learn from. At the end of the book, we are challenged with five compelling questions.
  1. Moral leader vs Moral examplar?
  2. Solidarity vs Liberation?
  3. Can we disentangle leaders from their historical contexts?
  4. Has our human bias clouded our vision?
  5. What about the use of violence?
Three Thoughts
First, in terms of value for money, this book is a 14-in-1 biography of the moral lessons to learn from each of the famous individual. Each chapter contains a timeline of major events, a brief introduction to the character, historical context, vocation, discussion questions, and resources for further reading. Though the life has been highly summarized with only the main events mentioned, it gives readers a gist of who the person is and what we can learn from.

Second, though different characters teach us different lessons, there are multiple commonalities in terms of passion, justice, mercy, personal integrity, and the power of communicating the cause. All of them face persecutions and hardship but not all were martyred for their belief. All of them believe in a cause but not all are Christians. All live through in different contexts and an interesting thought would be whether they would have behaved any differently in another different context? Like what would John Paul II have done if he was in Bonhoeffer's predicament during WWII? Fair to say, they might not have done the same thing and they might have done might not even be remembered in history.

Third, I want to put in a more cautionary note. While we need more moral examples today, we also need to be careful not to over-sensationalize these 14 persons who were able to rise above the challenges of their time. They all had flaws. Mother Teresa dealt with depression. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his role to assassinate Hitler arguably were intentionally planning to break the sixth commandment, which is breaking the biblical moral code. Mohandas Gandhi's method of non-violent resistance may not necessarily work in other situations. Imagine if he was to stand up against a harsh Pol Pot regime. He might have been terminated without anyone knowing about it. They are all human so let us not supercharge them more than necessary. Sometimes, when I see all the famous names mentioned, I am reminded of Hebrews 11:35 list of heroes, many of whom were invisible to the world, who died without anyone noticing. None of them even have a footnote on any published material.

In summary, with rising secularism and amoral philosophies, this world does not seem to be getting better morally speaking. In fact, we need more moral heroes instead of super-heroes. We need more human realities instead of superhuman fiction. Gushee and Holtz have done us a favour in introducing positive roles models who inspire instead of fictional characters who mainly entertain

Dr David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics (McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University) and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life. As one of the world's leading ethicists, he has published widely and is heavily involved in social justice, humanitarian work, and actively promotes peace. He lies in NE Atlanta with his wife Jeanie and regal cat Noah.

Colin Holtz is writer and strategist at the intersection of church and world. He writes regularly in the Guardian and HuffPost.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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