Most writing has an autobiographical dimension—sometimes disguised but always there. This essay was triggered by a brief moment in my life which was recalled by an obituary last week.
The obituary was about Cardinal Bernard Law whose last real job for the Vatican was as Archbishop of the Boston diocese. Law was found to have covered for priests who in one way or another preyed on young boys. He was disgraced, removed and given a nominal position in Rome.
I spent some time around Bernard Law in the middle of the 1970s. Pope Paul VI named Law Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau in Missouri. At the time I was practicing law in Springfield and was periodically in community settings with him. He was in many ways a charming, larger than life character.
His talent and charm moved him along quickly. He went from a backwater in the Church to one of its most important positions; he became Archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese.
That position became more important than what I assume were biblically informed principles–power became more important than the Church; at least if the Church is an organization of believers and followers.
Where I grew up, religious leaders were culturally important. Journalists didn’t poke around their lives and positions to find errant conduct. Today there is a journalistic swagger that follows an outing of a religious hypocrite. We are finding that the clerical calling attracts about as many hypocrites as any other career pursuit. Too bad.
We all need moral leadership—true north. It is unlikely to come from pursuits that celebrate success almost regardless of how achieved. The celebrated have a hard time avoiding the magnetic force of riches and fame at any cost.
In Christianity, the most important speech Jesus gave was the Sermon on the Mount. Most recall this counterintuitive pronouncement: “the meek will inherit the earth.”
We should also recall this metaphorical truth: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Matthew 7:15-17
The New York Times in its Christmas Eve edition, ran a quite lengthy story on Vice, a media company and its co-founder and Chief Executive, Shane Smith.
The writer, Emily Steel, in her profile of Smith wrote, “Along the way Mr. Smith regularly mocked traditional media companies as stodgy and uncreative. But in recent years he set about courting conglomerates like the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox, which were eager to profit on Vice’s cachet with millennial audiences. The latest round of investment gave the company a valuation of more than $5.7 billion.”
She continued, “People involved with Vice during its early days described a punk-rock, male-dominated atmosphere in which attempts to shock sometimes crossed a line.”
In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Smith recalled his earlier days with Vice. “I would be at the party and would just want to get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom.”
Ms. Steel concluded: “A media company built on subversion and outlandishness was unable to create “a safe and inclusive workplace” for women, two of its founders acknowledge.”
Diseased trees? Bad fruit? I wonder what Walt Disney would think?
If the lessons of Jesus define your true north, then yielding to the pull of power is destructive on more than just a personal level. The Catholic Church was harmed irreparably by the actions of a few who persisted in covering up a wrenching departure from the covenants of faith.
In the last several months, friends or acquaintances of mine who regarded themselves as evangelical Christians have backed away from that adjective as too many so-called evangelical leaders have been lured by political power into the orbit of Donald Trump.
I have been blessed and inspired by a quiet spiritual missionary and friend who was often in the presence of secular power but found the words to quietly warn against its downside. And, while living and working in New York, I joined a small group that was taken on an extraordinary tour of the Bible by Tim Keller who founded and led Redeemer Presbyterian. Beyond the biblical lessons, we were given a very human lesson in humble constancy.
But let me return briefly to the present. Christmas, even in a secular society, inspires probing explorations of the other side—the transcendent.
And my guess is that Pope Francis chose to go public around Christmas with these words to the Curia (the Vatican-based operational arm of the Church). He warned them of being corrupted by “ambition or vainglory.”
But easily the most compelling of the pieces written around the underlying story of Christmas was penned by Kim Phuc and appeared as an Op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. She began: “You may not recognize me now, but you almost certainly know who I am. My name is Kim Phuc, though you likely know me by another name. It is one I never asked for, a name I have spent a lifetime trying to escape: “Napalm Girl.”
In these words she relates, “I was photographed with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.”
Kim Phuc goes on to tell of a salvation experience on Christmas Eve in 1982 and then expresses what should be the essence of both Christmas and every other day: “Christmas is not about the gifts we carefully wrap and place under a tree. Rather, it is about the gift of Jesus Christ, who was wrapped in human flesh and given to us by God.”
As we anticipate a new year we should all, leaders and followers alike, update Jesus’ most famous speech by re-reading Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg or recalling the words of Albert Einstein: “Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.”
“What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living.”
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.