Take it from Doris, Amanda, C.S., and John: Leadership Requires Action

It is not what happens to us that is important. It is what we do in response that determines our destiny.

By: George T. “Buck” Lewis

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Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C.

Recently, I watched a wonderful interview with Ken Burns and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Burns observed that our American story is up to us to write and that it is our destiny to decide where we go for the future. Then, Doris said:

I mean that’s the problem you know as historians we look back always and we see how it all ended and it makes it feel like it was all easy somehow.  You know the civil war comes to an end and we have the union restored and emancipation is secured.  The depression comes to an end when we mobilized for the war.  The allies win World War II, we forget how those early years of World War II could have gone the other way.  Nazism could have controlled Western Europe.  We don’t know where it would have gone.  The anxiety that we all feel today is the anxiety all those people living then felt but their story ended in part because of the way they acted.  Now it’s up to us to finish the story . . . [1]

It is not what happens to us that is important.  It is what we do in response that determines our destiny.

Our first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda S.C. Gorman, put it this way in “The Hill We Climb”:

. . .

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried

. . .

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

if only we’re brave enough to be it.[2]

Again, the message is clear. One cannot merely be; one must believe in a future and make it happen.

This same lesson can be found in Christian religious texts. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, Jesus’ believers are under the impression that their status as descendants of Abraham alone make them free from sin. Jesus makes it clear that lineage alone is insufficient. As Jesus puts it, they must “remain” in His “word.” This teaching from Jesus requires some unpacking.

The essential point is that God’s favor has nothing to do with being Abraham’s descendants. As Bishop N.T. Wright has explained, “They are confusing two sorts of family membership: being children of Abraham and being children of God. They are assuming that being children of Abraham means automatically being children of God.”[3] Similarly, we can never assume that nominal membership in a church means that we are automatically in God’s favor. It takes more than that.

Implicit in this biblical lesson, of course, is that God created us with a free will. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Case for Christianity:

If a thing is free to be good, it is also free to be bad . . . Why, then, did God give [us] free will?  Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creations that work like machines – would hardly be worth creating.[4]

Our free will gives us the ability to use who we are and what we have—to leverage our privilege—to experience life to its fullest and to create a better world, a world of love, goodness, and joy.

In sum, Doris and Amanda are telling us that the good outcomes that have blessed us as a people are far from foregone conclusions.  They are the result of a million different choices, small and large – acts of courage, acts of love, acts of servant leadership.  John’s Gospel is teaching us that God is not interested in class or status or labels. God wants action motivated by love.  Finally, C.S. is teaching us that our choices are expressions of our love (or our disdain) for God.  God expects but does not require us to live like we have taken the good news to heart.

Taking these lessons to heart, leaders should choose action over complacency and act out of love to improve life for all.  Servant leadership matters.  Acts of kindness matter.  Helping others, especially the poor, matters.  Doing our part to fight the pandemic matters.  Generosity with our time and resources matters.  Expelling hatred for those who look different matters.

These things matter because, as Doris reminds us, they change the course of history.  These things matter because, as Amanda says, a “new dawn blooms” only because we have faith and bring it forth.  These things matter because John’s Gospel instructs that a person’s virtue is measured by conduct, not by heritage, title, or status.  These things matter because, as C.S. explained, our God-given choice matters.  These things matter for all of these—and many other—reasons amply evidenced in history, poetry, religion, literature . . . and life.

Servant leadership can be catalyzed by any of these sources of wisdom.  Servant leadership requires action.  It has the power, as conduct, to improve one’s own life, shape the world, and change the course of people’s lives, “if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it.”[5]

. . .

[1] CNN Special Report: Living History With Ken Burns And Doris Kearns Goodwin, CNN, January 23, 2021, available athttp://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/2101/23/csr.03.html (emphasis added).

[2] Read: Transcript of Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, Hill (Jan. 20, 2021), https://thehill.com/homenews/news/535052-read-transcript-of-amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem.

[3] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press 2004).

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (1943).

[5] Gorman, supra note 2.

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