In chapter 8 of his Gospel Mark records how Jesus’ lieutenant Simon Peter gains credit with his boss for blurting out his recognition of Jesus as Messiah; then almost immediately falls from grace by “rebuking” Jesus for his prophecy of his rejection and death. In turn he receives a pretty stern rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me Satan.”
In fact Mark’s narrative shows again and again how the disciples misunderstand and disagree with Jesus, who nevertheless does not dismiss them as unworthy of his trust. From the start of his mission, Jesus knew that he needed help, and welcomed the growth, not just of the twelve, but of a larger community of men and women who gathered round him. The gospels tell us what they learned from him, but not what he learned from them, as he must have done. Perhaps their love of him was their greatest gift to him, but doubtless even their misunderstandings helped him to define his mission. The survival of his mission, indeed its transformation into a multinational community after his death is proof that his trust in his disciples was not misplaced.
Yesterday Boris Johnson sacked from his cabinet all who were not singing from the same hymnsheet as himself and his henchman Dominic Cummings. Most politicians who commented on this process accepted the conventional wisdom that it is the right way to build political strength. Nobody seemed to think that ridding your enterprise of possibly critical voices might be a catastrophic weakness. Dispensing with all possible criticism was increasingly the preferred management tactic of Adolf Hitler until he finally established his Reich in his bunker.
Jesus on the other hand found that his disciples were capable of communicating his story, while changing completely the outward forms of his community to meet the demands of new times and places. In my own ministry I started out with the conviction that my way, albeit often poorly researched and dubiously planned, was the best way for the church. Repeated evidence that my way had often been mistaken, led only to an increased insistence on its perfection. It took a long time before I was forced to admit the truth. Had I been more democratic and listened to critical colleagues, I could have spared myself and the church lots of grief.
The followers of Jesus ought to be able to offer to their societies, models of collaborative community and critical fellowship which they have learned from him, but in practice they have not always been able to do so, because of defects in the nature of their own organisation. The reformed churches have often made such a gap between the status of pastor/minister and members of the church that he/she has asserted authoritarian rule; while in the Roman and Orthodox churches powerful hierarchies have stolen authority from the people. Pope Francis, for example has tried to root out sexual abuse from his priesthood but has found his bishops to be the greatest barrier to his plans.
The hysterical teenager who is Johnson’s chief advisor and the Fat Controller himself, may put the UK through a lot of unnecessary suffering before they realise the benefits of greater modesty and collaboration. There is a tendency, obvious to those who read the news carefully, for entire societies to prefer what they call, “strong-man government”; bullies prefer to be governed by a bully, as is sadly evident in the USA, India, China, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and perhaps the UK. Against this trend, wise citizens should argue strongly for the greater efficiency as well as the greater justice, of democratic practices at all levels of decision-making.
In Jesus’ group of disciples authority was exercised by service and persuasion, and even critical voices were cherished. I offer this model of leadership free of charge to the Prime Minister.