Turning Leadership on its Head
Synopsis: Pilate’s question to Jesus, “So, are you a king?” is arguably the most instructive political encounter in the Bible. Yes, Jesus is a king but not according to the standard hierarchical political system of violence and patronage. He, instead, turns leadership on its head. Accordingly, “the free movement of gifts—in a nonhierarchical way—is the very heart of Christianity.”
Last Sunday I preached on the grace of gratitude in relation to our American Thanksgiving Day. Today I will look at a darker and more troubling aspect of the relationship between gratitude and the patronage structures in society. This is Christ the King Sunday. How do we understand Jesus as a king and how does that turn standard patterns of leadership on their head?
Filipinos have the phrase utang ng loob (debt of gratitude) which goes a long way in explaining the power dynamics in their society. Powerful people function as benefactors, doling out favors in return for loyalty to them. Others in their sphere of influence are perennially indebted and therefore beholden to them.
I experienced how this worked when I lived and served in the Philippines. Powerful political clans control different parts of the country through patronage. People look up to them and aspire to be like them. These clans bestow gifts such as roads and other infrastructure, especially during elections. They even pay poor people to vote for them. In return, they expect gratitude and loyalty. To oppose them or to vote against them is to be an ingrate.
Towns and villages that vote against them especially bear their wrath through denying them much needed government services. It goes beyond this. These clans also control the local economy and the local courts. People are financially indebted to them. Even fairly wealthy people still need various licenses and legal favors for their businesses.
As the phrase “debt of gratitude” indicates, it includes an emotional and cultural attachment that people feel. To not reciprocate is to be an ingrate. It can become very exploitative and corrupt. When it gets really bad, the only recourse people think they have is open rebellion. This is what feeds various local insurgencies in the Philippines.
One would think that leadership patterns in Philippine churches would be different, but in my experience, this was not necessarily true. That became a major crisis of faith for me as a young man. A prominent church leader and his family in the churches I related to functioned in the typical Filipino patronage pattern of giving favors in exchange for personal loyalty to him and his family. I listened to the sad stories of students and young pastors caught up in this dysfunctional leadership pattern. Some expected me to function as an even more powerful benefactor. One retired military general encouraged me to take charge and he would back me up. I had absolutely no inclination to do that.
I was an American, a citizen of the recent colonial power that had ruled their country and still held powerful sway over their politics and their economy. At the time, there were two huge American military bases in the Philippines. I knew that some Filipinos rightly resented my position of power and privilege. I was only beginning to understand all those dynamics or how I fit into them.
Through this school of hard knocks, I learned to better understand how radical Jesus’ way of servant leadership is and how it turns the leadership standards of our world on their head. I also learned that we’re all entwined in broken systems. None of us are completely free or innocent.
Patronage is subtler in our American political system and not as visible to the average citizen. It’s present through powerful corporations and lobbies that fund politicians and political parties. Even so, it’s mitigated by our divided system of government and the rule of law. We will want to join with others to increase political participation and strengthen the rule of law.
Some of these dysfunctional patterns are also present in our American churches. We’re the product of our culture and struggle to live in the way of Jesus. Still, I have hope and confidence that we can keep learning and growing into the kind of servant leadership patterns that Jesus modeled and advocated. According to Diana Butler Bass:
[The Roman Empire in Jesus’ time] was a hierarchical pyramid, with the emperor on top as its focal point of unity and faith. He was the ultimate benefactor of the Roman world, the very model of generosity, justice, provision, and civic welfare. Everything good descended from him to the lower ranks of people—nobles, soldiers, citizens, merchants, peasants, foreigners, conquered peoples, and finally slaves. The emperor bestowed gifts, and all his beneficiaries returned their gratitude in the form of taxes, tithes, tributes, honor, loyalty, public works, and return favors. . .. This hierarchical structure of gratitude with its required reciprocity was the glue of ancient Roman society and politics.
“Debts of gratitude” were monetary debts, not social ones. The poorer you were, the more you were required to return to your benefactors. In this system, ingratitude was a political and economic act—to refuse to pay or return a favor was treason.
The only way out that desperate poor people saw was open rebellion. Such insurrectionists would pick one of their own as a political messiah or king to lead the fight against Rome. This was the charge brought against Jesus when he was captured and brought before Pilate.
Pilate gets right to the point with his question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Notice Jesus careful, indirect response, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” He knows how this game works. Now Pilate becomes defensive, “Am I a Jew? Your own people and religious leaders turned you over to me. What did you do?”
There’s lots of political intrigue in this encounter. The writer of John’s Gospel portrays Pilate favorably as telling the Jewish leaders that he found no guilt in him. We should not read too much into this. Pilate had the reputation of being ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus called him a bully. The writer of John’s Gospel was careful to not accuse the Romans for what happened. They could be ruthless in response to any suspected opposition.
Jesus acknowledges that he’s a king but not in the way Pilate thinks. He’s not a king in the violent system of patronage that encompasses Pilate’s world. His mission is, instead, to witness to the truth. Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?” “Truth” is everything that Pilate and his hierarchical world of patronage and violence are not.
Rather than patronage built on a structure of transactional “debt of gratitude,” Jesus’ truth is an alternative gratefulness of humility, equality, and hospitality. As I reminded us in my sermon last week, we live on a gifted planet. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Life is a gift. Because gifts precede benefactors, there is never the expectation to return the favor. Diana Butler Bass concludes, “The free movement of gifts—in a nonhierarchical way—is the very heart of Christianity.”
She says that our social imaginations have been shaped by rows, lines, and pyramids, with everything ordered from top to bottom vertical structures of role, gender, and race. People, often those outside the centers of power, have always challenged these assumptions. African Americans have used the circle as a description of the beloved community. Feminists have used the image of a table where “care” is the primary value. Native Americans have tribal councils in circles.
We have been experimenting with this in our church seating arrangement as we drew our chairs into a more circular pattern. It’s also why I recently moved out from behind the pulpit when I preach. And it’s why we moved to sermon responses to keep us from complete one-way conversation. The more we can do things in the round and the more we can make it participatory, the more it draws on Jesus’ way of turning leadership on its head.
This doesn’t do away with structure and leadership—it’s, instead, drawing on a more inclusive, participatory model. The unfortunate thing in church history is that the common image of Christ as king has drawn on hierarchical notions of kingship. Christ is depicted as a remote deity sitting on a throne like any worldly ruler. This denies the one who taught that the leader is the servant of all.
Let’s keep experimenting with this in our family life, in our church, in our places of work, and in our larger community. Mike Han told me that Table Covenant wants to experiment with arranging the chairs completely in the round during their worship services in the Advent season. We’ll see. We may even try it in our joint service on December 23. I have my doubts it will work but I’d love to be proved wrong. What I like is having our imaginations captured by Jesus’ upside-down vision of leadership and having the freedom to keep experimenting and growing into that kind of community.
 Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: (HarperOne, 2018), 143.
 Ibid, 144.
 Ibid., 169.