“We have lost our ability to listen to alternate points of view, to compromise and reconcile. As the edges of our debates are so sharp, we find it necessary to approach every discussion with weaponized arguments.” —Marc Emmer

How did we get to this point? As I wrote last month on my President’s blog, it’s at least partly attributable to a deliberate campaign:

The news for weeks has been filled with a series of revelations on the full extent of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operation to drive wedges into western issues. Russia operated a massive “fake news” effort that targeted the 2016 political election in the U.S. They made social media posts “that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service… they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.” Russian third parties even went as far as paying coaches to offer self-defense classes for African Americans to increase the chance they would fight back against aggression. These coaches had no idea they were being manipulated by Russia.

We’ve been manipulated to hate each other! We’re standing here with fingers on the trigger only to discover that all of this tension we feel toward each other is the result of a carefully constructed plan! The person or group we thought hated us really doesn’t!

So now what do we do?

Let’s think tactically for a minute. When military commanders identify their opponent’s strategy, they try to work it for their advantage with an ambush. When intelligence officers identify their opponent’s strategy, they run counterintelligence operations and turn spies into double agents.

I’m not actually interested in how nations are responding to Russia’s strategy. I’m interested in how we respond as believers. As shocking as the scale of this operation is politically, it’s a familiar tactic to those of us in Christian ministry. Satan has been driving wedges for millennia against God’s purposes.

As I said in Driving Wedges,

As believers, exposing the strategy is the first step. But how do we wage an effective battle against a strategy to divide? Do we simply strengthen our defences and put up better firewalls against division? What would an offensive strategy look like? Would it mean trying to divide our opposition, responding in kind? Or could we intentionally pursue unity and collaboration?

The problem with seeking to respond in kind is that the ends don’t justify the means. God is just as concerned with how we wage war, and in our growth during the battle, as he is in the results. It’s the luxury he has in knowing he’s already won the war.

What tactics can we employ then?

First, redirect our anger. Turn it instead on the one who manipulated us and raised the stakes. No, it’s not actually Mr. Putin. Look behind him, because our battle is not with flesh and blood. We have a common enemy. It doesn’t mean we set aside our differences, but we make those differences secondary.

I was convicted a couple of weeks ago in Montreal when I heard a Catholic bishop point out that, when churches are in maintenance mode, they see each other as competitors. But when they are in mission mode, they see each other as collaborators. Division within the ranks of God’s kingdom is a luxury of peace and prosperity. When we’re united by a common enemy, we put our energy first into advancing the kingdom of God and putting the gates of Hell on their heels rather than promoting our own agenda or point of view. We can still pursue that while holding to our unique identity and beliefs.

Second, assume our positions are a whole lot closer than we’ve been led to believe. If we lay down our weapons and try to listen, seeking more light than heat, perhaps we will hear the heart behind the other side’s perspective. Remember the good advice that you can’t argue against someone until you understand the person’s argument well enough to articulate it yourself. Most of what North Americans believe about Muslims is simply not true. Most of what Republicans believe about Democrats is simply not true. One way to intentionally break those stereotypes is to broaden our media exposure to intentionally include the other perspective.

Earlier this year I found myself in a surreal situation. I was standing on a rooftop patio in a closed country, talking with a group of Muslim scholars interested in preserving indigenous languages in their country. So we had at least one area of common interest that brought us together. I wish I could have recorded the conversation when these Muslims began to rant against fellow countrymen doing violence in the name of Islam. Every time another attack takes place, they said, their job gets harder. People view them with more skepticism. Their country, their people and their religion are defamed. They yearn for peace in their country.

Third, learn to wage peace. The more time I spend in Canada, the more I appreciate some of the voices that have contributed to this country’s international reputation. One of those is the Anabaptist/Mennonite voice that has come out of the prairies. One author says their thinking has morphed over the past sixty years from quietism and passive nonresistance to activist peacemaking. It’s an art that defies the typical thinking that peace and unity are weak. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi showed us that nonviolent force can change the world.

One tool for waging peace is the third table. When two groups are so distant from each other that they can’t communicate, a third space is designed to allow for honest discussion around issues once each side steps away from their militarized zones. There’s no “home team advantage,” but a safe place to try on different lenses, listen well and find common ground.

A friend recently pointed out that I’m good at creating third spaces. When people present a binary decision, I often don’t buy the thinking, but instead seek another way. Perhaps it’s my upbringing as a third culture kid who moved from Ontario to the Deep South when he was eight. In my first year, I tried holding to my culture—at one point refusing to sing the U.S. national anthem. Then I tried assimilation, changing my clothes and dropping the unique way I pronounced certain words. Eventually I came to appreciate my neutrality and unique cross-border perspective. Perhaps it’s the fact I was born in Canada, which has a a multi-party political system, a propensity for apology, and a strength in active peacemaking around the world. Perhaps it’s my resilience and strategic mindset that finds a way when seemingly forced into a choice between two undesirable options. Perhaps it’s my experience in an interdenominational, intergenerational organization that values language and culture. Many of my edges have been broken off over the past twenty years.

Conclusion
I’m growing in my conviction that we’ve been manipulated, and we urgently need to craft a response. Believers need to take the lead, because we have tools the rest of the world desperately needs.

Believers, we need to realize we are at war. It’s Satan’s most effective strategy to convince us we aren’t. As we do that, our response needs to meet the Matthew 10:16 standard: shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves. The problem is that the world knows Christians as naive. Luke 16:8 points out, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Falling for peacetime thinking is perhaps chief evidence of our naiveté.

Being a Christian is not about denial—being nice and ignoring offence. Being a Christian is not about pretending someone didn’t mean to hurt you. Rather, it’s about being realistic about the hurt we’ve experienced, the world’s hatred of us and Satan’s hell-bent hunger to destroy us, and then intentionally choosing a counterintuitive weapon against those tactics. Turn the other cheek when antagonists expect retaliation. Show kindness to enemies when there’s no reason you should. Forgive the person who doesn’t deserve it.

Leaders, we have an important role here, challenging lazy thinking and crafting responses appropriate to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics. Our followers, our organizations, our churches and our countries are depending on us and looking to our lead. We need to assist them in fighting Satan’s strategies appropriately. For more, see my series on Wartime Leadership.

 

 

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The day begins as any other in prison—no hope, no indication that today’s dreariness is going to be any different than any other. Joseph’s sentence is undefined and subject to the whims of Pharaoh. At thirty years old, he’s become jaded, burned from briefly allowing himself to hope that the cupbearer would put in a good word. His optimism faded long ago—two whole years, like an added sentence. So in Joseph’s wildest dreams he couldn’t begin to imagine what this day holds. He doesn’t allow himself to dream.

Suddenly a summons, and a whirlwind of activity. Bathing, shaving, new clothes, makeup. In a few short hours—minutes perhaps, given Pharaoh’s sense of urgency—Joseph is transformed from a lowly prisoner and slave to advisor, standing before Pharaoh like an intern called before the president. He doesn’t seem to have been given any context, any indication of what he’s being asked to do. All these years of waiting, and Joseph has a few minutes to make an impression. There is no transition.

Joseph can’t possibly have a plan; the opportunity is so sudden, he is clearly working off the cuff, relying on God to guide him. And yet all of Joseph’s thirty years have prepared him for this moment of spontaneity. Upon his summons he has the presence of mind to offer a rebuttal that it is God who can give Pharaoh what he wants; Joseph is merely a spokesperson. Then he has a few minutes to listen to God’s word to Pharaoh, sense the meaning in it, collect his thoughts and give a response.

In Genesis 41:1-32, Joseph does exactly as requested and expected: he tells Pharaoh seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.

It would be a completely different story if Joseph ends there. However, like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), Joseph not only understands the times but knows what to do. That’s where Joseph crosses a line from being simply a prophet to being a discerning and wise strategist. The key, of course, is that in Joseph “is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:38). He combines wisdom with action, and the courage to follow through. Joseph takes an enormous risk advising action to Pharaoh. I imagine a deafening moment of silence when he finishes, with all eyes on Pharaoh. In verse 37, a smile creeps over Pharaoh’s face, and things will never be the same for Joseph.

Pharaoh’s gut tells him he needs to promote this young man as the one to implement this plan. To come up with such a specific plan of action with no advance preparation, it’s clear to all that God must have shown him the strategy, too. It is this God who makes Joseph stand out above Pharaoh’s own wise men (Gen 41:8,38-39). Pharaoh makes a key observation: that this is not a one-time incident; if the Spirit of God dwells in Joseph, no one will be as continually discerning and wise as Joseph. Within the next nine years, God will make Joseph a “father to Pharaoh” (Gen 45:8), and he will instruct princes and teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom (Ps 105:22).

By the end of the day, Joseph has a new name, fine clothing, a signet ring, a private chariot and a new bed in his own palace.

But Joseph is not content to kick back, enjoy his new status and his new wife. Motivated and ready for action after waiting so long, he quickly gets to work. How does Joseph lead in times of prosperity? First, he scouts the country and secures his status. It’s important as a newcomer that he be seen, and it’s important that he see the land. He learned leadership at a much smaller scale, which allowed him to get to know and attend those under his care, and his new scope requires travel. His education in Egypt has also been incomplete, and he must learn the agricultural industry. As the Theology of Work Project puts it,

His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate…. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies.

Joseph has a high level of responsibility and loyalty, and with a looming deadline, he has a lot to manage. Like any businessman today, Joseph needs agility to take full advantage of opportunities and resolve bottlenecks, and the right balance between stockpiling and investing for “the business cycle of economic boom and bust” (Tien Fock). Planning and preparation is required to preserve some grain for sowing at the end of the famine, while the rest will be portioned out by year. Security at the storage facilities will also need to be part of the plan.

True to the plan he had laid out to Pharaoh, he taxes the revenues during this period of abundance at 20%. He scales the management task, creating a regional oversight structure under competent leaders and designing regional storage collection. And he tracks inventory and revenues, until the abundance is too great to measure. Some accounting historians suggest this passage is marking an epic change in bookkeeping from tokens to writing; “the breakdown of the means by which the surpluses could be measured” (Jose and Moore) may precipitate a shift in how accounting is done in the ancient world. In short, God’s abundant provision breaks the system.

A rising tide raises all boats, and this period is a time of fabulous wealth for all. Joseph enters his own seven-year period of fruitfulness, gaining two boys (Gen 41:50-52) and incredible favour with Pharaoh. God is restoring Joseph and nurturing an environment that will preserve life, and especially Jacob’s family line (Gen 45:5-7). The edge that Pharaoh enjoys above any others is Joseph’s extraordinary insight into the timing of the trends. However, there is no way Joseph could tax the people and store this much grain in secret. As a man of integrity, Joseph wouldn’t have practiced insider trading; the timeline of abundance and famine had to be made public, and others had a chance to follow Joseph’s investment plan. Yet all evidence points to a failure by any individual Egyptians to properly plan for the seven years of famine.

The season turns, and the time of plenty comes to an end. Joseph has proven himself as prime minister, fulfilling his promise as a leader. There are different challenges to leading in abundance than leading in scarcity, and we’ll look at how Joseph adjusts in my next post.


Joseph series:

For years, I’ve pondered the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. That’s the passage where the apostles noted,

We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.

Isn’t that a somewhat arrogant statement? In the servant leadership model, shouldn’t leaders be willing to do anything? Aren’t “Level 5 leaders” full of humility? I’ve come to believe that this statement isn’t arrogant; the more arrogant move would have been to hold onto running the food program.

It’s easy for leaders to get pulled into the minutiae and tactical activity surrounding a program that may be critical to organizational success but pulls them out of their element. The leadership principle is to do what only you can do and delegate everything else. A failure to delegate is a lack of trust. Underneath it is a foundational belief that you can do it better yourself.

But what if, like many nonprofits, you don’t have anyone ready to step in? This is a common problem for organizations that are rapidly growing or still run by their founder, but it’s also a problem for organizations that lack future focus. Why is it that some organizations seem to have an abundance of leaders available while others don’t seem to have anyone willing or able to take responsibility? Frankly, the failure to have people ready to step in probably reflects a long practice of doing things yourself. The root cause of a failure to develop leaders in the pipeline is the same as a failure to delegate: pride and control are the ugly idols hiding beneath.

What’s at stake when we as leaders don’t deal with our idolatry? At best, we become a limiting agent. Worse, the organization can become derailed. Consider what would have happened if the apostles had continued to spend time with widows. The new church would have ceased to grow. It would have neglected the Word and prayer. Spiritual development of new believers would have ceased while physical needs were taken care of.

No doubt the apostles’ decision was a controversial one. First, the elderly likely protested the loss of personal relationship with the founders. Second, the optics were bad. You don’t want to give the appearance that you don’t care about widows and the elderly. Third, the food program lost some of its luster, no longer falling under the top of the org chart.

But the decision was a complete success.

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.

A decision or a program in qualified and empowered hands, released from our control and micromanagement, often is a greater success than anything we could have done ourselves. But the real reason the church grew was not the food program as much as it was a group of leaders who were freed up to do what only they could do.