Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Leadership; Living the Truth We Proclaim

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Leadership; Living the Truth We Proclaim

Article excerpt

AS WE NEAR the end of our century, there is more spiritual .openness and more of a yearning for a religious view of life than there was at its beginning. Part of this new hunger for the sacred is the result of disenchantment with modern substitutes for religious faith. I remember officiating at a baby naming for a family that had resettled in the U.S. from the Soviet Union. The father, taught to revere the icons of the communist state and to regard religion as a reactionary illusion, looked at his infant daughter and asked me, "Rabbi, do you believe in God?" When I replied yes he responded, "I don't, but I hope she will."

Modernity has enthroned not only political ideology but technology. The modernist faith in 'technology was fueled by the hope of total dominion over nature, of being empowered to bend our world to our purposes. But as we move toward the gist century we are sobered by a new sense of limits. Our assertion of dominion has posed the threat of ecological disaster. There is also a growing awareness that the most profound answers to life's most important questions come not from science but religion. This increased openness to religion heightens both the perils and the opportunities for religious leaders.

Two historic examples illustrate the signs by which we can recognize perverted religious leadership. The first comes from the history of my own people: In the 171h century a man named Shabbetai Tzevi claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish messiah. Many thousands of European Jews believed his claim. Even when he violated basic moral and ritual requirements of the Torah--indeed, even when, under pressure from the Turkish sultan, he abandoned Judaism altogether and converted to the sultan's religion--many did not cease to believe in him.

Tsevi himself and some of the rabbis who supported his claim justified his strange conduct in at least two ways. They claimed that he either had violated ordinary morality in the name of higher principles that had been revealed to him, or that, yes, he did sin and that was the point, since a leader paradoxically must bring the community to redemption by his own immersion in sin. Was Shabbetai Tzevi a willful charlatan, or was he merely deluded? We do not know, but this much is certain: his perversion of spiritual leadership resulted in mass disillusionment within the European Jewish community.

Although of a different order of magnitude, last year's tragedy at Waco, Texas, also reveals the danger of perverted religious authority. David Koresh signed one of the last letters to his people with Hebrew script as "Koresh Adonai," which can be translated "Koresh is God." While presumably grounding his authority in Jewish and Christian scripture, he alone determined the norms by which the community and he, the leader, lived. Thus he separated husbands from wives, defined intimacy between husband and wife as adultery and intimacy between himself and any of the women (including 11- and 12-year-olds) as proper. He expropriated his followers' belongings and used their contributions to satisfy his whim for creature comforts and to amass an arsenal. He imposed his own system of social control, including corporal punishment and food deprivation.

Though there is much that separates the case of Shabbetai Tzevi from that of David Koresh, each exploited spiritual hunger and violated basic trust. From their example we can extrapolate two basic principles: 1) Beware of the religious leader who encourages for himself that adoration which should properly be focused on the One he is called to serve; 2) Beware of a religious leader who cavalierly violates deeply held religious norms or redefines what is permissible behavior in ways that obviously gratify his ego and impulses. A Tzevi or a Koresh illuminates by contrast what remains a paramount hallmark of responsible religious leadership: the teacher must model the teaching. As Martin Buber has written, "Either the teachings live in the life of a responsible human being or they are not alive at all. …

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