Moral Leadership for a Divided Age (David Gushee & Colin Holtz) - A Review

MORAL LEADERSHIP FORA DIVIDED AGE: 14 People Who Dared to Change Our World. By David P. Gushee and Colin Holtz. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018. Xiii + 367 pages.

There likely never has been a time when the world, or even the nations which we inhabit have been truly united. War sometimes brings people together. Disasters can as well. However, such unity is quickly tested by the realities of current experiences. That being said, there is something about the current moment that gives us pause. We watch the news and learn that nations and communities are pulling inward, focusing on their own contexts, often at the detriment of others. Nowhere is this truer than the nation I inhabit. The leaders and people of the United States of America may have always looked at the world through the lens of self-interest, but this nation of which I am a citizen has, at least since the time of the Second World War, projected itself as a moral leader in the world. That leadership has been flawed, and yet it has been a hallmark of our national identity. Today, we live with leaders, including the President of the United States (who has shown little evidence of being a moral person let alone moral leader), who have pulled back from the world, and have let go of the idea that this nation should provide moral leadership in the world. Now, everything is looked at in transactional ways, that has global impact. At the same time, people in the United States and elsewhere are becoming increasingly skeptical about our human institutions from churches to the government, no longer believing that they can provide moral leadership. So how can we change this narrative? Are there are any exemplars of moral leadership to whom we can look, even if they have their own flaws? Yes, who will lead us into a more moral future?

David Gushee and Colin Holtz have written a book with the appropriate title for this moment: Moral Leadership for a Divided Age. The authors have concluded that one important way of moving forward is to look at the lives of people who have demonstrated moral leadership. These are people with flaws, but people nonetheless who have stood at the forefront of communities at a time of great need.

One of the authors, David Gushee, is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His co-author Colin Holtz who is a strategist focusing on the intersection of church and world. He has published essays at the Guardian and the The Huffington Post, as well as working with the CNN program Crossfire. In other words, both authors, who are Christians have focused their attention on the way in which faith and public life come together. In addition, Gushee has taught a class for many years focusing on moral leadership, engaging with biography and ethics. Together they have chosen fourteen lives to study and offer to us as not only moral exemplars, but as individuals who demonstrated through their lives ways of providing moral leadership in difficult times and places. 

Leaders come in many forms, not all of which leads to good outcomes. Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin were leaders, but they certainly were not moral leaders. Leaders, Gushee and Holtz tell us, unite people around a common purpose or cause. Again, not all causes are good causes. The leaders selected to highlight here exhibit three characteristics: moral impact, moral character, and moral purpose. Because moral leadership is not always easy to define, exploring the lives of moral leaders may be a more productive way forward. As one discovers in the course of the book, these leaders are not without their faults. For instance, many of them found it difficult to maintain family life (while some simply chose to forgo family). Some of these leaders had a dark side they struggled with. Thus, we have before us people who pursued what we might call righteous causes, even if they were not always perfect exemplars of righteousness. But, should we expect otherwise? These are, after all, human beings, who make mistakes, but, at the same time, they lived lives pursuing moral visions. And, as the authors note, "we grow not by memorizing principles but by hearing stories. We imagine ourselves in circumstances and ask how we would respond" (p. 9). Thus, we have before us, fourteen stories of imperfect human beings who tried to respond to challenges and provide moral leadership.

The fourteen people chosen to highlight in this book begin with William Wilberforce, an English politician and evangelical Anglican, who in the late 18th and early 19th century almost single handily pursued the cause of abolishing the slave trade. The authors move through time from Wilberforce to the story of Malala Yousafzai, a still young Muslim woman from Pakistan who was nearly killed because of her unyielding advocacy for educating women. Most of the figures are Christian, but there is a Muslim (Malala Yousafzai), a Jew (Elie Wiesel), and a Hindu (Mohandas Gandhi), along with at least one skeptic (Abraham Lincoln). There are politicians and religious leaders, as well as people like Florence Nightingale, who elevated the cause of nursing and Harriet Tubman, who pursued the cause of abolition. There are three recently named saints in the mix—Oscar Romero, John Paul II, and Mother Teresa. There is an opponent of lynching in Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and one who resisted Hitler (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), along with one who resisted apartheid (Nelson Mandela). Both Bonhoeffer and Mandela were imprisoned, though Bonhoeffer was hanged, while Mandela became the founding figure and first president of post-apartheid South Africa. 

Gushee and Holtz introduce us to each figure, providing historical context, telling us something of the early and private life of each person, noting their vocation, pointing out their legacy and criticism offered of each (noting that these are human beings), finally, before offering a few discussion questions, they point out the leadership lessons exhibited by each figure. Each of these components builds off the prior element, so that one can see how the life of each person led to their becoming a moral leader, and why that leadership might inform our own time and place. 

This is a compelling book, perhaps due in large part to the compelling nature of each story. Many of these figures are well known to many—people like Lincoln and Gandhi—but there may be parts of their life stories that are unknown to us. We may learn that some leaders, like Gandhi, have a dark side that we never knew of before reading this, raising the question of whether the good outweighs the bad. The reader must decide if one or another figure is the most helpful witness to the move toward moral leadership. Other figures might not be as well known, but their stories are also very compelling. Consider Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who was born in 1862, to an enslaved family, but went on to become a teacher and journalist, before becoming an untiring opponent of lynching laws and a co-founder of the NAACP. The leadership lessons that emerge from her life, according to the authors, included being fearless and trusting what you see, inviting “society to see injustice where it would rather turn a blind eye.” They write of her, “through forceful campaigning and the power of the pen, she transformed an injustice not fit for discussion in polite company into an international cause” (p. 128).

Having made David Gushee's acquaintance in recent years, and having read and reviewed most of his recent books, I have developed a high respect for him and his work. This book is another expression of his excellence as an author, who writes books worth taking the time to read carefully. Although I haven’t read the work of his co-author, the partnership has borne tremendous fruit here.

 There are a variety of ways of framing conversations regarding ethics and morality. Some are more abstract than others, the choice to use biography as the vehicle has made this book more accessible, but also perhaps more compelling. The authors note that we learn ethics best by hearing stories. I believe they are correct. Could they have chosen other people to tell the story? Perhaps, but I appreciated the diversity in time and space, gender and ethnicity. While the audience of the book likely will be primarily Christian, considering the choice of publisher, I appreciated the fact that they didn’t limit their subjects to Christian examples. It is a reminder that people other than Christians can be moral leaders. In this age of division and anger, we need to hear stories of people who are moral leaders, not just exemplars, but leaders, even if they are not perfect human beings.

 For this gift of guidance, in this moment in time, we can give thanks for these two authors. So, pick up and read!


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