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Take me to your leader

17 April 2014

Christians are not immune to a tendency to 'dictator envy', and it is a dangerous inclination, says Richard Inglesby


Authority figures: above: Josef Stalin in 1935; below: King Saul - Saul and David by Rembrandt

Authority figures: above: Josef Stalin in 1935; below: King Saul - Saul and David by Rembrandt

AS WE stand on the threshold of the centenary of the First World War, we should remember that a bout of "dictator envy" occurred in Britain during the darkest months of the conflict.

The term is from the historian Professor David Runciman, in his latest book The Confidence Trap: A history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the present (Princeton University Press, 2013). His thesis is that democracy's default position is to stumble into crises and, usually, get through them. But loss of nerve en route invariably stirs up calls for strong leadership, or "dictator envy", as Professor Runciman calls it.

There are clear parallels in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and Passiontide provides a particular focus.

The Hebrew scriptures reveal an early awareness of the question, as in 1 Samuel 8, where dictator envy led the elders of Israel to ask the ageing Samuel to appoint a king in his place, so that they could be like other nations. The alarm bells that this set ringing are a commentary on the consequences of a dictator king, as relevant today as when this passage was written.

Significantly, the yearning for a strong authority figure is virtually absent from the writings of the Old Testament prophets. But, in the New Testament, a shade of dictator envy may be there in John the Baptist, as he foretold the terrors of judgement that were soon to strike. Languishing in prison, he had to send messengers to enquire whether Jesus really was the one expected, as his ministry seemed so at odds with John's own hopes.


THE Church has always had to live with this sort of tension. Being human, we can slip into a mindset of dictator envy, before reluctantly accepting that what we actually need is God's gift of a crucified and risen Saviour. Even Paul's writings are revealing in this respect. His "foolishness of God" passage in 1 Corinthians 1 contains some of his most profound thinking. Yet, with his contemporaries, he also looks to the imminent return of Christ in glory.

In an era of persecution, this is understandable. But, for some, in the first century AD as now, it is as if the first coming of Jesus leaves something to be desired. Our own public intercessions occasionally betray a similar mindset: Swing into action, Lord, and stamp your authority.

Professor Runciman's reflections on democracy also carry weight for us now in the Church of England. Its versatility, which dictatorships cannot have by their nature, is an ultimate strength. The General Synod's floundering over women bishops makes the case. Thanks to its democratic culture, a resolution is now in sight, whereas only a year ago many were despairing that it ever would be. We could contrast this with the C of E's predicament over same-sex relationships, which have not been subject to a similar degree of Synod debate.

It is fascinating to read how Pope Francis is prising the Vatican away from its tradition of quasi-dictator monarchy towards collegiality in decision-making. There does not have to be a spy-camera in St Peter's for the opposition to be glimpsed.

There is a great deal of history to overcome. To name but one recent example, the virtual banning by Rome of liberation theology a few decades ago may have arisen from a number of motives. The stated reason was the movement's preferential option for the poor, which was seen as too overtly political for theological comfort.

But the stance may have had as much to do with the identification of the Roman Catholic hierarchy with Latin American dictatorships. Since his inauguration last year, Pope Francis has seen his task as emulating his great medieval namesake, by keeping the needs of the poorest at the heart of his thinking and action. In the process, he is incurring the displeasure of wealthy donors to the Church, especially in North America.

In the 19th century, Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov caricatures another aspect of the question: the trade-off between freedom and security. One of the brothers relates a parable about "the Grand Inquisitor", who is an archetypal cardinal from 16th-century Seville. The Inquisitor confronts Jesus, who has returned to Seville as a miracle-worker.

Outrageously, Jesus is condemned to the stake for bestowing on people more freedom than they can endure. By this point, the Church has corrected his work, removing the freedom that Jesus originally bestowed. When the magisterium is in charge, life is easier for everyone.


PROJECTION - the casting of our hopes, fears, and anger on to another - is a phenomenon that all those in any type of authority should recognise. For example, while we want a clear voice from the Church, a type of dictator-envy prompted much of the flak projected on to Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Moderate, considered tones are seldom popular with those who want quotable sound-bites.

The Psalmist may have lapsed into a spot of dictator envy in Psalm 68, in verses such as: "God will smite the head of his enemies, the hairy scalp of those who walk in wickedness," where God seems to be unmistakably cast in the role of a military overlord. This was perhaps an excursion in poetic licence to extol Israel's God, whose contest for hearts and minds is illustrated in episodes such as Elijah and the prophets of Baal. But they might reveal a deep-seated need to project base human notions of greatness on to God.

Every generation can fall prey to this in its hymns and songs. When the children come to the front and sing "My God is so big, so strong, and so mighty, there's nothing my God cannot do," one could ask whether these words don't actually hook a latent desire in ourselves. None of us find it easy to live with the paradoxes of worshipping an omnipotent deity.

On the other side of the coin, the question "Why doesn't God do something about X or Y?" is a familiar topic in most parish discussions groups, and a lament with which the Psalmist was all too familiar.

If, in your church, you sing the hymn "There's a wideness in God's mercy," you may recall the lines "And we magnify his strictness With a zeal he will not own." The hymn-writer may be warning us against that bit of the elder brother in us, which cannot accept the mercy shown to our prodigal brothers and sisters. We often wish to project our own harsh judgements by way of a severe if not dictatorial Father God.


IN HOLY WEEK, we behold our crucified Saviour, the ultimate antidote to dictator envy. This is a central theme in W. H. Vanstone's Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense (DLT, 1977). In his gentle, nuanced tones, he puts it like this: "Religious imagery which displays or celebrates the supremacy of divine power neither convinces the head nor moves the heart."

Instead, we are brought to our knees on Good Friday by that sacrificial love that bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, the suffering servant foreshadowed in the writings of Isaiah, and brought to life and death in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even the most agnostic heart can be moved to reflect on the significance of Calvary's wounded healer - often through great art. For those who seldom read the Bible, there is an awesome panoply of music, literature, and visual art which represents Christianity's core-doctrine: that the tragic necessity of our salvation was wrought not through pomp and power, but in the desolating pain of Christ's suffering on the Cross.

How else does one explain the almost universal appeal of Salvador Dali's epic painting of the crucifixion, or the annual Good Friday performance of a Bach Passion in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham - or the many other manifestations of such interest, which will be seen throughout the country in the next few days?

It is not stretching a metaphor too far to discern in the Trinity a model for shared authority. Instead of a divine dictator at the heart of all things, there is the interpenetrating love between the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The familiar Rublev icon that shows three figures around a table portrays the essence of this; and, further, that we human beings are invited to participate in the divine relationship of love. Other monotheistic faiths will always baulk at this fundamental Christian notion, that "God is love" finds doctrinal expression in the Trinity. For our God is not a unitary authority, on to whom we can then project varying shades of dictatorship. We Christians must watch and pray, lest we also lapse into this mindset.


The Revd Richard Inglesby is a retired priest living in Gloucestershire, having served in parishes in the dioceses of Bath & Wells and Lichfield.

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