By Bassem Melki
These days we are seeing people in “democratic” societies choosing to follow leaders who represent their own personal interests rather than leaders who identify with a country’s wider identity. People must ask themselves again if they will look for leaders who fit the values representing their communities or adapt their values to fit a person? Could it be that support for individual people is replacing the commitment to values in politics? Are we ready to vote for leaders whose leadership is in conflict with the country’s identity and values? These are questions that everyone should be asking, especially here in the Middle East.
In Lebanon we follow leaders because we believe they can defend us, or save us, not because they represent the values that can carry the identity of the country forward. There is no accountability for leaders if they fail to actually serve our country and its people well. Political and party leaders mostly defend the political party’s agenda. Every group believes they have the solution for Lebanon and try to run the country their own way. Is there no escape from this?
As I observed last year’s U.S. presidential election, I could not help but see how many people passionately supported a person or a party. Suddenly I felt the same feelings I feel here in Lebanon when I see people attach themselves to political leaders. It seemed to me that Americans whether, Democrats or Republicans, followed an ideology, a set of ideas and values, and supported the person that defended these most passionately. It seemed like many voted for a person to advance their ideals and it didn’t matter who or what kind of person the leader was as long as the politics lined up with what Americans want to believe and dream for their nation.
If we determine that the way to advance virtues is by following a person, and if we were to recognize that Americans who used to follow virtues are now becoming like the Lebanese by following the person blindly, then this tells me that society seems to be regressing rather than advancing. That’s a scary thought.
There are a few reasons why the Lebanese are not able to get out of leader-worship and why Americans might find themselves taking the shape of the Arab world in this way. To understand some core dimensions of this let’s look at few components.
The world is full of followers who are constantly attaching to someone who will represent them in the social and political world. The follower mentality doesn’t want to think for itself or create something new. One of the major problems in Lebanon is the strong belief in intercession and intermediary roles. We constantly need to have a person, whether a religious personality or a political leader, plead for us, fight for us, and see to our needs. We believe we cannot reach a destination without a medium. As followers we have been led to believe this is the only way and it causes us to have a worship approach to people in power. By strongly revering them we believe they can take care of us.
We see examples of this in the Bible when Israel asks for a king to rule over them. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8) We accept that for what it is that’s just part of being human. Followers are the majority. However, leaders who cast a vision and channel their charisma are able to feed off followers. They are able to lead people to believe in their persona rather than any ideology. By doing this they avoid accountability and escape the risk of being replaced when people no longer see a need for them. It is different with true servant leaders.
Mature leaders are those who lead and influence the people towards a common good by promoting and living out the identity of their state or kingdom. These leaders are not self-centered, self-preserving, or self-serving. They serve the state by pushing its values and defending the characteristics that make up the identity of that kingdom. They coach the people not into following the leader but into the shared vision and ethics they represent, similar to the approaches by Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. did. I believe these servant leaders and transformational leaders, who put the interest of the people and the nation over themselves, work against this current of worshiping leaders by reversing it, and they are few.
So how do we counteract following individuals blindly and encourage free thinking? Here are a few thoughts:
Get fed up. Today in Lebanon we are at the doorsteps of change. The circumstances have become miserable and people have had enough with corrupt and self-centered leaders. For the first time we hear them saying to heck with politicized religious institutions, to heck with political leaders. We want liberation, and we want it so bad that we are willing to die for it since the current situation is killing us anyways. So the first step to relinquishing leader worship is for people to become fed up with everything that prevents them from buying into the new identity we want Lebanon to be built upon. An ideology that fosters equality, diversity, and collective harmony rather than the effort of the individual or of one party overpowering others. We have to be fed up with everything that holds us back and launch forward into a new understanding and live it to its fullest. Do we continue to be victims of this culture or will we revolt and change? Can we evolve? Will we allow ourselves to go through a new experience?
Another step is to promote civic values that resonate long term, we want Lebanon to live by and put together an identity for the future that everybody rallies behind. This month the Maronite Patriarch called for rallying behind a set of values that I think are great for lifting the country out of its misery. But again, like other leaders, the language he used was ‘us’ and ‘them’, not a collective rally for all diversity of the Lebanese people. Can Christians call for a life that enjoys a relationship with Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites, Catholics, Druze, and Orthodox. Can we build a nation not on personal interests but on seeing that our own worth and identity is never complete without including and embracing the other? No matter how powerful or marginalized the other is.
Also, I believe public virtues cannot be self-sustained. We need leaders that can champion public virtues, stand up for an idea, and coach people to live for higher values and a thriving future. Moreover, the church needs to have a prophetic voice in shaping transformational leaders that can sustain the identity and ideology of a country.
Final reflection: As followers of Christ, do we follow Him for our own interests, or do we follow Him for who He is and what He embodies? Do we consider Him just as another leader to hide behind? Although Christ asked us to follow Him, I believe He meant that while we believe in Him, He asked us to follow His ways, His values, and His truth, for He is the Truth, the Life, and the Way. It is dangerous to follow Jesus without following His Kingdom’s values. He told us to seek His Kingdom first and its righteousness. I’ve seen too many Christians defend Jesus with judgement over others. Too many Christians unknowingly leading a church to split while defending doctrine. Too many Christians defending Scripture with hate.
If we follow Jesus, we follow His commandments, His values, His attitude, His mind, and most importantly His love and passion. There is no tension between Christ the leader and His values.
Bassem is a lecturer in peace studies at ABTS and engages in action research exploring ways to bring political actors together in collaborative relations.