We witnessed the senseless slaughter of nine Americans at a worship service in South Carolina. We watched as their families and community showed us how to come together and push through unspeakable sorrow with dignity, class, and faith. I watched as churches in my community responded in different ways to threats they received to “shoot them up!” in retaliation for what occurred in South Carolina.
This violence spurred the ongoing debate about whether or not the flag incorrectly referred to as the Confederate flag should be banned. From all the back-and-forth, I’ve noted a few things that, for leaders, are worth remembering.
1. If you are going to insist on expressing your opinion, get your facts straight. In this case, the Confederate States of American had three flags. The one we are arguing about was never one of them. It was one of hundreds of flags carried in battle, and is often called the Confederate Battle Flag. There are really two versions of the flag being debated. One is known as the Southern Cross, the other is the Confederate Navy Jack. Most folks can’t tell them apart.
As a leader, lead from truth: not emotion. Build trust. Go to the trouble of checking the facts before you open your mouth. A leader cannot afford the luxury of emotion-driven debate. It is the truth, and only the truth, that sets free.
2. Leaders empower with liberty. Read again the text of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream. The future he envisioned would come, not by taking away from others, but by bringing liberty to everyone. While many of his basic rights were being denied, Dr. King refused to turn his mind and heart over to those who hated him. As a result, he didn’t write about what offended him. He chose not to respond in anger. Instead, he focused on what the world would be when every man walked hand-in-hand as brothers. Though oppressed, he refused to be offended.
Leaders cannot allow themselves to be motivated by what offends them. A selfless man cannot be offended. That is an emotion-charged fire fueled only by selfishness. That’s probably why the LORD inspired the psalmist to write Psalm 119:165. “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.” (To be offended also means to stumble, but that is a lesson for another day.)
The offended don’t lead, they push – and that with no rhyme or reason. They, and those around them, are prisoners of their out-of-control emotions. When the offended rule, nobody has any rights. It’s only a matter of time until you become the offender and are forced to surrender to the whims of the angry mob.
Leaders must be able to keep their heads above the emotional waves that swell around every important issue and event, and see that ray of light that beckons toward the future. Regardless of how painfully you’ve been wounded, focusing on your hurt or seeking revenge will ensure that you never move beyond this moment. Worse yet, you assign those following you the same fate.
3. Leaders seek to understand first; then, to be understood. That’s from Stephen Covey. In this flag debate, nobody is really trying to understand. They are all screaming to be heard.
To those who want the flag down, it represents hatred and bigotry.
To those who love it, it represents a way of life displayed in a sugar-coated way by the Dukes of Hazzard.
But the discussion is minus a leader. So all we have are two sides screaming at each other. Unless a leader steps up, when this issue is finally settled, the gulf between black-and-white-skinned Americans will be just a little bit wider.
4. A leader must know when to speak up – and have the courage to do so. Today’s youth do not understand the huge losses in personal freedoms that we have suffered in recent years. They are seldom understanding and not always kind to the older folks who lament those losses. Their opposition can be intimidating. No one enjoys being thought out-of-touch or out-of-tune. However, a leader must not allow these feelings to silence him.
Fire up your favorite search engine. Research how recent court rulings and other decisions have ordered crosses removed from public cemeteries, American flag decals removed from private vehicles, Christmas decorations removed from public land, Ten Commandment plaques removed from courthouse hallways, military chaplains punished for praying in Jesus name or declaring that same-sex marriage is wrong. It won’t take you long to see that our nation is being led by the offended, and not by men and women with courage and vision.
Leaders must speak up!
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The poem is familiar, but the author’s story is not. Martin Niemöller was a German pastor when the Nazis were torturing and killing millions. Pastor Miemoller would spend seven years in concentration camps. After the war, he talked about his experiences and these are the words he chose to describe his actions.
As we watch our own country, having lost its biblical moorings, twist and turn in the wind, may our passion push us beyond our fears and give power to our words so that the people of God hear a voice of hope above the clamor and confusion.