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12 February 2016

"I went to the school of humility and came top"

"I went to the school of humility and came top"

Richard Langmead is director of Green Pastures Christian Centre in Poole.

I shall only briefly mention the elephant in the room by name, as I think he has already received enough publicity this week, but I do wonder if there is a profound cultural shift currently taking place in the US political landscape.

Two thousand years ago in the ancient Roman Republic, candidates seeking high political office wore whitened togas to signify purity of intention. While these candidates often fell short of the symbolic gesture, they at least understood that their voters needed to see some nod towards moral character and goodness of purpose.

As the race to become US president increasingly takes centre-stage in our news cycle, we can already reflect back on six months of political life-imitating show business; theatricality trumping public service.

I for one am not sure of the format difference between I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and the relentlessly broadcast race for the most powerful job in the world. Has the 21st century fixation with TV show voting and celebrity elimination from jungle/house/dance floor/ice-rink and island trained us to view today's leadership contest as primarily an exercise in entertainment rather than a process to find leaders who will do us public good?

So what shift might we be observing in the US this week? Well certainly the astonishing morphing of politics into mainstream entertainment, but perhaps there is something subtler happening as well. Perhaps we are witnessing a modern election where the quality of humility is no longer part of the discussion?

John Dickson in his remarkable book Humilitas notes that before the Roman Empire was Christianised, leaders would boast loudly of their successes and even adopt names that referenced how brilliant they thought they were. My favourite is Octavius who took the name Caesar Augustus, which basically means Caesar the Awesome.

But imagine today if David Cameron had adopted the title of David the Magnificent as he ran for election last year? Perhaps the British electorate would have found this approach refreshing or a demonstration of leadership, but I rather suspect the Cameron household would now reside somewhere other than Number 10.

John Dickson argues that before Christ public leadership may well have had its noble side, but it was socially acceptable to boast of your successes, brag of your importance and to lord it over others. Following Christ's example of humble leadership the conversation slowly changed and today referring to yourself as 'Donald the Magnificent', would be seen as embarrassing and politically foolish.

Or so we thought…

Two thousand years ago Jesus achieved the extraordinary and shifted the whole conversation around leadership so it became impossible not to think of leaders in terms of their humility or lack thereof.

Philippians 2:7-8 talks about Christ's humility and sets out the divine leadership style: "[He] made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant…He humbled himself".

The Romans may have worn whitened togas, but it was Jesus who embodied a humble style of leadership that went way beyond symbolism and gesture. Humility and service went to the core of his leadership values and it's an approach that changed the whole conversation around what acceptable leadership should look like in public life.

Is it possible there is a subtle shift back to those pre-Christian leadership values?

For those of us who follow Jesus, He is the perfect example of leadership and whether it's in the home, in the Church, in the workplace or at the highest level of political office, the invitation of God is to bless the world by joining the 'humility-movement' that Jesus started.

Image: CC Gage Skidmore