The last Great Man

th-6It was said a number of times during the excellent PBS two-part series on John F. Kennedy, whose assassination took place 50 years ago this month, that he led with the Great Man theory. That is: it takes greatness to run the party and the country – that the President of the United States needs to be a little bit better, sharper, healthier, wiser than the average man, and to a point you could say he was successful. Kennedy embodied what the new generation admired: health, vigor, optimism and compassion. What has come to light since then is a different picture of him, and this documentary was quick to point out that Kennedy was also secretly characterized by a constant womanizing that flew in the face of his family man image, and the fact that this vigorous, healthy man was actually constantly in physical pain, and it took a plethora of pain killers and multiple injections of cortisone to keep him appearing to be active.

In this he was just like Moses “who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:13). Both of them had something to hide, and they hid it for much the same reason: they didn’t want the people to see weakness and lose faith in their leadership. They felt they needed to be looked up to in order to run the nation.

Now, when it appears the main goal of the press is not to protect our leaders but to bring them down, even the slightest dalliance will make the front page news. All the Presidents since Kennedy have been hounded by lies, incrimination, cover-up, ineptness, posturing and scandal. It could even be argued that Kennedy’s greatness was preserved by his assassination. We eventually would have found out the truth about the man. Cut down in his vigor, he will always be remembered that way in our minds. We can’t even picture an old, declining JFK.

Yet even though these things remain to be true today, the Great Man theory of leadership still remains, and the saddest part is that it is alive and well in the church. The Great Man theory continues to be the rise and fall of many pastors and Christian leaders.

This, in spite of the fact that the first part of  the verse about Moses states: “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses…” (2 Corinthians 3:12). Paul, the writer, uses Moses as a bad example. He uses Moses as an example of what we don’t have to be. We don’t have to hide our weaknesses or our failings or our human limitations, even our sins. We are not great men; we are not preaching ourselves; we are not a cut above everyone else; we are not infallible. We are common breakable jars of clay in whom the greatness of God dwells. Paul would say, “Don’t look up to me; look through to Christ.”

The Great Man theory of leadership requires cover-up and an early death to maintain the myth. The new way requires men and women to be available to be used by God in whatever state of being they happen to be at the moment. And as far as an early death is concerned, there’s truth in that, too. Paul would say that we carry around the death of Christ in our bodies anyway, so that the life of Christ might be seen in and through our mortal existence (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).

“Don’t look up to me; look through to Christ.” That’s the new model of leadership. It’s not a Great Man we follow; it’s a Great God.

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2 Responses to The last Great Man

  1. Andrew P. says:

    Mr. Kennedy was a study in contradictions, to be sure. I did not agree with his politics, but I do appreciate that he was willing to learn. He learned from the Bay of Pigs fiasco (my understanding, anyway), and handled the Cuban missile crisis much better — and with a much better result (peace, that is, when war could easily have happened). While I hope we won’t (as you point out very well, John) try to put on a front like Mr. Kennedy did, I do hope we will learn from our mistakes and let God make us better people through the process.

  2. KaT H. says:

    Thank you for mentioning JFK’s “humanness”–his weaknesses along w/ his strengths. I know he died at a young age, but at least he is out of the misery of the pain of his bad back! Some say that Kennedy was the last of the Presidents who actually “made” decisions. He was a very interesting man. He pretty much had a “C-average” throughout his collegiate life…yet, as Andrew P. mentioned, he was willing to learn, and perhaps grow, from his political blunders.

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