I recently had the opportunity to hear General David Petraeus speak in person at a nearby lecture series held on the campus of Purdue Northwest. General Petraeus is one of the best-known American generals of the post-Vietnam era. He has a degree from Westpoint, was the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College class of 1983 and earned a Ph.D. in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He gained fame after leading the surge in Iraq, a controversial buildup of U.S. forces that was credited with a sharp reduction of violence during the American occupation. After his retirement from the Army, he headed the CIA from late 2011 to 2012 (after being nominated by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate).
During the session, General Patraeus talked about pressing geopolitical issues facing our world including China and the war in Ukraine, but I left the session thinking more about his comments on “Strategic Leadership.” He described what he regards as the four major tenets of Strategic Leadership: getting the big ideas right, effectively communicating those big ideas, overseeing their implementation; and making refinements in those ideas when necessary.
The more I thought about it, the more I could see the ministry of Jesus Christ as being a powerful example of effective Strategic Leadership. Jesus’ “big ideas”: to love God and love each other, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to forgive each other time and time again; these are the big ideas that served as the foundations of early Christianity and eventually led to Christianity “going global.” And it wasn’t just that he got the big ideas right, Jesus also communicated those big ideas through evocative parables. In one parable, a man is robbed, beaten, and left on the road. Many pass him by without giving him help, including respected members of his own community. The one who does stop to help him is a Samaritan, a person considered a foreigner and an outsider. Jesus insists that the “great commandment” to love one’s neighbor as oneself crosses all ethnic and religious barriers. In his ministry, Jesus himself crossed many social barriers: mingling with the ostracized tax collectors, adulterers, and sex workers, as well as the disabled, the poor, and the sick. He warned against casting judgment, and counseled critics to remember their own imperfections before condemning others.
With over two thousand years of history to examine, there are plenty of examples of corrupt and self-serving leadership within the hierarchy of organized Christianity (try googling “worst popes in history” if you ever want to be really disgusted), and there are plenty of contemporary examples, both in the wider world and much closer to home, where the big ideas that Jesus championed sometimes seem to have gotten lost in a sea of political divisiveness, or over disagreements about doctrine or styles of worship or any number of other issues.
But if history has taught us anything, I would argue that it should have taught us that the big ideas that Jesus championed: to love God and love each other, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to forgive each other time and time again; these are the strategic ideas which have staying power for the long term, for our faith, for our church, for our country, and within our personal lives.
I pray you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday,