“No kid of mine is going to apologize to anyone.”
Every close family I know has a repertoire of one-liners, remembered from times past, that they pull out to make each other laugh. The one above is a quotation from a grandfather I never met, who didn’t understand why his daughter — my mother — wanted to go to college for nursing.
My mother attended Niagara University, a Catholic school. When she told him that she was required to take a course on Apologetics, “No kid of mine is going to apologize to anyone” was his response. When I, a generation later, enrolled in Divinity School, I smiled to myself whenever I saw a course on Apologetics in the catalogue. I never did take one of those courses, as no descendant of Smokey Joseph was going to apologize to anyone.
Since May of 2021, I have been writing every week about Critical Christian Leadership. As I described in my first piece in the series, the term “critical” has several meanings, and criticizing isn’t any of them. A critical thinker chooses fresh perspectives over inherited ones. They don’t take anything for granted. They avoid simple, dismissive categorization. In other words, they observe without judging before engaging in reason.
I was initially inspired to create the series because of my dismay over the debate about teaching critical race theory in schools. First, elementary schools weren’t teaching actual critical race theory, an advanced academic discipline that involves meta-analysis of different bodies of scholarship.
Second, “… but even if it were!? What’s wrong with that!?” I asked my NPR commentator who could not hear me. I resisted the notion that we would ever withhold opportunities from young people to learn to think critically, question what they read, and analyze. Especially amidst today’s technology, kids and adults alike need to learn to separate information of quality from the garbage dump that is the Internet. It’s a survival skill.
Finally, I hated it when leaders played dumb. Those who had every reason to understand that the term “critical race theory” had nothing to do with telling white kids they’re bad, choosing to hype a misunderstanding of the term for the sake of political gain (I’m talking about you, fellow Yalie Ron DeSantis), disrespected the educations they were fortunate to have received. Their teachers tried to help them think critically, and then they pretended critical theory was something it wasn’t in order to win points with anti-intellectuals who view educated people as pointy-headed pedants with selfish ulterior motives. I had enough of that in middle school, Ron.
Over the course of the year, I’ve written about various world situations with the hopes of providing new angles into tough topics for Christian leaders. I’m starting to come to clarity, however, that “various” isn’t going to be specific enough for where we as a society go, and where leaders need to take us. Leaders need more than neutrality when analyzing and strategizing. They need to look at the world through the eyes of love.
In Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017), Margaret Wheatley makes the case that our civilization is in-decline. When comparing today’s world with that of previous eras, she cannot escape that conclusion, and in reading her book, neither can I. Wheatley writes that we need leaders to help us through what are likely end-times. In a chapter entitled, “Choosing to Lead Well in Collapse,” she writes,
[L]eaders cannot prevent the unraveling of our global civilization and that is not their ambition. They aspire to make a profound difference locally, in the lives of people in their communities and organizations. […] For as long as they can.
Surprisingly, I find Wheatley’s words encouraging. As a leader, I’m not expected to set the goal, “Reverse the decline of civilization”? What a relief! But I can set the goal of making my context more just, more loving, more wise, and more capable of influencing other contexts to do the same. As a Christian, I believe in the resurrection. End-times are the birthing-place of new life that’s better than anything we could ask or imagine.
So, starting in two weeks, I’m moving away from the “neutral” stance of critical thinking and embracing love. My new series, to launch August 12, will be entitled “Leading-With-Love Letters”. “Leading With Love” is Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School’s theme for the new academic year, and love letters are what I want to provide for leaders as my contribution to that theme. The essays will not attempt to equip leaders so that they might bend the arrow of time upward from its downward arc, but rather they will point leaders in the direction of the true North that is God’s love: the God who makes all things new.
The opposite of critical thinking might be uncritical acceptance of a single perspective. So understand that I’m not reversing my own arguments that critical thinking is necessary for Christian leaders. Leading with love is an entirely different framing of reality, and Christians believe it’s how Jesus taught us God wants us to see creation. We’re fully aware of this world’s imperfections, like a loving mother knows her child’s flaws. We see it for what it is, want to make it better, and do so because we love.
I’m not sorry to have spent more than a year looking at the context in which today’s faith leaders minister through critical eyes initially, rather than loving eyes. I’m not going to apologize for anything.