Perish or Flourish

Leadership and its Revealing in Times of Crises

The United States broke another record as new COVID-19 cases topped 77,000 just yesterday. This is the 9th straight day in one month that the new cases outrun each other on a daily basis. The total cases in the US have now reached 3,625,500, with 138,979 deaths as of 6:00 PM ET today, July 17, 2020. The resurgence of infections in the country has now climbed past the highest peak that the pandemic reached back in April, and there is no sign of the spike taking a downturn as several states have now become new flashpoint of mass infections and community spread. To make these days acutely more bewildering is the toxic politicization of the science, so much so that the mere wearing of masks has become, unthinkably, a partisan issue. The net effect of all these is that there is no coherent national strategy in responding to the pandemic.

During this shocking resurgence of the pandemic, the US administration has literally walked away from guiding the nation through this crisis by functionally ceasing any public conversation and briefings about the pandemic, and shifting radically instead to discourse about the reopening of the economy and the reopening of schools full time in the Fall, ostensibly to convey a modicum of normalcy. But the fiery resurgence of new infections and deaths belie that push. That insistence to create an image of normalcy is a chimera. The sudden withdrawal of engagement on the pandemic from the national stage was so jolting, the abrupt silence so mind-boggling, that state governors were left to fend for themselves, creating an asynchronous patchwork of responses across the nation.

The lives and health of countless many – yours and mine, and our families – continue to be endangered, as the administration recently making clear moves to control scientific data on the pandemic from reaching the public by ordering hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and instead submit their statistics on COVID-19 directly to the White House for storage into a database inaccessible to the public. There is something almost portentous in this move in the context of a pandemic, as it indicates that intelligent, rational people are deliberately maneuvering to keep vital scientific information about the pandemic from public view. I don’t use the word portentous loosely, but the recent actions of the administration begs the question: why intentionally withhold vital scientific information about the pandemic that can serve the health and well-being of the citizenry, and literally save lives? Just as perplexing is the administration’s insistence to reopen schools full time in the Fall without a clear plan, which has ignited another fiery debate across the country, deepening the distrust of the country with the administration. And today, the White House blocked the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from testifying before the House Committee on Education to discuss the reopening of schools. The question remains: why?

The political landscape of America right now is in severe crisis. The enforced quarantine and shutdown of society have driven the economy close to collapse, causing more than 40 million people to file for unemployment, and causing numerous company bankruptcies. On top of all that, the videotaped public killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the hands of police in Minneapolis has inflamed long-simmering racial animus and caused the eruption of massive protests and demonstrations all across America, and now the world. If you’re like me, I am longing for leadership that can hold us together as the fabric of our nation is unraveling at the seams. I am longing for the experienced and knowledgeable voice of a ship captain in a storm, to hold us together and summon the best in all of us, as our ship is being tossed to and fro in the tempest. Unifying leadership in a time of crisis, that passionately pursues the common good is grievously absent. We are adrift as a nation right now, like a rudderless ship.

Leadership matters. I have discovered during these pandemic quarantine months a good deal more time to pursue hobbies of interest. One of those hobbies is watching good movies on streaming platforms like Netflix, Prime, Hulu, or Disney+. One of my areas of interest is in docudramas, a genre of feature films that dramatize reenactments of actual historical events. Two movies that I saw recently had leadership as their theme – Remember the Sultana and Shackleton’s Captain. I found both movies captivating, and resonated powerfully with America’s zeitgeist. In 1865, the United States experienced its worst maritime disaster when the Sultana, a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat, exploded and sank on April 27, 1865. Designed only for maximum capacity of 376 passengers, she was carrying 2,137 persons when its boilers exploded. The fatal overloading happened because of the corruption and greed of the captain who took a bribe from a military officer in charge of ferrying prisoners to another city. It was around the tail end of the Civil War. The US government paid $2.75 per enlisted man, and $8.00 per officer, to any steamboat captain who would take a group north. The officer told the captain that he could guarantee 1,400 persons, for as long as he gave the officer a kickback. While the actual number of casualties was never known, the official count by the US Customs Service was 1,547 dead. The tragedy rivaled that of the mighty Titanic, which collided with a massive iceberg and sank, because her captain didn’t listen to early warnings, underestimated and miscalculated the danger, and didn’t slow down the massive ship – all due to hubris, the allure of fame, and ambition.

The story of Shackleton’s Captain, on the other hand, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Irish Antarctic explorer, and his crew set off for Antarctica with the goal of crossing the continent. He commissioned the best sailor that he could find to captain the ship, a native New Zealander named Frank Worsley, renowned for his ability to navigate to tiny, remote islands. But before reaching the coast, the ship became frozen in pack ice, and was slowly crushed. The crew and passengers abandoned ship, and sailed three lifeboats to Elephant Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. After leaving the men there, Worsely, Shackleton, and four others sailed their lifeboat to seek help some 800 miles across the stormy South Atlantic Ocean, to their intended destination in South Georgia. It was the sheer navigational skill of Worsely and his knowledge of the sea and the heavens, that made them survive the arduous journey. When they reached shore, they still had to hike and climb for 36 hours across mountainous South Georgia in order to reach the nearest whaling station. Worsely and Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to rescue their men, not knowing if they were still alive. When they reached the island they saw that the remaining members of the expedition all survived.

The value of leadership in any human organization or group becomes most consequential in times of great challenge and crisis. Leaders lead us to either perish or flourish. In my teaching of scripture across these years, I have said many times that the biblical narratives of God encountering the people of faith are all set in a context of crisis and challenge, and it is always in that crucible that a leader is revealed to be righteous or unrighteous.

How do we hold each other during these days of uncertainty, confusion, and danger? Where do we look for leadership, a captain in the storm who not only has mastery over the sextant, but also who is guided by a moral compass? Until these historical moments that we are all in raises up the righteous leader for our time (and in the biblical sense, righteousness attributed to humans never means perfection), perhaps each of us has the moral responsibility to rise up, speak, uphold, and pursue the common good within the humble spaces that we each inhabit, to strive to live out the moral life. I am hopeful that if we do so, we can protect and preserve the web of life that cradles us all.

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