Red Armbands, Tyrannical Leaders & Me

Recently I found myself getting upset at what I perceived to be government overreach in reaction to the coronavirus. Power hungry leaders, in all levels of government, have shown their true colors.

In Michigan, the governor refused to let people purchase seeds to plant in their gardens. How was that supposed to keep the virus from spreading?!

Then Mississippi fined people $500 for attending a drive-in church service in their cars – with their windows rolled up!

Meanwhile, a Colorado man was arrested for playing T-ball with his daughter in an empty park. How was that more dangerous than living together in the family’s house?   

And today I got upset at Publix over their new one-way food aisles. In a very nice way, I asked the manager, “Is this new policy really necessary? I pointed out that I’m sincerely trying to be a compliant citizen, even wearing a mask in public.

Lord Acton famously observed, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was right! Power is like an intoxicating drug. Once you’ve tasted it, you’re never satisfied until you obtain more and more.

So make no mistake about it, there’s something about having “power” that goes to a person’s head. I learned this the hard way when I was 11 years old and appointed to be a playground “Safety Guard” at my elementary school. I was SO proud of myself when they handed me a brand-new red armband, the symbol my mandateto keep order on the playground.

After only two days of patrolling, I finally had my first major opportunity to exercise this newfound authority…

I happened to spot a disgruntled-looking student walking by himself and throwing stones at the ground. Here’s my chance to straighten this guy out, I reasoned.

Although this boy was much bigger than I was, I figured there was no reason to worry. After all, I was the one with the red armband.

However, the guy refused to heed my demand that he quit tossing stones at the ground. Even worse, this effort to exercise my authority as a Safety Guard resulted in a serious punching match – one he got the better of.

To put it succinctly, he beat me to a pulp.

The next thing I remember was sitting in the school office, nursing a black eye and huge bumps all over my head. My mother was called to come and pick me up early, and she was horrified by the spectacle of her young son in obvious pain and embarrassment. As she later put an ice pack on my swollen head, I tried to explain to her that I was just trying to exercise my authority as a good Safety Guard.

I don’t think she understood…

Lessons from My Playground Rumble

As I look back, there are some clear lessons that can be gleaned from my painful experience as a Safety Guard:

1. Authority must be based on more than titles and outward symbols. I was thrilled when they made me a Safety Guard and gave me an armband to show everyone my authority. Little did I realize at the time, but true authority requires more than that. Just because we have an official uniform, badge, armband, diploma, special clerical robe, or some other emblem of our lofty office, we can’t naively assume everyone will willingly follow our leadership. Second Samuel 5:2 implies that even while Saul held the title of “king,” many people were instead following David as their true leader.

2. Authority is not merely delegated, but to some extent must be earned. While I certainly believe in the principle of delegated authority, people ordinarily won’t wholeheartedly follow a leader unless they’re convinced the leader is genuine and has their best interests at heart. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:2 that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” which seems to mean Moses’ credibility wasn’t really established until people saw how he boldly handled the crossing of the Red Sea. Likewise, people usually don’t become bonded to leaders who haven’t “paid the price” and shown a willingness to lay down their life in some way.

3. Authority is best exercised where there is a relationship. If I had known the guy throwing the stones, I’m sure we could have worked out something without the necessity of a brawl. In contrast, authority that’s impersonal and driven by rules rather than a relationship will almost always result in rebellion or resentment toward the authority. Today’s overreaching leaders during COVID-19 are giving the clear impression that they’re detached from what average citizens are going through during the lockdown.

4. It’s vitally important to exercise authority with wisdom and in the right manner. My problem as a Safety Guard wasn’t a lack of valid delegated authority. Rather, my shortcoming was in knowing how to properly exercise the authority I had been given. Notice this common leadership mistake – whether in civil government, churches, or private organizations: When people are given authority, they must also be trained in how to correctly handle it.

5. Timing is often crucial in how authority is exercised. With the benefit of hindsight, I have to admit that I was much too eager to exercise my new authority as a Safety Guard. If I had just taken time to briefly pause and assess the situation, I certainly would have realized the boy wasn’t really endangering anyone by throwing stones at the ground. Some leaders, like me that day, tend to be far too hasty in using their authority. Other leaders tend to err on the opposite side, being so slow in exercising authority that problems are unnecessarily allowed to persist and fester. Perhaps both extremes could be cited in the COVID-19 responses by various leaders.

The Cost of Leadership

From my perspective, some of today’s leaders have been much too eager to impose restrictions on people in order to thwart the pandemic. While some of the restrictions have probably been necessary, I’m convinced that others have been a foolhardy overreach.

COVID-19 has revealed that many leaders have an improper desire to be in control. Like my experience as a Safety Guard, they’re seemingly attracted by the perks and prestige of having authority. As a result, they’re failing to realize that true leadership is not about control but service – laying down our lives for others.

We could all learn an important lesson from the story of James and John asking Jesus for the privilege of sitting at His right and left hands when He launched His kingdom:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”

And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”

They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory” (Mark 10:25-37).

You have to admire the honesty of these men. Many aspiring leaders are sneaky and subtle about their real intentions. Rather than admitting they’re seeking a powerful position in order to exalt themselves and domineer others, today’s politicians typically describe their career as “public service.” Yet despite having a rather modest salary, often they become multimillionaires – a fact that should be a serious red flag to their constituents.

Jesus used the request of James and John to give them a vital message on leadership:

“You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

What would our nation be like – and what would our churches be like – if every leader could pass this “servanthood” test? And I can’t help wondering how many people would cease pursuing a leadership position if they understood it would require them to lay down their lives for their followers.

Abusive vs. Loving Leaders

As I learned on the playground that day, sometimes authority is exercised in unhealthy or even toxic ways. And it’s tragic that people often accept abusive leadership, whether in their home, their church, or their community.

Paul had to confront the believers in Corinth about their foolish willingness to tolerate oppressive leaders: “You even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face” (2 Corinthians 11:20 NIV). Why would the Corinthians consent to be treated in such an abusive way?

Sadly, many people today are all too willing to subject themselves to leaders who enslave and exploit them like this. In fact, the history of humankind has predominantly been the history of tyrannical leaders.

In contrast to much of human history, the United States has largely been a bright spot, a wonderful beacon of freedom for several hundred years now. However, this doesn’t mean our future liberties are certain. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” How many Americans today are truly vigilant about the cause of liberty? Seemingly few.

While the false leaders in Corinth were motivated by a desire to exploit the people, Paul said he was delighted to give himself to them: “Everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening” (2 Corinthians 12:19 NIV). I fear that many of today’s leaders could not honestly make such a statement.

Dear friend, let us never forget that love is the foundation of all genuine authority and leadership. Those who exercise authority without love are not only deficient, they are dangerous. And take my word for it, you need more than a title and a red Safety Guard armband to be an effective leader.