In a military leadership class I took, we watched the movie Twelve O’Clock High. The story is situated in World War II and centered on the commander of a bomber group, Brigadier General Savage.
After suffering heavy losses, the unit’s morale and discipline has plummeted. General Savage is sent in to turn them around. Like a 7th Grade science teacher on the first day of school, Savage starts off tough. Pretty much everyone hates him for it. They see him as a tyrant. But by the end, not only does his unit trust him, they’re ready to lay down their lives following him.
It’s a common enough plot line. Whether centered on a tough-as-nails coach, an inspiring chief executive, or Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san, the tyrant-to-trusted-leader transformation tells a story about a radical shift in perspective.
The tyrant-to-trusted-leader plot line helps say why and how Christians follow Jesus.
- Jesus saves by grace. Other religions demand works.
Therefore, Jesus is more appealing because of His unconditional love.
- Jesus teaches peace. Other ways of life depend on violence.
Therefore, Jesus has greater moral appeal.
- Jesus offers an eternal hope. Other hopes are temporary.
Therefore … you get the picture.
These arguments are not completely wrong. But they do ignore a problem for every person confronted by the Jesus of the New Testament. When you first meet him, he strikes you as a tyrant.
Consider Jesus’ parable in Luke 19:11–27. He compares his coming kingdom to that of a nobleman who goes to a distant country to receive royal power and then return. Being an analogy, the parable does not say Jesus is like the hypothetical nobleman in every way, but only in some ways. There are at least three points of comparison:
- Like the nobleman, Jesus will receive power to reign (see Luke 1:32-33);
- He will be rejected by some of his people: “We don’t want this man to be our king!” (Luke 19:14);
- Those who refuse this ruler will perish: “As for those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king
over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me” (Luke 19:27).
So there might be a more pragmatic, but less appealing reason to follow Jesus. If he’s either going to destroy or save you, wouldn’t it be better to be saved? Maybe, maybe not—there are plenty of people who would choose death in defiance of tyranny.
The Christian tradition would say, “Jesus only seems to be a tyrant. In truth, he has our best interest in mind. He threatens and punishes only because he wants us to turn back to him, the Son of God, the source of all goodness. To let us go on stubbornly refusing his rule and reign would be apathy or indifference, but not love. Furthermore, he does not want us merely to cower before him in fear, but to trust him as dearly loved children of God.”
As a follower of Jesus, I believe this is true (Lord, help my unbelief). I believe it because I have begun to live in this tyrant-to-trusted-leader storyline that is transforming my perspective.
The story that will do this to you is the one Good News given in four versions: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which claim to fulfill the Old Testament narrative of God and Israel. There is no way to have your view of Jesus transformed other than living in this story together with his followers, the Church. As for how to live this story in a particular place and time, the New Testament letters of Paul, John, and Peter are authoritative guides.
Living in this story centered on Jesus will lead you to trust him—even to lay down your life for him. But the trouble with trusting a tyrant is that you don’t know from the outset whether he or she truly has your best interest in mind. You can’t give a knock-down argument that your leader is trustworthy. You don’t know if you’re following a Mr. Miyagi or a Charles Manson.
So what can you do? How do you come to the River of Living Water without drinking the Kool-Aid?
You could employ critical doubt and exercise sound judgment. But isn’t that just a sophisticated way of saying, “Be your own benevolent dictator.” If you won’t surrender and trust another, why would you trust your own tyrannical nature?
The trouble is not really in trusting a tyrant. It’s deciding which tyrant to trust.
As a follower of Jesus, I can only hold out a yet-to-be proven hope. It’s the plot line in which our perspective shifts from seeing Jesus as a tyrant to receiving him as our trustworthy King. This might not seem like much to go on. But upon closer examination, it’s the same hopeful plot line that everyone else is offering. The only difference is who is at the center.