The new Pope is giving all kinds of signals that humility is the highest measure of great leadership. The seductions in other directions must be enormous: the sudden rush of standing on the world stage; the glitter of the ancient garb; the adoration of the faithful. Can you imagine the exhilaration of stepping up to the balcony window to speak to 250,000 cheering people? Surely the Pope felt the sheer power of it all, for just a moment at least.
All leaders face some form of this seduction, thinking the role they have been given is somehow a mark of their character, somehow a measure of their personal power. The danger, of course, is that all the props of the role will eventually be kicked aside, and what is left is character and the very ideas that have long shaped the life behind the leader. It doesn’t go the other way around.
As the Pope stooped to wash and kiss the feet of juvenile prisoners, women and Muslims among them, we catch a glimpse that maybe there is another way beyond the raw seduction of power. As the Pope reached out to hug and hold a disabled young man over Easter weekend, we think, well maybe there is another path to human power. Politicians often bend to kiss the babies, but when they move on to self-serving power, we are left with the growing cynicism of our day.
What we need is the word of the cross of Jesus, isn’t it? Not the fake version of that word. What we need is the genuine word of humility in the midst of ordinary power.
The Apostle Paul saw clearly that the word of the cross was scandalous to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, and so it is today, both scandalous to many who lead our religion and foolishness to our dominant secular world. But the way of the cross, as N. T. Wright has said, is a complete “upside-down vision for human flourishing,” and while scorned by almost everyone in our current cultural climate, it is the path of a different kind of power the world so desperately needs.
How do we cultivate this kind of humility? How do we go about this kind of character formation? How do we pursue humility without succumbing to a new form of self-aggrandizement? Well, for one, we don’t talk about it. We don’t work at showing how humble we are. Goodness, no. Perhaps it is in the simple act, the simple word, the simple idea. Perhaps this is how we carry the cross of Jesus. The rewards are often not visible. In fact the rewards sometimes seem to damage reputations.
But this is the path—the path of self-giving, the path of humility—this is the path toward better lives and a better world. We will all be watching this Pope to see how it can be done. The world waits and yearns that it can be so. The other thing we can do besides watching—each one of us, this very day—is to put on, as Paul says, the garments of God’s people: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience.” We can actually do this, and this is precisely the kind of power we need in our lives and for our world.