Outrage has been growing at the United States Department of State’s website choosing to feature as its home slide for several days in October a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “Being a Christian Leader” delivered to an organization called the Association of Christian Counselors.
The outrage is, understandably, focused on points that ought to matter to our government and citizens of our country. Points like the operation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (not clear it negates the posting, but certainly worth a discussion) and the impact of such a post on the ability of Secretary Pompeo to represent — which is his job — the tens of millions Americans who are not Christian or to engage — which is also his job — the billions of people around the world who are not Christian.
As a former State Department employee/diplomat who represented the United States in international fora related to conflict in non-Christian parts of the world for 4.5 years, whose job still involves consistent engagement with State and those affected by our foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa, and who also happens to be Jewish and a lawyer, these points all certainly resonate with me.
But I would be willing to put them all to the side for one thing.
If Mike Pompeo was actually a Christian leader.
Or, at least, Christian in the way of someone who reads and following the teaches of Jesus as I have come to understand and appreciate them as a Jew. Or honestly, if he was actually even the leader he himself described in the speech. Christian or otherwise.
First, let’s look at a few key excerpts from the text itself:
- [Explaining how he and the assembled counselors are alike]: We talk to people through hard times. We find ourselves in the middle of disputes and we seek to mediate them and try and identify their root causes. We try to keep conflict minimized, at bay. … As believers, we draw on the wisdom of God to help us get it right, to be a force for good in the life of human beings.
- [Discussing what it means to be a “Christian leader”]: First is disposition. How is it that one carries oneself in the world? The second is dialogue, talking. How is it that we engage with others around the world? And third is decisions, decisions that we make. How do we make choices? Upon what basis? What do we use as our bedrock to get to those decisions?
- [Outlining his humility with staff]: But when there is failure, when the people close to me misfire, I don’t strip away their responsibilities. I don’t cut them out of meetings. I keep them in the fold. I keep giving them important work. That’s what Christ does for us; we have an obligation to do the same.
- But no matter what comes before you, I pray you’ll help hurting people stay immersed in God’s Word. By remaining humble. By showing forgiveness. By listening intently and carefully and thoughtfully. By not rushing to judgment in complicated matters. By being a faithful steward. By using your time with intentionally.
As a person of faith, even if a different one, I find myself troubled by surprisingly little in here; in fact, I could have excerpted a half dozen other passages that resonated. Sure, I wish he would rely on things like the advice of his staff, the hard-earned experience and history of U.S. foreign policy, or the interests and perspectives of others around the world, rather than his particular faith, to make decisions.
Honestly, though, if this was the Secretary of State we had, I think I would be largely content and would look past the constitutional, representational, and occupational offenses (although it would always be hard to look past his Islamophobia).
But it’s not the Secretary of State we have. One can quickly see that in the examples he uses in the speech to explain how he puts this self-avowed faith into action. Can he talk about standing up to President Trump’s demonization of other humans, American or non-American? Can he describe stopping actual conflict and hostilities rather than fomenting them? Can he point to how he’s spoken truth to power to the world’s worst dictators and tyrants, with whom his boss appears to curry favor for personal gain, rather than appeasing them?
He focuses instead on a large conference that State held, some half-hearted decisions against China (leaving out the complete absence of support for Hong Kong supporters and ongoing trade negotiations), a tough decision on an unnamed project expenditure he had to make, and the rescue of a single victim of human trafficking.
That’s what deserves a constitutionally questionable post and likely alienation of fellow citizens and key allies? With nearly every country in every region of the world desperately needing precisely the kind of vision and leadership Secretary Pompeo discusses, we are told about a conference and a decision on a project expenditure?
As I’ve said, I’m not Christian, and I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on Jesus’ teachings or Christian values or faith overall. But I’ve been involved in enough interfaith work, read enough Christian theology, and attended a sufficient number of church services in multiple countries, not to be an expert or authority on Christianity, but to know this isn’t the heart of what Christian theology or leadership means.
As I understand it, at its core, Jesus taught love. Jesus taught peace. Jesus taught comforting the ill and protecting the weak and needy. All in the name of connecting to God. The ways in which the followers of Jesus follow those teachings and express them in their lives differ from how I or other Jews express the teachings of our faith in our daily lives. But the core tenets of those teachings are much closer than they are separate.
Choosing just a few examples from the New Testament, we have these essential ideas:
- “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6: 27-28)
- Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2: 15-17)
- Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1-2)
This, too, can go on. Sure, like with statistics, it is easy to pick out a Bible verse to support any view, and certainly many Christian teachings have been used to support to war, wealth, and exceptionalism. As have many Jewish teachings. Of course I am also not naive or blind to the ways in which these teachings and the essence of Christianity has been manipulated and twisted by a range of denominations and leaders, from certain evangelical clergy to Vice President Pence, to mean very different things.
But those war-mongering teachings or twisted values or are not what Pompeo focuses on in this speech, which is the focus of the moment. He speak about what I quoted above, these very ideals of love, peace, humility, and kindness that resonate so strongly with me as Jew.
So, Secretary Pompeo, want to be that Christian leader? Want to justify that posting? Want to live up to the values you espouse? How about:
- Reverse the decision on the refugee admission number for the utterly embarrassing and revolting one of 18,000 to something a Christian leader should be able to proclaim and defend. Go beyond the Obama Administration all the way to 180,000. (Here are statements from two Christian organizations, CWS and CRS, showing leadership).
- Not only reverse the decision about withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria but actually push to defeat Assad, let alone ISIS, and bring peace finally to that devastated country.
- Change our cruel and inhumane border policy and cease blackmailing Central American countries into deals regarding asylum.
- Break diplomatic relations and impose meaningful sanctions on Mohammed Bin Salman and the Saudi regime responsible, not only for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but the destruction of Yemen and so much other brutal suffering in the region and beyond.
- Take meaningful and specific steps against the regimes in Burma, Brazil, India, Turkey, and elsewhere that are exacerbating conflict against their own people and those of neighboring countries.
- Stand up for the people of Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and beyond who continue to suffer at the hand of brutal dictators, despite our political attention shifting elsewhere while their countries plunge further into economic strife.
- Defend the courageous men and women in the foreign service and civil service, rather than hang them out to try for the craven personal financial interests of the President and those around him.
I am quite sure I do not speak for all Jews, all lawyers, all former State employees despondent and outraged at the way this Administration has decimated the Department. And I don’t want or intend to.
But as a Jew who finds comfort and hope in much of Jesus’ teachings, as someone who sought to represent the United States from a place of humility and with a goal of advancing humanity and peace, even in the very small corner of diplomacy I worked in, I can only say one thing to Secretary Pompeo:
Start actually being a Christian and a leader. Then talk.