Henry Kissinger on leadership: A transforming Christmas vision

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Henry Kissinger on leadership: A transforming Christmas vision for pastors and society

December 12, 2023 -

Henry Kissinger at the state dept. after hearing of his winning of the Nobel Prize on Oct. 16, 1973. (AP Photo/JD)

Henry Kissinger at the state dept. after hearing of his winning of the Nobel Prize on Oct. 16, 1973. (AP Photo/JD)

Henry Kissinger at the state dept. after hearing of his winning of the Nobel Prize on Oct. 16, 1973. (AP Photo/JD)

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy was Henry Kissinger’s last book. As he surveys what he learned through personal interactions with some of the most consequential leaders of the twentieth century, his reflections serve as a magnum opus of his thoughts regarding geopolitics and the future of humanity.

His book begins: “Any society, whatever its political system, is perpetually in transit between a past that forms its memory and a vision of the future that inspires its evolution.” He adds that “leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead.”

In his view, “Leadership is most essential during periods of transition, when values and institutions are losing their relevance, and the outlines of a worthy future are in controversy.”

We live in such a period today.

However, this fact is good news for the Good News of Christmas, offering us an inspiring and empowering vision for our ministries in these challenging days.

Are things “out of control”?

Only 20 percent of registered voters in America feel that “things in the country these days are under control,” compared with 66 percent who feel that things are “out of control.” From rising crime to the southern border crisis, the proliferation of illegal and dangerous drugs, fears of a widening war in the Middle East and Ukraine, and continuing struggles with inflation and the cost of living, many people are distressed about the present and fearful of the future.

This is a perfect opportunity for the incarnational hope of Christmas.

We often point to Galatians 4:4 in explaining the timing of Jesus’ birth: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” We note the widespread use of koine Greek, the Roman roads by which early missionaries could travel, and the Roman peace by which they could spread the gospel. All of these elements are present today as our digital age and translation tools enable us to share God’s word with more people than ever before.

But there was a fourth factor present in the first century, one that is especially significant today: a universal hunger for transforming truth.

Let’s list the ideologies and worldviews competing for followers at the first Christmas: Roman emperor worship, veneration of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods, mystery cults, and a plethora of philosophical schools including Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. Within Jesus’ Jewish world there were competing rabbinic schools alongside mystical traditions and forces aligned with and against the Romans.

Into this maelstrom of cacophonous and competing voices, “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4b–5). Unlike every other religion and philosophy of their day (or any other), Christmas demonstrates a God who comes to us with the offer of forgiving grace. He seeks to “adopt” us, not merely as his adherents or worshipers, but as his children.

As Irenaeus noted, God became one of us that we might be one with God.

Inspiring the evolution of society

Now you and I have the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming this good news of incarnational grace. This message offers, in Kissinger’s words, “a vision of the future that inspires [society’s] evolution.”

Imagine a future filled with people who love their neighbors as themselves (Matthew 22:39), whether their neighbors are Palestinians or Israelis, Ukrainians or Russians. Imagine nations whose leaders are motivated by sacrificial and humble service (John 13:14) and whose laws reflect and promote the equality of all people as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:27).

Does not this vision inspire the “evolution” of humanity?

Proclaiming the incarnational hope of Christmas also, in Kissinger’s words, links the “abiding values” inherited from our Judeo-Christian tradition with the “aspirations” of those we lead. Every person you know wants to be loved for who they are, not just what they do or what others think of them. Every person wants to live a life of missional significance that leaves a lasting legacy. When we experience the incarnational grace of Jesus, we discover such unconditional love. When we follow his unique calling on our lives, we find ourselves on mission with the King of the universe for eternal purposes.

Do not these “abiding values” fuel the “aspirations” of those we serve?

How to be a prophetic leader

Sharing such incarnational grace is the privilege Christmas especially affords us. When we seize this moment, the traditional routines and incessant demands of the season become a means to transforming ends. The sermons, services, programs, and parties of these weeks become platforms for sharing hope that transforms our souls and can transform our society.

But we must make it so.

Kissinger says of the “visionary” or “prophet” leader that he “treats prevailing institutions less from the perspective of the possible than from a vision of the imperative. Prophetic leaders invoke their transcendent visions as proof of their righteousness.” And he adds: “Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their visions.”

Will you be such a prophetic and “great” leader this Christmas season?

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