I’ve been saddened by allegations in the news reports this week that former California governor Arnold Schwartzenegger fathered the child of his household worker and France’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, raped a hotel maid. Why do so many powerful male leaders commit egregious acts towards women? I would like to propose a theory based on my half-century of personal observations, my study of scripture, and my experience working to empower women leaders.
My theory is that narcissism, charisma, and patriarchy are defining characteristics of many of our world leaders including some in the Christian church. Charismatic narcissists are inclined to rise to the top of hierarchies. They are willing to work harder than anyone else to provide confirmation that they are smarter and more important than those around them. They are high performers. They are adept at attracting people to themselves, but their ability for intimacy and closeness is impaired because they lack empathy. They may come across as charming and caring but it is only to promote their own image. They cannot understand the importance of other people’s life experiences because they are focusing on a grandiose vision of their own. These characteristics are not restricted to men, but men have historically occupied a much larger percentage of hierarchical leadership positions and are thus more conspicuous.
All of the major world religions, including Christianity, have promoted patriarchy, the belief that men should be the unquestioned leaders in the home, church (or corresponding religious institution), and society. When patriarchy is combined with narcissism, charisma, and economic hierarchy the results are always disastrous for women and children.
Jesus understood human personality traits better than anyone else. When his own disciples volleyed for position in his kingdom, he took a towel and began washing their feet, demonstrating an entirely new form of leadership that serves rather than demands the service of others. He addressed the leaders’ tendency towards self-importance by commanding that his followers “love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” In other words, leaders must recognize there is someone much more important than them! The second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Demonstrate genuine empathy as a leader. Jesus viewed the hierarchical religious structures as corrupt systems of injustice (Matt. 21:12). He honored women and consistently had empathy for children, the poor, and the disabled, contrasting them as examples of righteousness against arrogant spiritual leaders. Jesus and the Apostle Paul both tackled patriarchy head-on by challenging the mores of the day. Paul instructed husbands and wives to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). He reframed the first century household codes for conduct so that respect was granted to wives, children, and slaves as well as husbands. He supported women in leadership positions in the church and community. The leadership characteristics to be emulated were humility, empathy, equality, and selflessness. The New Testament conveys a model for leadership that is antithetical to what the world and (too often) the church portrays. God calls leaders to offer empowerment and honor for others, rather than taking it from them.