Why Means Matter

Fri, Feb 23 2018

One of the most significant recent shifts in public attitudes is the crumbling of trust in bedrock institutions – ranging from Congress to academia, law enforcement, finance, the media, business, health providers, even the church. As respect for such institutions, along with the norms and limits that defined them has eroded, popular adulation has been redirected to those who seem to stand “outside the system”– the strongman leader, the brainiac innovator, the entrepreneur-explorer, or the media-manipulating celebrity.

Not surprisingly, the result is increasing disdain for the rules and restraints that stand in the way of “getting things done.” Such impatience can be seen everywhere from the famously toxic environments of some of the “hottest” tech companies, to the tolerance of decades of abusive, even criminal behavior on the part of entertainment moguls (so long as they produce blockbusters), to the change of mind, following years of political frustration, of some social and religious conservatives about the importance of character in public life, with one family values leader offering “mulligans” for immoral behavior so long as they had “someone on the playground willing to punch the bully.” Worse, some have claimed that a history of rule-breaking or mistreatment of others (euphemistically referred to as “toughness” or “passion”) is part of what makes for success – as if sin were a strength.

There is a long history to such a stream of thought, perhaps best articulated by the political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who held that politics (and by extrapolation, other forms of leadership) was by nature grubby enough that an adept practitioner would often need to be unjust, deceitful or vicious in his methods if he were to successfully achieve his goals, but that the end result justifies the dirty work. He argued: “How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity rather than craftiness, everyone understands; yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how craftily to manipulate the minds of men. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

While there is often short-term advantage in dishonesty and manipulation, Machiavelli’s conclusions are debatable. (Presumably the master practitioner of his own philosophy, he spent much of his life exiled, imprisoned, and disgraced.) But part of the great challenge of the Christian faith to such realpolitik is a required concern for not only what we do, but how we do it – a call to follow the way that Jesus lived, regardless of whether it confers advantage. As Eugene Peterson wrote in The Jesus Way

“To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can't separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it.” He continued: “The devil is content to leave the matter of ends – the goal, the purpose, the grand work of salvation – uncontested. His tempting is devoted exclusively to ways, to the means that are best suited to accomplish the end...”

What might such concern look like in public life? One example can be found in Vaclav Havel, who spent time reflecting on how to lead the troubled, riven Czech Republic as he assumed the presidency. He wrote: 

"I constantly hear another kind of advice…I should be tougher, more decisive, more authoritative. For a good cause, I shouldn’t be afraid to pound the table occasionally, to shout at people, to try to rouse a little fear and trembling. Yet… the simple fact [is] that directness can never be established by indirection, or truth through lies, or the democratic spirit through authoritarian directives. Of course, I don’t know whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed. But I do know how not to succeed, which is by choosing means that contradict the ends. As we know from history, that is the best way to eliminate the very ends we set out to achieve. In other words, if there is to be any chance at all of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, civily and tolerantly.”

He continued: “Whether I am successful or not is for others to judge, of course, but the results will always be uneven, since like everyone else, I am a fallible human being.”

Havel was indeed fallible, as were and are other statesmen who showed a similar concern for means as well as ends in public life, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and others. All had private (and sometimes significant) foibles and failings, as well as imperfect records; they also showed courage in pursuing means of seeking justice and reconciliation that made those ends possible.

Leading with concern for means, as well as ends, will necessarily undercut the mythic status the titan and strongman seeks to cultivate, as it admits to limits of understanding, wisdom, and ability, and acknowledges our need for checks, accountability, and forgiveness. It requires recognition of the claims, worth, and dignity of others, even those with whom we vehemently disagree. Even as it stifles the human tendency to personal pride, it also reveals the danger and folly of misplaced faith in the charismatic technocrat, media mogul, or would-be strongman.

If following the example of Jesus leads us to consider carefully not only our goals, but our means and methods, it also leads us to a wiser understanding of human nature and the need for limits, as well as a more humble and restful reliance upon the One whose path is sure, whose knowledge is complete, whose ends and means are perfect and united.

Recommended Readings & Resources