John, Jesus, and the Alpha Male

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Although we’re still nearly two months shy of the nearest presidential primary, I already find myself in a state of campaign-fatigue with all the ads, debates, and media coverage. Nevertheless, when I read this passage about John, I was reminded of one of the odder political incidents in recent memory: when Al Gore was advised to portray himself more as an “alpha male.”

Do you remember that term? It originated several decades ago in the research of a Ukrainian zoologist studying the behavior of wolves in their natural habitat. He noticed that among the wolf pack there was always one male who dominated all the other males and therefore had mating-rights to all the females. He designated this wolf the “alpha male.”

What a curious term, when you think of it, to apply to one seeking to lead the free world. Given all the frenzy surrounding the illicit behavior of so many of our politicians and candidates, you’d think that we wouldn’t celebrate an ethos that places one man above all others and gives him license to have sex with whomever he pleases. Nevertheless, in recent years the term “alpha male” has come to describe our ideal of leaders. For whatever else we want from our leaders, we seem to crave from them strength, direction, assertiveness, and confidence.

Since then, the term alpha male has been applied not only to political leaders, but also to those who rise to the top in business, entertainment, and even academics. Surely it’s only a matter of time before it’s applied to religious leaders as well, don’t you think? Perhaps we can get a jump on things with a quick survey of biblical characters. Moses, I’m afraid, probably wouldn’t cut it. Charleton Heston not withstanding, Moses is too unsure of himself, too faint of heart and slow of tongue to rank as an alpha; he’s definitely more of beta, and on some days comes off as barely a delta. But Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah and so many of the prophets; surely these are alphas.

No wonder, then, that in today’s gospel reading the priests and religious leaders who come from Jerusalem to question John the Baptist compare him to just these figures. For John exudes strength. Clothed in camel hair and leather and living off the wild, he preaches with authority and baptizes any who come within reach of his gnarled hands. And so the priests ask him, “Are you the Messiah, the descendant of King David?” “No,” John replies. “Are you Elijah?” Again, “no.” “Or a prophet?” Once again, John says “no.” “Then who are you?” they finally ask, frustration and impatience oozing all over the place.

And here John surprises them all, just as he would have surprised today’s power brokers and pundits as well. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” “Then why do you baptize?” the confused priests ask, to which John replies, “I baptize with water. But among you one stands whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

John, it turns out, is no leader; he’s a follower, one sent merely to give witness to the light. And so whatever authority he possesses has therefore been given to him. He is not, it soon becomes clear, the one they’re seeking. It’s Jesus they should look to, John seems to imply, if they want real, honest-to-goodness alpha leadership. And perhaps we should as well. Or should we? Let’s think this through.

Jesus also, as all the evangelists make clear, teaches and preaches with authority. Further, he feeds the hungry, heals the sick, stills the raging storm, even raises the dead. By almost any standard Jesus presents himself as the alpha male of all alpha males.

But hold on. He also eats with outcasts, parties with the socially undesirable, and refuses to acquire status or possessions, certainly not the qualities we associate with leaders. He was frequently seen in the company of women — some of ill-repute — not to have sex with them, though, but rather to honor, affirm, and esteem them. And finally, he dies the death of a criminal, executed for a capital offense, hung on a cross on a garbage heap outside of Jerusalem. On this account alone, he is certainly no alpha, no leader, hardly worthy of sympathy, let alone loyalty. This doesn’t seem like the same Jesus that John points to, does it?

But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by these contradictions. For at the end of the Bible, in the closing verses of Revelation, Jesus himself gives us a clue to his identity when he declares, “I am the alpha … and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Here, then, is a different kind of leadership, that of the suffering servant, and a different type of power, one that manifests itself in vulnerability. And, if you look hard, you’ll find that this type of leadership, this kind of power, radically calls into question and even judges so many of the ideals prized by our culture.

And so maybe it’s time we grow up as a nation. I mean, if we’re going to prize and reward people for climbing to the top by aggressive political and social behavior, then perhaps we should be less surprised if they assert themselves sexually as well. (And if that’s not the kind of behavior we want, then maybe we should stop rewarding it!)

Or, perhaps better, maybe it’s time that we not only grow up as a community of faith, but also grow together and model the ideals that Jesus typifies by forming a community where those in authority serve the rest, where those with material wealth give freely to help those without, where those with an abundance of gifts nurture and care for those less fortunate. Let us, that is, form a community shaped by the Lord we follow, a place where we eagerly pick up each other’s burdens and where sacrificial giving and living is the norm because we recognize that in Christ God sacrificed all for us. In this kind of community, alpha and beta, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, young and old, even male and female and all the other ways by which we classify each other, eventually fall away, leaving just one designation of import: child, child of God.

It’s this kind of community that you are working to fashion, form, and nurture, Working Preacher, and I am grateful for your efforts. Know that they are not in vain. For two months away from another presidential primary, we are also two weeks shy of the celebration of our Lord’s birth. And there we witness God’s tenacious, passionate commitment to be with us and for us in Christ, the alpha who became the omega, the ruler divested of power, the king made into a beggar, all for us. And you, like John the Baptist of old, point us again and again to that mysterious, miraculous, and life-giving event. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,

PS: A few folks have sent emails asking me to say a little more about Making Sense of the Cross. For those interested, I just found this video posted by AF on YouTube. While I can’t bear to watch videos of myself 🙁 if I’m remembering correctly I think I describe the general thrust and outline of the book.