It’s tempting to want to take control, especially as church planters and leaders with passion, vision and commitment.
Right? We want to get things moving and push our agendas forward according to our systems and to tradition. But I recently re-watched the film, Whale Rider and was reminded of the power, beauty and effectiveness of a contrarian way.
Koro, the aging chief, is relentless in pursuing his agenda with a command-and-control leadership style, yet to what end? He demands, as is tradition, that his eldest son, Porourangi, take up the mantle of leadership amongst the people—but his son has no interest in or gifting for such a role. And his father’s hard-nosed approach alienates him so much so that Porourangi abandons his infant daughter and leaves for Europe to escape his father’s demands and pursue his dreams of becoming an artist.
I wonder how many sons and daughters of the church through the centuries have also been alienated and chosen to ‘escape’ because of similar pressures. Margaret Wheatley observes that “We never effectively control people with these systems, but we certainly stop a lot of good work from getting done.”
Other characters in the film also seek to escape Koro’s demands for strict compliance through their addictions, cynicism and squalor. Instead of recognizing and calling forth the gifts of others for the benefit of all, Koro misses or dismisses them and in so doing—ironically—inhibits the very thing he most desires: their engagement with the old ways and the nurturing of a community. Most significantly, Koro is unable to see his granddaughter Pai’s obvious gifting, let alone benefit from it.
[Tweet “We don’t ever control people with these systems, but we do stop a lot of good work from getting done.”] Unfortunately, the same has been true throughout the life of the church.
Hierarchical systems which demand that all actions be approved and controlled by their leaders have prevented many would-be disciples from flourishing, and, as a result (as in the case of this story), the whole community has suffered.
In contrast, the New Testament affirms the giftedness and priesthood of all believers (Ephesians 4:1-16, 1 Corinthians 12:4-27, Romans 12:4-8, 1 Peter 2:5, 9), acknowledging a different style of leadership, the kind evidenced in the granddaughter as she naturally brings out the best in others.
Leadership by Training
Koro, unable to gain a leader in his eldest son by command and control, tries another tactic.
He sets up a training school and insists that all the young teenage boys be gathered to learn the old ways in hopes that a leader will emerge and that the students will learn strength, courage, wisdom and leadership. But apparently, rigorous training and knowing ‘all the right stuff’ do not make one a leader. (As those seeking to raise up new leaders, have not similar assumptions permeated our thinking and practice? And when will it stop?)
When the final test arrives, none of Koro’s students can retrieve his whale-tooth amulet from the ocean, and we are left wondering whether anyone can produce a leader by teaching and training. Are leaders made? Was the making of a leader ever Koro’s job?
If we believe the story line of Whale Rider, the answer to these questions would be no. We would conclude that there is something more to leadership than training in the old ways, no matter how painstaking and thorough.
Yet, hasn’t the church at times tried to produce leaders through extensive training (e.g., three years at seminary)?
[Tweet “esus engaged in life-on-life apprenticeship and action-reflection experiences.”] How strange this seems in light of Jesus’ approach to leadership. Having recognized the potential in people, Jesus engaged in life-on-life apprenticeship and action-reflection experiences, all the while modeling in his character and conduct a humble, effective leadership style which made him stand out as one who taught with authority to the amazement of all (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22, 27; Luke 4:32, 36).
Leadership in Humility and Community
The leadership of Koro’s granddaughter stands in stark contrast to Koro’s own. Pai was born and named—an act which especially infuriated Koro—to lead her people. Although her leadership calling is rejected by her grandfather, others respond to her humble, unassuming approach. Pai invites her uncle, Rawiri, to teach her how to fight. As he does, he is reminded of not only who he was (a champion master of this ancient tradition), but who he was called to be.
In addition, when Pai engages in a duel with the lead male student in her grandfather’s school, the boy recognizes her giftedness. Furthermore, the support and affirmation of her grandmother, Flowers, encourages Pai to blossom despite her grandfather’s unwillingness and inability to see her as she really is, the leader that he is seeking.
Finally, while both Koro and Pai pray and turn to the ancestors, Pai’s posture and willingness to persevere and offer herself is unlike Koro’s pleas for what he wants, a male heir. Again Pai shows us a Jesus way with the faith of a child and a dependent openness to what the ancient ones might have for her and her people.
Blind Adherence to Tradition Blinds Us
The latter observation directs viewers to a second assertion: there is more to tradition than keeping the rules. In fact, simply keeping the rules may blind us not only to the bigger picture, but also to real people with real needs, especially when ‘they’ do not comply with or fit our prescribed parameters.
[Tweet “There is more to tradition than keeping the rules.”] The opening scene of the film is the first evidence of this kind of blindness. Tradition is so dominant in Koro’s mind that he shows neither empathy nor sympathy to his son, nor any personal grief over the loss of his grandson and daughter-in-law; his only grief lies in the fact that there is now no heir.
Immediately after these deaths, Koro cruelly and callously confronts his son in the hospital hallway, asserting that it is the son’s duty and obligation as his first born to become the chief. He dismisses with disgust his newborn granddaughter, whom his son has named Paikea (Pai) after their ancestral tribal leader. Koro’s insensitivity to his son’s losses is disturbing. And it is equally disturbing to confess that the church, too, may have missed the hurts and sorrows of real people in pursuit of its agenda.
Koro’s blindness continues. Although he does come to love her, there is absolutely no way in his mind that Pai, as a girl, can be the anointed one. In line with the second consequence of keeping the rules for rules’ sake alone, Koro misses the very people before him. As a result, the whole community loses out on the benefit and value that an ‘other’ could bring to the tribe.
Traditionally, have we, the church, not also at times sought out and been so bound to traditions that we have dismissed the beauty and the giftedness of the artist and the young, anointed female? How at odds this is with the One whom we claim to follow. Grandmother Flowers’s lament seems to fit: they have “a lot of rules to live by.”
Koro’s behavior thirdly shows us that the more we cling to and seek to enforce the old ways, the more we come to assume, whether consciously or not, that it is all up to us—that the future and the community depend on how well we maintain these traditions. I wonder how often God’s people have become enslaved to such a misunderstanding throughout history. Jesus’ harshest remarks were directed towards those who held onto the traditions yet totally missed their point, making them the end rather than the means.
Tradition as a Means Rather Than an End
This leads us to final questions: What more is there to leadership than enforcing traditions, and what more is there to tradition than keeping the rules?
A pod of whales struggle, beached on the shore of their village. Chief Koro is overwhelmed and helpless before such a calamity, and since whales embody the tribe’s ancestry and spirituality, such a catastrophe signals and epitomizes his failures.
His inability as a leader to gain the respect and followership of his people is voiced when, in the early dawn after a night of trying to save the whales, he says to Uncle Rawiri, “They’ll do it for you”—even his slovenly son has more influence than him. Enslavement to the rules has led to the old ways becoming an end in themselves, which has drained them of any meaning or significance in the life of the people.
Meanwhile, Pai intuitively ‘gets it.’ She humbly and faithfully grows in her understanding and commitment to the old ways without being confined by them. Rather, through her we discover what the ‘traditions’ are really about: forming a people and nurturing a communal identity and purpose—a means to an end.
Like Koro, the church has much to learn from this little girl. How often have we held onto traditions for traditions’ sake? How often have we missed the new things God is up to and alienated others because of our rigid or narrow maintenance of rules and rituals?
Pai honours and respects the traditions of her grandfather (despite his dismissal of her), but she does so not by doggedly keeping the rules, but by nurturing her relationship with the wise ones and by humbly affirming her identity and calling as an authentic leader who lives it out amongst her people. She models Jesus’ way.
Pai, like Jesus, also has a deep love for her people as evidenced in her prayers for them and, ultimately, in her willingness to give her life for them. Her example challenges church leadership to think more deeply about its traditions in order to understand and embrace their underlying purposes. Just as Pai has realized that traditions are for her tribe’s new world, so church leaders must understand that traditions are for the sake of the Kingdom and are not ends-in-themselves.
[Tweet “church leaders must understand that traditions are for the sake of the Kingdom”]
The film’s conclusion is touching and meaningful, showing us the beauty and power of traditions rightly embraced. Pai sacrifices her life and rides a whale to rescue the beached whales. In so doing, she rescues her people and proves—even to her grandfather—that she is the one. As she recovers in the hospital, kneeling at her bedside, Koro confesses, “Forgive me, O Wise Leader. I am just a fledging new to flight.” I love this line.
What if the chiefs (so designated according to the rules) of our churches were to discover and humbly acknowledge that those on the margins—“artists, ritual stick handlers and young girls”—were leading the way, actually rescuing the church by stepping out of its formulaic, ‘religious’ approaches in order to reveal, refresh and restore their original meaning and purpose?
We find in Pai a Jesus-like leader who serves, sacrifices and suffers for the sake of her people. This leader is the one who shows up, is attentive to others and comes alongside in order that the community might walk together into the future. Henri Nouwen’s “image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader and the trusting leader” seems to fit Pai well, and the final scene in the film illustrates such an image’s impact.
The entire community is working together, seeking the wellbeing of the whole. The te waka (a ceremonial canoe) is masterfully finished (by Porourangi, we assume). During its maiden voyage, with both of Koro’s sons present and everyone participating in traditional songs, dances and chants, the young female chief proclaims, “Our people will keep going forward together with all our strength.” May this sentence resonate with the church. May every follower of Jesus be our people. And may we go forward together with all our strength for the sake of the Kingdom.
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