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Self-Sacrificial Leadership & Islam?

Recently various Christian leaders have called Islam a violent religion led by fanatics. Could Evangelical rhetoric be widening Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ between an Islamic civilization and Western civilization? Are evangelicals itching for a civilizational fight, as Hoover asks?On March 24th, I presented a paper to the regional Rocky Mountain-Great Plains section of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Here is my abstract:

Many Evangelical leaders consider Islam as inherently violent. They see September 11, 2001 as fulfillment of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” In this context, Bulliet (2004) argues that Middle East experts, historians and religionists must make the case for an “Islamo-Christian” civilization. Using socio-rhetorical criticism, this paper examines the sacred texture of the Pauline model of leadership found in the Christological Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 and Choi and Mai-Dalton’s (1998, 1999) organizational theory of self-sacrificial leadership as alternative means for Christian-Muslim encounter. The final section weighs evangelical capacity to renounce its alliance with political power and model self-sacrificial behavior to build a domination-free culture.


The Choi and Mai-Dalton model distinguishes between incremental self-sacrifice to influence organizational culture and radical self-sacrifice to rescue an organization in crisis. Various propositions are offered, including:

1. The greater the environmental uncertainty, the greater the incompleteness of organizational design and the greater the need for leadership.
2. Organizations are sustained when the participants share the understanding that there is a potential for sacrifices in organizational settings which needs to be absorbed.
3. Self-sacrificial leadership will facilitate individual adaptations to incomplete organizational design and organizational adaptations to changing situations.
4. Self-sacrificial leadership will be positively associated with the followers’ perceptions of the leader’s charisma.
5. Self-sacrificial leadership will be positively associated with the followers’ intentions to reciprocate the leader’s self-sacrificial behaviors (p. 485-491).

The Pauline model compares well with the Choi and Mai-Dalton model of self-sacrificial leadership in five ways. First, the macro-level emphasis on environmental uncertainty, or situational crisis, fits the context of the early Jesus movement’s view of an impending collapse of Second Temple Judaism (Phil. 3:18-21). Second, like the Choi and Mai-Dalton model, the early church was voluntarily sustained through leader and follower suffering (v. 1:29-30). Third, self-sacrifice in the early church functioned as an adaptive resolution mechanism to environmental change. The radical sacrifice of Jesus, or altruistic suicide (Durkheim, 1951), was seen as addressing covenantal design flaws in Second Temple Judaism (Phil. 4:21, cf. 2 Corinth. 5:1-5). Fourth, Paul encourages his followers to acknowledge the divine attribution of charisma given to Jesus as vindication for his suffering (v. 2:9-11). Fifth, Paul expected his followers to reciprocate his self-sacrificial behavior, and viewed their financial offerings as “giving and receiving,” in prison sufferings (v. 4:15). In every way, except for the attribution of divine vindication, the Choi and Mai-Dalton model of leadership self-sacrifice corresponds well to the leadership dynamics of the first-century Jesus movement.


This study explored evangelical capacity to build the Islamo-Christian civilizations of tomorrow. It drew upon ancient & contemporary models to foster Islamo-Christian culture. In this regard, we explored Christian meaning-making capacity to defuse religious violence. Using Robbin’s social rhetorical criticism we examined the Pauline model of Jesus’ leadership found in the Kenosis Hymn of Philippians. We also considered Choi and Mai-Dalton’s (1998) organizational theory of self-sacrificial leadership, and how its micro level dynamics matched the Pauline situational crisis, the need for organizational adaptation, the leader’s behavior of self-sacrifice, and the call for members to reciprocate sacrificial behavior. Finally we considered alternative understandings of American empire and Islamic resistance.

So what are we to make of Muslim rage over the prophet Mohammad caricatures? Rather than throw gasoline on the fire, perhaps we need set controlled burnings ahead of the fire to extinguish the flame. The fuel would be ancient and contemporary models of self-sacrificial leadership that are inherently non-violent. Over and against prevailing interpretations of Christ for sectarian and political power, domination-free spirituality must perennially affirm, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12, NRSV).


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