By The Rev. J.C. Austin
I have no interest whatsoever in the Jacksonville Jaguars football team. However, I have spent over a third of my ministry working in leadership development at the seminary level, so I still found myself riveted by the debacle of their head coach Urban Meyer’s leadership this season which culminated this week in his summary dismissal.
Despite the fact that he was less than one season into a five-season contract, and that he’s one of only four coaches in NFL history not to make it through their first season of coaching in the league, the only thing surprising about his firing is that it took that long.
He literally did almost everything wrong, on and off the field, that it was possible to do in terms of leadership, and he did them as wrong as it was possible to do them. He made numerous bad decisions in terms of managing players and staff and making in-game decisions, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
His real problem is what I used to call “toxic incompetency” as an organizational leadership teacher and consultant: not only was he bad at his job, but he created a culture of dishonesty, backstabbing, and abuse to cover that up. He prioritized loyalty and personal relationship to him in his staff and players far more than actual skill and performance. He claimed what little credit he could find for himself but always shifted blame somewhere (anywhere!) else.
His idea of motivation was to alternate bluster and bullying, neither of which garnered respect or even submission from elite professional athletes, unlike young college players who had to just endure it or risk losing the playing time or scholarships that gave them a shot at the NFL. He routinely acted as if he was above the rules and norms of accepted professional behavior, including breaking a huge NFL taboo by not only not accompanying his struggling team back home after a loss on the road, when it is expected for a coach to lead by example in coming back and prepare harder for the next game, but also causing a public scandal by his video-recorded behavior in a bar that night when he should have been on the plane with his team.
It even came out this week that he had allegedly kicked a player who was stretching on the ground during warmups one day while insulting his performance (the player was the fourth most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL) and, when challenged and warned not to do it again, replied, “I’m the head coach, I’ll kick you whenever I want.” It was a true master class in terrible leadership.
As a result, in less than one year Meyer has not only been fired, but he’s already being widely labeled as one of the worst coaches in the history of the NFL, and even perhaps the worst ever. Now what is at least potentially surprising and certainly interesting about that is that, until this year, Meyer was widely regarded as one of the most successful football coaches in history, just at the collegiate level instead of the NFL.
His career winning percentage is in the all-time top 10 among college football coaches, and he’s one of only three coaches ever to win a national championship at two different schools. Now, what’s even more interesting and potentially surprising is that he was able to have all that success and fame while also making all the same mistakes and having all the flaws as a leader that he did in Jacksonville.
Meyer’s deficient character or dictatorial style or bullying tactics were a constant; the difference is that he was able to succeed at the collegiate level despite those things or even perhaps in some cases because of them, but in the different culture and dynamics of the NFL, their benefits disappeared while their liabilities were magnified.
Which is why I think the opinion pieces that have poured out in response to all of this in the last few days have not only dissected all the mistakes and failures and ethical violations of Meyer’s tenure, but have done so with a kind of smug gleefulness. Because who doesn’t love to see someone who has climbed to the heights of their success on the backs of other people finally pulled down and given the reckoning that they so richly deserve?
It’s so common that the Germans famously coined a word to describe it: schadenfreude, finding joy in the misfortune of another. Sometimes that can be pretty toxic, when we delight in someone’s misfortune because we think we are deriving some kind of benefit from it, like being pleased that your rival in a race broke their ankle and can no longer compete.
But sometimes it’s more complicated than that: there is also a joy seeing someone receive the justice that they deserve for the offenses they have committed, but the line between that and being happy that they are suffering humiliation and loss in receiving that justice can sometimes be hard to find and maintain.
That can be a real problem when it comes to hearing this song of Mary’s in Luke, which is traditionally called the Magnificat because that’s the first word of the song in its Latin translation. In this song, Mary talks about the new thing that God is doing in the world through the coming birth of her son, Jesus, a new thing that has not yet happened but which is so certain that she sings about it as if it had: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” she sings; “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Mary sees a future in which the unjust power structures of the world as it is now have been overturned, and those who have been experiencing poverty and marginalization are finally being lifted up, brought in, and filled to satisfaction. It’s often called “The Great Reversal” as a theme that is prominent not just here in the Magnificat, but in Jesus’ teaching and ministry throughout the gospel of Luke, in particular.
And it means exactly that: a reversal of the power structures in the world, so that those who were seated on the thrones of power have been pulled down off of them and driven away, while those who were on the margins of society have been lifted up to replace them. Those who were hungry are now filled to satisfaction, while those who have had far more than they needed or could even use, the rich, are stripped of what they have and sent away empty.
Which is why the Magnificat has always been seen as an incendiary political text in dictatorships, both by the dictators who were threatened by the future it promised and by those who were being oppressed who found inspiration and joy and perhaps even schadenfreude in those same promises.
The problem with reading the Magnificat as only a great reversal, though, is that a reversal doesn’t actually change the power structures of the world. Sure, it might be satisfying in terms of schadenfreude, but pulling the powerful down from their thrones in order to let the lowly climb up and claim those thrones for themselves only changes who is powerful; it only changes who is in and who is out, who is sitting high and who is kept low.
It’s the same thing we see throughout history. The French Revolution pulls down a corrupt and decadent monarchy, only to replace it with a Reign of Terror. Liberation leaders fighting against European colonial powers in various countries in sub-Saharan Africa in the second half of the 20th century won those fights, only to set themselves up as corrupt autocrats in their place.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi was called the spiritual heir to Gandhi and won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize as a political prisoner for resisting the military junta controlling Myanmar, yet was silent about and even supportive of persecution of journalists and the genocide against Rohingya Muslims once she was set free and elected to national leadership. All of those and so many more could be called Great Reversals, but none could be confused with the coming of the kingdom of God. Who was powerful might have changed, but the reasons and methods they exercised power did not.
And yet we continue to believe that the way we will bring change will be if we can just find the right person who will come and exercise such power for good instead of injustice, who will finally clean up the mess that has been made and set things right. So if that’s what Mary is singing about here, then it’s not good news. Heck, it’s not even news: it’s just the same old tired song and dance number that human beings have performed throughout the ages.
Mary is envisioning not simply a Great Reversal, but a Great Transformation: not simply swapping out who is in the seats of earthly power, but a fundamentally different understanding of what God-intended power even is. It is not a coincidence that, in the first chapter of Luke, it is Mary and Elizabeth, two ordinary women, who are filled with the Holy Spirit and offer prophecy, while Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband and an anointed priest, is literally prevented from speaking by the Holy Spirit in the verses just before the ones we heard today. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, doesn’t even appear at all, mentioned only in passing by the narrator.
The ancient Near East was, of course, a radically patriarchal society: all power in households was vested in the husband and father, and all power in public was vested in kings and ultimately the Roman Emperor. Yet, as the story develops, Luke notes the traditional power structure in each section. Chapter 1 opens with the narrator saying, “In the days of King Herod, there was a priest named Zechariah…” only to show that the real power is working through Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth.
Next Friday on Christmas Eve we’ll hear the more familiar opening, which notes that Emperor Augustus was running the empire from Rome and Quirinius was governing in nearby Syria, but the real power is at work in the hamlet of Bethlehem through a young unmarried pregnant girl from the backwater of Galilee, which is witnessed by a bunch of worthless shepherds.
And in both cases, the power that is at work is not a power of dominance and coercion and power politics that protect an unjust society and an economy of scarcity, but of hope and peace and joy and, above all, love: powers that add rather than subtract, and multiply rather than divide; powers that generate abundance rather than manage scarcity, and invite in rather than push away.
Even in the seemingly harshest line of Mary’s song, that the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, the rich are sent away empty-handed because they already have more than their share of good things to eat, but there’s nothing here to suggest that what they have is taken away.
In cleaning up the mess of this world, God does not simply put things away in different places, swapping out the rich for the poor in the thrones at the top of the pyramid of power; God swaps out the whole pyramid for a round table at which everyone has an equal seat and more than enough of a share to fully satisfy them.
Everyone is invited to share in the feast that God offers, which is done family-style, in which everyone is both a host and a guest, serving one another to ensure that everyone has more than they need. Our challenge, and our blessing, is to let go of reversals and schadenfreude and trying to control who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, so that our hands are free to receive and partake and pass and share the bounty of love and grace that God offers and intends for us all.
Because when we do, we too find ourselves not only singing, “my soul magnifies the Lord,” but experiencing it, experiencing the hope and peace and joy and love of the Lord more closely and clearly, magnified in and through our souls so that those things are not only more visible to others, but to us, as we make our way to the manger once more, in the words of the shepherds, “to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” And that is the greatest blessing we could hope to receive or share.