Battle Leadership, Jesus and His Disciples

Adolf Von Schell was a World War I German officer who wrote a book about his experiences leading his troops in 1933 called Battle Leadership. The book is an extremely helpful read on the psychology of leadership in tense situations.

The first chapter in Von Schell’s book in entitled “Battlefield Psychology” and in that chapter he shares two successive stories that I believe are helpful in describing some of what we see in Jesus’ leadership style in the Passion narratives.

In the first story, Von Schell and his troops have stationed themselves in a little house to guard a road. Not long after they arrived at the house, French artillery started falling all around them. Everyone was incredibly nervous. Von Schell grabs a chair, puts it in the doorway and sits down. As he tries to relax he ultimately falls asleep in the doorway. His men reason, if their leader was that comfortable, everything must be okay. The tension died down and the men began playing cards and having some fun.

In a very similar story, he describes an incident where he and his men got caught between Russian fire and some of their own artillery. They had taken cover in a shed in the night but didn’t realize how exposed they were until the dawn. When the sun came up, they realized they were about to be in a crossfire and everyone get nervous. Artillery shells started pounding near their position. One shell even landed right in the middle of the troops but didn’t explode. Von Schell once again grabs a chair and asks one of his men for a haircut. Here is how he tells it,

“I must say, that in my whole life, no haircut has ever been so unpleasant. Every time a shell whistled over our heads, I jerked my head down and the barber would tear out a few hairs instead of cutting them. But the effect was splendid; the soldiers evidently felt that if the company commander could sit quietly and let his hair be cut that the situation was not so bad, and that they were probably safer than they thought. Conversations began; a few jokes were played; several men began to play cards; someone began to sing; no one paid any more attention to the shells, even though two men were wounded a few minutes later by a shell which struck in the vicinity.” (Battle Leadership, 17).

As I see Jesus throughout his ministry and particularly in the Passion narrative (the Last Supper, in the garden, at his arrest, trial and even his crucifixion) Jesus has this demeanor because Jesus knows those who follow his lead need him to be this way but more than that – Jesus is this way. He is leading his disciples through the toughest thing they will ever encounter and Jesus does so with calm collectedness. He does so as a non-anxious presence in what would normally be anxiety producing circumstances. You heard it back in Mark 8 when Jesus tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. You hear this calmness and matter-of-factness in his voice at the Supper when he explains what is about to happen and how they are going to abandon, deny and even betray him.  Jesus even exerts hints of his authority to those who arrest him when they ask him if he is Jesus and he says, “I am” (18:5-6) to which those who came for him fell back and says the same thing to the High Priest at his trial (Mark 14:62). Peter on the other hand, in his denials, says the opposite “I am not” (John 18:17, 25). You can hear it in his speech to those who came to arrest him in Mark 14.

Jesus is in full control of the situation. He is leading in his submitting. He is leading in his allowing himself to be arrested, beaten, crucified and killed. The way he goes through these things helps his disciples walk through it, from a distance, with him and make it out on the other side ready to take on the world. When the shells were flying, their leader sat down for a hair cut. Their leader, no our leader, “took a nap” to show us that we have nothing to fear.

What is it that makes you anxious? Does it help to know that none of it surprises him and none of it makes him nervous? The now exalted Christ is fighting for you. Who or what have you to fear?

If you are a leader, are there things you are doing that transfers your anxiety onto those you lead? What might you do to defuse anxiety rather than create or foster it? I suggest following Jesus’ example and be a non-anxious presence. That requires faith but isn’t that what anyone in Christian leadership should have anyway?

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