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Giving People What They Crave Isn’t Always a Good Thing

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I was in a classroom not so long ago in which a renowned scholar was trying to persuade students, who were preparing to embark on a leadership career, to embrace a teaching of Max Weber: Politics is striving to share power (or distribute resources).

One student pooh-poohed the notion. “You can get additional resources,” he said.

I wasn’t sure whether to admire his optimism or pity his naivete. Sure, sometimes more resources are available.

But generally, whether it is an organizational budget, seats in a theater or taxes, sooner or later you reach capacity.

Judaism and Christianity both have central stories that try to disprove the notion.

For Jews, Moses persuades God that the people need meat after eating nothing but manna in the wilderness.

“Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’?” Moses asks in Numbers 11:13. God causes an avalanche of quails to inundate the people, and they eat beyond their capacity.

For Christians, Jesus feeds the masses with a minimum of loaves and fish. Even those who do not take the story literally see it as a powerful metaphor for unlimited spiritual resources.

Both of the stories remind me of the famous representation of a Hindu scholar, Mohandas Gandhi.

He said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

The Jewish and Christian stories, tellingly, are about miracles. They acknowledge that in ordinary circumstances, there may not be additional resources.

The Hindu story speaks a truth: When resources are necessary for survival, people will worship the provider. That truth may underlie the other two stories.

In our time, Weber’s suggestion about the nature of politics and the student’s assertion about resources are in constant play.

Whether people cry, “Give us jobs” or “Give us tax relief” or “Give us (back) privilege,” they focus on that hunger so acutely that their savior cannot appear to them except in the form of jobs, tax relief or privilege – or the promise thereof.

People so wrapped around the stick about their desires or needs that they can imagine nothing else will worship the person who says he or she will assuage that hunger, even if they know it would take a miracle to do so.

When the deliverables arrive, they are often beyond the capacity of the receivers to absorb.

Or, on some occasions, like the ironic twist to a short story, they are an abundance of the wrong resource – jobs with low wages, tax relief for the wealthy, privilege that is meaningless or, worse, empowering of those who exploit it for oppressive purposes. Or both.

Finding (or even promising) more resources is not always the right response to the clamoring of the people. 

Weber’s definition of politics, proclaimed 100 years ago, is expressed in a more contemporary idiom by Marty Linsky, who has studied and taught about leadership in contemporary America.

One of his definitions of leadership is delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can absorb. It is appropriate to all of these stories.

Manna sustained the Israelites for 40 years; the abundance of quail makes gluttony fatal for many.

The loaves and fishes that fed 5,000 at Tabgha placed an expectation on Jesus that went unfulfilled; to this day, Jesus’ followers yearn for a miraculous return though suffering is abundant.

Gandhi’s remarkable insight, taken literally, set the bar too high, whether for meat, for fish or for bread.

And in our times, we are about to enter the season of overpromising and exceeding capacity.

When we clamor for abundance of what we perceive as lacking, it would do us well to remember that the short-term alleviation of desire or need is not the same as preventing that desire or need in the future.

It may be a disappointing message, but a true leader will practice politics by sharing limited resources wisely and delivering disappointment at a rate we can absorb.

Jack Moline

Jack Moline is President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi.