The path to resurrection is paved with failure

Day 7

Although Jesus was divine but fallible, His followers created an institution that elected a pope whom they claimed to be not divine but infallible.

This, in a microcosm, is the story of Humanity. We want things to be perfect and we put our heads together to make it so, but we simply refuse to accept the truth about all meaningful endeavors: (1) they are hard, (2) we will fail (a lot), (3) we’ll lose some of our support if we are committed to change.

It is good sign that Pope Francis will start this Passover by washing the feet of a dozen prison inmates. Gone are the red designer shoes. Prostrating oneself before sinners as a servant to all is the only way to find wisdom as a leader. I wonder how many of other “infallible” leaders of government and philanthropies will copy him.

Jesus experienced a lot of failure in his three year ministry.

He started by preaching in Nazareth where he proclaimed that the prophesy of Isaiah had been fulfilled by his coming. He was quickly thrown out of town, and nearly stoned as a lunatic.

He gave countless sermons that were not recorded because they lacked pithy aphorisms or unclear messages. Many of his parables were forgettable. But he improved because he continued working at it and refused to peddle the same tired ideas of other Rabbis. He could have grown a flock this way but he would never have matured into one who speaks truth to the rich and powerful.

How do we know? We find the fewest accounts of failure in the Gospel of John (written last, and by his most zealous worshippers). We find more in the Gospel of Mark (written first, and with the least editorializing). And we find the greatest number of half-finished sermons and difficult-to-understand aphorisms in the Sayings Gospel of Thomas. This version of Jesus attempted to write down everything Jesus said without wrapping it in a narrative that contextualizes what each saying meant. It reads like an internal draft of an Impact evaluation conducted by a large aid organization. The version that is released to the public is the Gospel of John. But if you want to understand the process underneath the tidy conclusions – you need to see the internal draft copy.

Jesus’ failure continued. In spite of his preaching, the idea that he was a political Messiah grew. Crowds followed him, waiting for the revolution, when the revolution he was talking about was the act of loving first, listening to God, and acting with whatever resources one had to help those who need it. He was a failure at getting his message across, because it was radically different and not at all what people wanted their Messiah to do.

Even his twelve most trusted disciples didn’t understand the kind of innovation he was talking about. Time after time he would additional closed-door sessions with his board to explain his parables and bluntly inform them that the Kingdom of God was a state of mind, a transformation of the soul, and something so close at hand that the only barrier to salvation was a lack of understanding. Jesus had a theory of change, and it didn’t fit into the boxes they were expecting on the flow chart. They were confused because they had unshakable faith in the system (theories of change, political leadership, economic warfare) and no faith in His alternative (change starts with your soul, economic salvation follows when the spirit is grounded in God and every thought is focused on God’s Will).

And this befuddlement continued even after His death. It wasn’t until six weeks after Jesus’ death that the significance of his message finally hit his followers (the Pentacost). If this isn’t a story of one who failed for most of his life as a communicator, I don’t know what is.

To be fair, Jesus had successes as well. But don’t you think someone who could cast out demons, cure the blind, and make the crippled rise up and walk on command should have been able to get his message across sooner? Most preachers use this to illustrate how fallible we are (until we get elected as a leader or pope and then suddenly become infallible, of course). I use this as an example that systems of people will resist innovation and fight the changes necessary for prosperity to flow. It doesnit matter whether your ideas are right or wrong – it matters that prosperity requires both the leader and the crowd to work together and achieve a common understanding. This is something we as a race are seldom prepared to do. We should be studying the rare occasions when it does happen to understand how to alleviate poverty.

So not only was Jesus’ ministry filled with failures, His followers continued to do the flock a disservice by editing out all the Human failures from story of a divine Jesus. Too often I struggle to illustrate the path of innovation in my nonprofit work. Last week I literally demonstrated how many starts and stops our idea took over three years on a poster, and explained how much further it has left to go. I wanted people to focus on the nature of the problem – that people want institutions to create innovation but institutions fear the people finding out how messy it looks. And so the institutions do themselves a disservice by not talking about the process, and so the people come to believe ever more strongly that success stories ought not to contain any failures along the way. It is a virtueless cycle.

Last month I was speaking to a group of counter-terrorism experts from around the world. For an hour I spoke about about failure. My talk was titled “From idea to prototype in 14 days.” My message was that we can succeed in solving complex social problems, but the process requires us to test an idea quickly and iterate on the solution dozens of times before scaling it. It is crucial that everybody understand the word iterate. Iterate means “we failed, but we have a better idea of what to try next.” Iterative learning turned pools of cell sludge into human beings through Evolution. Iterative learning turned gears and pulleys into vacuum tubes and then microchips and converted an abacus into an iPad. It is the reason why society is so complex, and why quality of life improved.

But at this counter-terrorism meeting, a room full of policy makers and key advisers to world leaders, there was no room for failure. They spoke bluntly. Attitudes ranged from “In our position we cannot accept failure of any kind” to “failure simply does not exist in our field.”

I argued. “What? Don’t you get it? The only reason that you have something to write policies about is because Science created technology that improved life on this planet. The twentieth century is a story of innovation through this failure-driven process I just described. I don’t think there is any evidence that policy or ethics has changed much in the last century.”

I meant the process by which groups of people create and agree upon policy, and not the policies themselves. But my words only shocked and angered people. My views were parochial – from a scientist who doesn’t “Get it”. And I don’t “get it” because I surround myself with entrepreneurs, scientists and others who achieve by trying new things, people with some tolerance for risk.

Looking around the room, I didn’t see anyone who’d ever worked as an entrepreneur. I doubt any policymakers can ever succeed until they first experience the messy process by which nice things are developed.

I was a pretty poor communicator to this group. My message was not what they wanted to hear. The record of that meeting will most likely omit any messiness of debate about failure because the meeting was about policymaking, and not process. And this experience helped me understand what Jesus must have felt like for three years of ministry – preaching about the Kingdom of God that had nothing to do with policy, politics, or forced wealth redistribution. Jesus said (in the Gospel of Thomas only):

“If those who attract you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is
in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will get there first. If they
say to you, ‘It is under the earth,’ then the fish of the sea will
get there first. Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. Those who become acquainted with themselves will find it; and when you become acquainted with yourselves, you will understand that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

He continued. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you
bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is
within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

This is a story about having the courage to try, the wisdom to embrace failure, and the tenacity to continue iterating – because fear of this process will destroy us. We don’t need to be divine or infallible. We just need to start by washing the feet of a dozen prison inmates.

Passion Week

  1. Empire – the hierarchy of aid power
  2. The Gratitudes – a blueprint for social prosperity
  3. The Clarity of Powerlessness
  4. Only aid servants can end powerty
  5. Abandoning organizations on a quest for impact
  6. Faith in institutions and Jesus on trial
  7. The path to resurrection is paved with failure
  8. NEXT: epilogue: Why the poor don’t speak up

7 thoughts on “The path to resurrection is paved with failure

  1. Dear Marc:
    Thanks so much for your courage in thinking and in saying this. I do believe that people invested in governance at top levels must find a way to loosen this need for control and for command, to allow the ideas that percolate upwards from the “bottom” of the system to infuse their thinking. Your piece encouraged me to think about reasons why the ‘bottom up’ process may work so well in finding alternatives and different ways to approach issues and policy making – it allows individual exploration, discovery, reinventing and rethinking, and then by connecting with others who are doing similar things, allows the sharing and thus the testing and refining (or reprofiling) of locally-led solutions to scale upwards.
    This is the difference between ‘neighbour-led’ and ‘expert-led’ development and security.

  2. Thanks Rosemary!

    In writing this I was surprised to find myself applauding the new pope. But if he continues to act in these ways, he might inspire other leaders to explore leadership from the ground looking up.

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