Going for the Gold

By Omar Reyes

Kelly’s Heroes, a WWII movie about soldiers in search of Nazi gold, exemplifies leadership in an open and relational view of God.

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Prov. 11:25), says the wise writer. And that’s how I feel about open and relational theology. It refreshes those it touches. That’s also how I feel about the movie, Kelly’s Heroes. I’d like to take this movie as my way of exploring leadership from an open and relational perspective.

Unlike many theologies, open and relational thinking takes as true the reality of creaturely randomness and regularity, freedom and necessity, good and evil. Other theological traditions have dismissed randomness, for instance, thinking nothing is random in a God-controlled world. Others denied the reality of evil, thinking all pain and suffering must be caused or allowed by God for some greater purpose.

Open and relational theology views God as acting in and responding to the world. God does not control the universe, as we are lead to believe by traditional ways of looking at God. God influences others and is affected by them.

At first glance, some wonder whether we’re even talking about God if this being cannot control. Or some wonder if God can be anything other than timeless, unchanging, unaffected, and more. In other words, some start with a conventional view of God and assume any other perspective is wrong.

It is precisely this conventional view that’s the problem, however. And this problem is evident in how the view influences common views of leadership, especially in church circles. If God is a top-down leader who controls others, we’re easily tempted to think the best leaders are top-down controllers.

I saw this in my own family. My Dominican father acted like the God of conventional theology, not much interested in relating to his family. Like a distant God who knows everything and only gives information on a “need to know basis,” my father was often aloof and disconnected.

And this brings me to Kelly’s Heroes.

The movie is based on the adventures of Private Kelly, a former World War II lieutenant demoted for a failed infantry assault. But Kelly captures a German colonel of intelligence. After interrogating his prisoner, Kelly notices the officer has several gold bars disguised under lead plating. Kelly eventually gets the colonel to divulge the location of $16m worth of gold bars stored behind German lines.

Kelly decides to risk going after the gold. He gets enough supplies and ammunition for the venture, including some tanks. He recruits several fellow soldiers as well. Their plan involves splitting into two divisions: one with tanks and the other with infantry.

Few things go according to plan thereafter. The crew loses tanks, jeeps, and human lives. The Germans respond in unexpected ways. When the two divisions link back up, they battle toward the goal, but only attract more attention. They eventually find the gold, despite overwhelming odds against them. The whole escapade has unpredicted positive and negative results.

I think this movie tells us something about the God who acts without a fixed and predetermined plan. In terms of leadership, Kelly took a risk for something of value. He acted not according to a predetermined script. And when obstacles presented themselves, he worked creatively with his men to change directions to do what must be done to complete the mission.

The story of Moses points to a God who acts with a goal but no predetermined script. Here’s the story from Exodus 32:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’ Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (7-14).

In this story, God has a plan. But this plan changes, because Moses reminds God of the greater goal. Moses asks God to reconsider the plan in light of the larger goal for Israel. Killing his people would undermine the overall goal and reflect badly on God’s character. And Moses convinces God to scrap the plan!

God’s overall goal is outlined in Genesis 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

God wanted a loving relationship with humans. And when they disobeyed, God took the initiative to restore relationship. We see this divine initiative most clearly in Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection aims at healing the breach. God keeps the overall goal in mind but changes specific strategies along the way.

Open and relational leadership modeled after God’s way of relating offers insights to leaders today. It admits that creatures are flawed, they fail, and sometimes they disobey. But they are made in God’s image, and it’s worth the trouble of trying to restore the relationship and get it back on track.

Nearly every success starts with an initial idea. But getting to that success takes time and patience. God will go to any length that love will go to save us. Saving does not mean becoming detached. Nor does it mean we are pawns in a master plan. Such uncaring leadership leads to mistreating followers.

Great leaders care as much for the welfare of those they lead as they do about any bottom line. Great leaders are neither distant nor uncaring. They seek the well-being of those they lead. They join with others to work together toward solutions and success.

Rev. Omar Reyes is an ordained Episcopal priest with more than six years of diverse ministry experience. After graduating from Gordon Conwell, he served four years in Western Newfoundland, with six churches under his care. He now serves Christ church Albertville, Alabama and is a student at the School of Theology of the University of the South (Sewanee), working on his Masters of Sacred Theology. His wife Jennifer has been on this journey with him for 22 years and they have three lovely boys, Azriel, Tennyson, and Vadim. He was born in Brooklyn to immigrants from the Dominican Republic and tweets from @trueanglican.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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