In “Political Power” We Trust? What Can We Learn From Timothy I of Baghdad, Part 3

imagec54effc85325d16e1b7d2483897cc547Anytime we have expectations, or trust in someone or something to meet them, we risk disillusionment and disappointment when it doesn’t come to pass. So it is for many people with political power. Perhaps it is an expectation that a particular political leader will get elected and lead us into a promised land. Doesn’t usually happen that way, sorry to say. As I wrote in the last post, having “top-down” power seldom results in lasting change in history, desirable change anyways. Political power comes and goes, but grassroots changes that remain must be achieved in each generation.

I”ve been reading lately a book by former Time magazine Senior Correspondent David Aikman called Great Souls. I had the privilege of having dinner with Aikman many years ago while he was teaching in a school I was helping lead. His week on “State of the World”, where he went around the world giving commentary on events and contexts, was very memorable. In this book he has lengthy chapters on six “Great Souls” of the late 20th century, four of whom he met with personally and interviewed. The six are Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, and Elie Wiesel.  Only one of the six, Mandela, ever held political power. But all six had huge impacts on political events, normally without the intention to do so.

This last June I got to hear David Aikman talk about his book and why he chose these six, and who else he would have included. He mentioned the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, who emerged from many years in prison to lead his nation as President. Both Havel and Mandela achieved the pinnacle of political power in their nations, but not by intention and after years in prison. Both had a quality of character that featured a generosity of soul and a lack of vengeful bitterness for those who had robbed them of periods of their lives, in Mandela’s case over 27 years.

In Great Souls, Aikman discusses the diversity of each leader’s relation to political power. In the case of evangelist Billy Graham, he writes of Graham’s growth from the embarrassing aftermath of meeting US President Harry Truman, when Graham and associates staged a photograph showing how they prayed for Truman. He also experienced deep disappointment in his friendship with another President, Richard Nixon. But Aikman then describes Graham’s increasing impact on international relations on pg. 54-55, “Graham’s globe-trotting during his decades of worldwide evangelism, his rich experience of different world leaders, his encounter with hugely varied theologies, ideologies, and politics, had made him a very different man in his sixties and seventies from what he had been three or four decades earlier. He was still pre-eminently an evangelist, convinced that evangelism alone was his true calling in life. But there was a depth, a richness, a subtlety, indeed a generosity in his judgements that, whatever his early virtues, had not been present in Graham the zealous young man.”

This subtlety in Graham is also seen in the life of Timothy I of Baghdad. (I tend to think he would make David Aikman’s Great Souls list if extended back to the Ninth Century). Another word for subtlety is the word wisdom, and this was deeply needed in Timothy’s day as it is now. As I wrote in the last post, Timothy related to five different Muslim Caliphs during his long life and leadership period of the Church of the East in Asia.

Timothy’s direct involvement as noted in his letters in encouraging and overseeing monastic mission activities to places like India and China raises an interesting question. How was he able to lead and manage this involvement while also living in an environment of the growing strength of the Abbasid regime? At times there must have seemed even to such a strong and seemingly resilient leader a growing battle for the very survival of his Church. Patriarch Timothy had evidenced qualities of being able to manage difficult situations throughout his career. Even his coming to power in his Church had involved a difficult process, where some accused him of fraud. In a contemporary account from the Eighth Century by Thomas of Marga, it is written of the events that, “Since the Patriarchate was set apart for Timothy, truth acted with subtlety and performed its work.” 

The phrase, “truth acted with subtlety”, is a good expression for the career of Timothy, at least from the perspective of the Patriarch. His ability to lead his far-reaching Church and give encouragement to monastic mission activities while managing relationships with five different Caliphs must have demanded not a small degree of subtlety and shrewdness. Skills of negotiation and persistence, combined with subtlety that helped him obtain his leadership role, would be well-honed in the years ahead as Patriarch dealing with Muslim rulers as well as the different groups of Christians.

This is not to say that the only role for Christians is one that is outside of political power. But if someone is indeed called to be in politics, it must be seen as a life-long walk of discernment of temptations and dangers of what power can do to their souls. It is not that anyone aspiring to political leadership needs to go to prison for many years as did Mandela and Havel, but hopefully there will other life-shaping events that will be just as breaking and humbling. What we long for in our leaders, whether in government, religious institutions, or in our own families, is that they would be on the way to being Great Souls. Not perfect, as Aikman brings out so well in his descriptions of the six, and as Timothy clearly showed in his weaknesses from a much earlier period.

It is not in “political power” that we should trust. We do trust, however, in frail human beings. They will fail us. We will fail those that expect things of us. But our commitment needs to be strong that we will continue on the path of being Great Souls in our own context, and to do our part to help others on that path.

For those interested to read the book Great Souls by David Aikman, and I do highly recommend it, you can order it at

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