Editor’s Note: This post contains plot spoilers for the movie, Kingdom of Heaven.
I love the movie Kingdom of Heaven.
I’ve watched it many times, and at times, I’ve wondered why I like it so much. I’ve come up with a few ideas, and I think they might be helpful to you as leaders in your communities.
Kingdom of Heaven, set in 1184, follows the story of Balian, a blacksmith who travels to the Holy Land during the Crusades. He is an intelligent warrior, who defends Jerusalem against the Muslim invaders. I won’t give away the ending. A battle is involved, as I’m sure you expected.
It is not historical, it is fiction. It may be set during an historical period and contain historical characters, but it is a fictionalised version of events. As a result, the controversy over its depiction of the crusaders is, at least for me, a lot of hot air. I am much more interested in the characters and their relationships than in historical accuracy. For example, I enjoy The Crown. I rest my case.
So what intrigues me, or moves me, in this story?
The depiction of Christian-Muslim relationships may well be historically inaccurate, but a key relationship in the story is true simply because it contains a gospel truth. It is about mercy, and I find mercy (and its cousin, grace) to be one of the most powerful themes in any movie. It’s a concept that should move us and inspire us.
In Kingdom of Heaven, Balian encounters two Muslims on horseback. They want his horse. One fights him, loses (and is killed), after which the other one is forced to surrender. We expect Balian to kill them both, but he is merciful towards the final defeated man. The man says this,
Your quality will be known among your enemies, before ever you meet them.
It turns out that the speaker is Imad, Saladin’s right-hand man. His cryptic response bears fruit later when Balian is defeated in battle, and surrenders. Imad appears and is merciful to him, allowing him to leave the battlefield. The one shown mercy is now merciful.
Mercy. Grace. Kindness. Love. All of these can be found in Kingdom of Heaven. The importance of mercy is addressed by Jesus in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A man who has received mercy refuses to show mercy. And is punished.
In Kingdom of Heaven, we see that a person’s character counts for much. His instinct to show mercy results in him being shown mercy. Do we not long for such a world? And do we not long for a world in which Christian and Muslim could forge a solid bond over the idea of mercy? We do.
So when Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and Jews enter our buildings and join our groups, we offer hospitality. We lay our lives down to show them the great love and mercy of our God. We invite them to see Jesus, who out of mercy, forgives the repentant heart. And portraying mercy as compassion, we serve food to the hungry and offer kindness to the needy. The church is full of mercy, which is as it should be.
YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CHOICES YOU MAKE
Often script-writers will write a piece of dialogue to express their ideas about the story they’re telling. You can almost hear the director saying, “Right here, this is the core message of the movie. This is what the story is about.” In Kingdom of Heaven, King Baldwin speaks to Balian, knowing that he himself is on the verge of death.
A King may move a man, a father may claim a son, but remember that even when those who move you be Kings, or men of power, your soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God, you cannot say, "But I was told by others to do thus." Or that, "Virtue was not convenient at the time." This will not suffice. Remember that.
King Baldwin, Kingdom of Heaven
Why is this so important?
Moral responsibility requires courage. Later in the story, Balian refuses to act immorally to gain power. He just won’t do it. He has internalized King Baldwin’s injunction. Declaring “virtue was not convenient at the time” is no defence before God.
Balian is a leader. You are a leader. Balian is brave and noble. Do you aspire to such things as courage and nobility? Will you lead your people or follow them? Will you display courage, walking an unpopular path because it’s the right thing to do? Christian leadership is for those who are prepared to take up their crosses. It is not an easy life, but it is one worth pursuing when all is laid before God’s throne. For a crown awaits those who live wholeheartedly for their Saviour.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
So why is the movie called Kingdom of Heaven? Because the crusaders believed that by occupying Jerusalem, they were building God’s kingdom on earth. The director, Ridley Scott, himself a sceptic in religious matters, gives his response to this in the mouth of Balian.
It is a kingdom of conscience or nothing.
Balian, Kingdom of Heaven
Balian certainly seems to follow his conscience. Some have noticed that he opts for moral absolutism, eschewing the utilitarianism presented to him. He will not act “for the greater good” by killing his adversary, instead believing that a person’s morality is absolute. It’s noticeable also that this statement about a kingdom of conscience places the kingdom within the person. For me, it’s a clear echo of Christ’s words.
Nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.
God’s kingdom is indeed within us, and I would happily explain to Ridley Scott that this conscience of which he speaks is the voice of God, who gives each person an inbuilt (though often badly damaged) sense of right and wrong. For Christian leaders, the message is clear. God’s kingdom cannot be assessed by how many turn up to our Christmas services, or how many attend our groups. Nor can it be seen in the fame of the leader or the supposed influence we have within society. It is within, where the Holy Spirit lives, giving us life and strengthening our spirits to live holy lives. It cannot be seen and measured as earthly kingdoms can. There is solace in this truth, but there is also danger. If God’s kingdom is unseen and Christ is its king, what need for a leader to do anything but humbly refer everything to the one in charge? A passing of the buck shrouded with false humility.
INSPIRE YOUR PEOPLE TO ACT BRAVELY
I’m sure you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz. You may remember the scene where the wizard, recently revealed to be a charlatan, addresses the scarecrow, tin man and lion. He gives the scarecrow a diploma, the tin man a heart and the lion a medal. He does this to inspire them. Do these artefacts give them courage or intelligence or feeling? Of course not, so why are they changed? Because of how they feel about themselves and what they believe about themselves.
Exactly the same thing happens in Kingdom of Heaven.
Balian is challenged by a corrupt priest, who says, “But you have no knights!” Balian immediately asks every able-bodied man and boy to kneel. He gives a stirring speech and knights them all. They rise as knights. No training, no new weapons, but suddenly they experience a huge burst of courage and self-belief. That’s because Balian is a leader. His words matter to them. He himself gives them the courage which was lacking. The enemy is the same, their weapons are the same, but they are not. They have been changed by how they see themselves, what they believe about themselves. Balian is asked if this charade (of knighting everyone suddenly) will change them. His answer: Yes.
A great leader must not only be brave, and show it, a leader must also be able to inspire his people. Really inspire them. This is why vision casting is so important. (See my post on casting vision). It is true that Christ is the head of the church, but he uses leaders to communicate his vision. He fills his leaders with his Spirit so that people can see what a servant-heart actually looks like, and hear again and again the wonders of his gospel. Leaders create the culture of their churches, because people look to them to understand what it means to live out the Christian faith. Hear Baldwin’s words once again.
When you stand before God, you cannot say, "But I was told by others to do thus." Or that, "Virtue was not convenient at the time." This will not suffice. Remember that.
Allow me to adjust this slightly for leaders. Here is my version.
When you stand before God, you cannot say, "But I thought I should just play it safe.” Or that, "Some members didn’t like change, so the plans prayed over and agreed by the leadership team, well, they weren't convenient at the time." This will not suffice. Remember that.
It is certainly true that leaders can throw their weight around, pushing through change propelled by their own hubris. But by contrast, others are too fearful to lead at all. It is this second group I have in mind. To this group I would say this: Declaring that since Christ is the head of the church, we as leaders have no responsibility for the health and growth of the church, that too won’t suffice. Christ is indeed head of the Church, so we must serve him fearlessly, bravely and with undying commitment.
Imagine the courage of the one, who leaving behind his heavenly father, was born into a humble home. Aspire to be like him. Bold and brave.
Model him, share him, and lead. Lead your community—and all the visitors they bring to your Christmas services—to the glorious truth that God was with us in Bethlehem, he walked by the Sea of Galilee, and he is still with us today. He is here right now.
For all who have ears to hear, let them hear!
1. Saladin (Salah Ad-din, Salahu’d-Din, Ṣalāḥ ud-Dīn) is the great Muslim general who commands a vast army. He is an historical figure, of course.
2. Balian is not without fault. His sexual ethics—he sleeps with another man’s wife—are certainly questionable.