[World, April 15, 1995]
I had a narrow brush with the Peter Principle the other day. You may remember the book that appeared awhile back under that title; Laurence J. Peter’s principle was that people tend to get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Do a good job and you get boosted up the ladder—until you reach the point that you can’t do such a good job anymore. There you sit, gumming things up for the whole organization.
The phone call I received asked if I would consider being (don’t laugh) press secretary for a national political campaign. This was flattering, but akin to putting the Flying Nun in charge of the Air Force. Thanks, I told the caller, but there were too many problems: prior commitments, inability to relocate, three teenaged homeschoolers. The biggest problem, however, was this: I would be a complete nincompoop in the job.
The Press Secretary’s job, whether for a politician or an organization, is much tougher than most of us realize. While we see plenty of secular news coverage slighting and distorting the pro-family position, we don’t see the hard-headed troops phoning reporters every hour, badgering, explaining, and demanding fair treatment. The current prevalent bias is what we see when these folks work on it hard all the time; goodness knows what it would be like without them.
No, that role takes more grit than I have; glib ‘n’ genial just won’t cut it. The only political role I’m suited to is Vice Presidential candidate (as distinct from Vice President). Stand in the background smiling? Got it. Gaze admiringly at the Candidate? No problemo. Applaud at the right moments? Well, you may have to nudge me.
The cover date of this week’s issue is the Saturday before Easter, and many of you have been rereading the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. In the Gospel of John we read this:
Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward." Peter said to him, "Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you."
We know how that story turned out. A friend of mine has painted a view of the Crucifixion, and she depicted at the foot of the Cross the people Scripture mentions: Jesus’s mother, the beloved disciple John, the Centurion. But, Peter, were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Peter had volunteered for a job beyond his competence. He couldn’t meet this mark of courage; he had overestimated his strength of character and the extent to which his heart had been transformed. He did not know what was in him—nor do we. This capacity for flattering self-delusion might be called the "St. Peter Principle."
In a review of a book of contemporary Christian poetry I read this unsettling excerpt (from "Heat Lightening in a Time of Drought" by Andrew Hudgins):
…the heart’s a violent muscle, opening
and closing. Who knows what we might do:
by night, the craziness of dreams; by day,
the craziness of logic…
there is no telling
what we’ll do in our fierce drive to come together.
The heart keeps opening and closing like a mine
where fire still burns, a century underground,
following the veins of black coal, rearing up
to take a barn, a house, a pasture…
Who knows what we might do, or fail to do? We don’t. But Jesus "knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man" (John 2:25 ).
Jesus knew that Peter would deny him, but he knew what other things were in him. "The cock crowed and the Lord turned and looked at Peter…and he went out and wept bitterly" (Luke 22:60-62) We would not know this part of the story, if repentant Peter had not been brave enough to tell it. Courage and cowardice alternated still after the Resurrection, and Peter continued fallible enough to earn at one point even the rebuke of St. Paul (Acts 11:10 , Galatians 2:11 -14).
According to a 4th century legend, St. Peter asked the question "Lord, where are you going?" one more time. He was fleeing Rome and martyrdom when he met Jesus going toward the city. This was the reply: "I am coming to be crucified again." Peter returned to Rome and accepted that crucifixion as his own.
The St. Peter Principle: we don’t know what is in us. It’s probably less noble than we’d like to think. But the one who knows the secrets of every heart not only calls us and forgives us, but equips us to follow, and to do things we never dreamed we could.