Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer opens with a youthful Tom sentenced to expend his Saturday morning whitewashing a thirsty fence. Tom’s friend, Ben Rogers, happened by, and Tom continued to paint while pretending to enjoy the work. “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Tom used delicate strokes to cover the boards just so, and Ben begged for a turn. Tom replied, “I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”
Tom took advantage of the opportunity and rented out whitewashing turns to all his friends in exchange for their treasures. By mid-afternoon the fence gleamed with three fresh coats. Twain tells his readers that the poverty-stricken Tom became quite wealthy before the whitewash ran out.
The brutal truth is anyone can sling whitewash. Instead of standing up for truth, telling the truth, and living the truth we settle for something else. We cover up the ugly with a thin veneer of hypocrisy and pretend nothing has changed. We want others to retain their high view of us rather than discover our reality. Image is everything.
But where do these life choices lead in the long term?
In ancient Israel the leaders fumbled their responsibilities. Pretending and posturing had replaced honesty and integrity. Though the leaders looked good publicly, Ezekiel proclaimed their reality in Ezekiel 22:25-28. Here’s Ezekiel’s snapshot of three major leadership groups:
- Priests no longer made a distinction between the profane and the holy. They opted to go along to get along, and adopted an attitude of “Whatever!”
- Princes operated under a sense of entitlement with an expectation that their every desire be filled instantly. Dishonest gain came at the expense of destroyed lives. Contrast this with leadership as described by Lt. Gen. George Flynn in Simon Senek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, “Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”
- Prophets lived for recognition and the esteem of their followers. Consulting God to get His input was foreign to these men, and deception marked their prophecies. Ezekiel described their lack of concern for leading rightly as smearing whitewash over the people.
Imagine the cumulative effect of such leadership! As I pondered these descriptions I compiled a list of undesirable behaviors and attitudes from the descriptions. These are easily covered by whitewash as I don a cloak of deception to cover my reality and present a public facade.
- A wobbly moral compass that offers no distinction between right and wrong.
- Weak knees that refuse to stand for truth.
- Beliefs sacrificed in favor of popularity and acceptance.
- Professional grade selfishness in life and leadership.
- An unsatisfying quest for materialism that ignores the costs.
If I make these practices into habits, if I tolerate such erosion in my personal foundation, I may bypass Tom Sawyer as the consummate whitewasher.