After the catastrophic miscalculation of Pickett’s Charge led to the slaughter of his soldiers and the loss of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee met the bloody survivors returning from the field of fire, telling them, one by one, “It is all my fault!” To Pickett, whose division was all but wiped out, he said, “Upon my shoulders rests the blame.”
I am no admirer of Robert E. Lee, but this was his finest moment as a leader, and an example for all leaders who are followed in faith and meet disappointment or worse. I wrote two days ago that Harold Camping, the evangelical broadcaster who proclaimed with absolute, 100% certainty that his calculations foretelling the end of the world on May 21 were correct, had better be prepared to be held accountable when we were all still here on May 22. He wasn’t. From Reuters:
” With no sign of Judgment Day arriving as he had forecast, the 89-year-old California evangelical broadcaster and former civil engineer behind the pronouncement seemed to have gone silent on Saturday. Family Radio, the Christian stations network headed by Harold Camping which had spread his message of an approaching doomsday, was playing recorded church music, devotionals and life advice unrelated to the apocalypse.”
By mid-day, it was already May 22 across the International Date Line, and there was no word from the man whose promise had led some rash believers to abandon their earthly goods and quit their jobs to await the coming Rapture. It was as if General Lee, watching his army get cut to pieces by Union artillery, suddenly remembered that he had an appointment in Richmond to re-arrange his sock drawer.
The last time Camping predicted the End of Days, in 1994, he explained that he had “miscalculated.” That wasn’t good enough either. There are situations when the consequences of being wrong are so momentous that making a mistake is not acceptable, excusable or forgivable, and it is the ethical duty of a leader to accept full responsibility for negligence and incompetence. Lee had much the harder job in 1863, for blood was on his hands. Thousands of his followers had died believing in Lee’s military genius when he ordered a frontal attack, up-hill and in an open field, against a secure enemy position, defying all conventional military wisdom and the advice of his subordinates. Still, predicting the end of the world when many people trust you, then being complete wrong and looking like a fool while making one’s followers—and to many, one’s religious faith—look foolish as well is a significant blunder that calls for immediate apologies and expressions of regret.
Camping was cowardly. He ducked his Robert E. Lee moment. His failure to make a statement of accountability by now cannot be excused, and is proof that he is ethically unworthy of trust, belief, or leadership.