Archive for June, 2010

Repeating History

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

I am not sure who coined the phrase, “history repeats itself”, but it is characteristic of many cliches in that  it is simple and easy to blurt out while lacking both accuracy and clarity.  First of all, history does not repeat anything.  History is another way of referring to the past, a moment in time outside of the present or a past event.  Although the past may have continuing consequences put into motion by certain actions, history is not the subject of those actions.  In fact history does nothing.  History is a designation of time, nothing more.

Now if we want to say that history indicates that given a particular set of circumstances, people seem to have a proclivity for repeating certain decisions, or that people fail to learn from the past, or that people who are ignorant of the past fail to learn from other people’s mistakes, then I think we are now saying something that is both more accurate and clearer.

This may seem to be a silly point to make, but it does seem to me that the phrase “history repeats itself” occurs in settings where people seem intent on refusing or reassigning the responsibility for either the history that they or others created or the history they are in the process of creating.  It strikes me as being similar to the phrase, “well, that’s just the way I am!”  Really?  Like things could not be different, like other choices could not be made, like a different history could not be created, or a different story written.

Next time you think about saying, “well, after all, history just repeats itself”, reflect for a moment on the people who made the choices and their reasons for doing so and then assign them the responsibility for the decisions they made.  History does not repeat itself; people make choices.

Wild and Crazy Guys- Part II

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

What America experienced in the early nineteenth century, West Africa experienced in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth centuries.  Just as the religious landscape of America was carved out by men and women empowered by a democratic spirit and a populist gospel that called for all people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, so the religious landscape of West Africa was shaped by powerful charismatic figures who harnessed the egalitarian power present in spiritual experience to empower poor and marginalized Africans.  These charismatic leaders laid the foundation for African Independent Churches.

 The nation state apparatus of Sub-Saharan Africa was created by Europeans in the late nineteenth century during a period known as the “scramble for Africa”.  At the Berlin Conference of 1884 the Europeans decided to carve up Africa among themselves in order to gain access to the continent’s rich mineral and human resources and to bring civilization/Christianity to this dark and pagan continent.

The problem was that no one bothered to consult the Africans about this plan to civilize them.  To quote Lord Salisbury, Britain’s Prime Minister, “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where we were or who lived there.”

By the early twentieth century there was growing unrest as Africans began to push back against European colonization.  In an attempt to find a voice in a colonial world that systematically disenfranchised them, Africans discovered that Christianity provided them with a powerful means of personal expression.  Much like it did for slaves in America, the biblical story provided Africans with a powerful tool for a addressing the many social and political injustices they suffered under colonial rule.  In the biblical story God used the mouths of humble but powerful prophets to pronounce his judgments against social and political oppression and injustice.  In West Africa in the early twentieth century two of these self proclaimed prophets were Garrick Sokari Braide and William Wade Harris.

 Braide was from the Niger Delta.  Known for his gifts of prayer, prophecy and healing, large crowds gathered whenever he preached.  He railed against the use of charms and other former pagan symbols and demanded a complete observance of Sunday as a day of rest and prayer.  It was said that he once called up a massive storm to punish those who defied Sabbath observance, but Braide focused his significant popularity and preaching on the eradication of alcoholism.  Three million gallons of gin and rum were consumed each year in the towns and villages of the Niger Delta.  His campaign was so effective it threatened the excise revenues being generated for the colonial powers making him a political problem.  Some of his many followers joined the Catholic Church but a large number joined together to create Christ Army Church.  One of the local newspapers declared that Braide was anointed by “the God of the Negro” to offer Africans an alternative to Western Christianity.

 The prophet of Liberia/Ivory Coast was William Wade Harris.  Harris was arrested for taking part in several political uprisings.  After his participation in the Glebo War of 1920 he was imprisoned and while in jail he reported that the angel Gabriel visited him and commissioned him a prophet.  He was to preach repentance, abolish fetish worship and baptize converts.  He preached against alcohol, demanded respect for authority, tolerated polygamy but forbade adultery.  During his services he would sing and dance while playing the “celestial harp”.  Harris provided Africans with a popular religious outlet for addressing the political and social issues of their day.  If they respected authority it was their choice, not because they were threatened.  Christianity did not need a European blessing or overseas sponsorship.  It found a home in African hearts without the need to offer civilization as a prerequisite.   Though he never promoted or organized them himself, many of his followers later created what became know as Harris Churches.


 God seems to be okay about allowing some wild and crazy guys into the safe, secure and structured world of His church at times.  Elias Smith, Lorenzo Dow, Garrick Braide and William Harris are not the first and they will not be the last.  After all, folks weren’t too sure what to make of the locust and honey eating John the Baptist either.

Wild and Crazy Guys-Part I

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

After more than two thousand years, how does the Christian faith remain vital, energetic, compelling and relevant for life, generation after generation?  What keeps it from becoming tepid, boring, perfunctory and irrelevant?  I would suggest that part of the answer can be found in periods of Christian history when things got a little crazy, a little out of control, times when all efforts by church authorities to enforce conformity seemed to be wasted efforts.  I am not sure that one can or should plan these crazy, wild, out of control times nor am I sure that trying to do so is such a good idea; nevertheless, it would seem that there are historical periods in the life of the church when God seems to be okay with a little craziness that shakes things up a bit and restores some sense of vitality and relevance to a faith that sometimes lacks energy and life.

Over the next two weeks I will explore two such “crazy periods” in Christian history.  One occurred in the America in the early nineteenth century and the other happened in West Africa in the early twentieth century.  What I find interesting is the similar circumstances in which these events occurred and the similar personalities that emerged from those circumstances. 

First, America in the early nineteenth century, a time Nathan Hatch described as a period when “assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down to earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands.”  During this period following the Revolutionary War many of the traditional political, social and religious authorities imported from Europe were neutralized and many of the previous constraints that controlled religious behaviors and beliefs were thrown off.  The result was the rise of men like Elias Smith and Lorenzo Dow who stormed heaven by the back door with little more than their own charismatic personalities and a unique brand of democratic language that drew the common people to hear their latest version of the Christian faith.

Elias Smith was a self-taught Yankee, committed Jeffersonian and former Baptist preacher who decided to reshape the faith in accordance with his own conscience and personal biblical interpretation.  His primary influence was as a publisher writing pamphlets, tracts, books, gospel songs and newspapers.  He used these publications to promote his idea that people are free to think for themselves and search the Bible for themselves without the need for theological training or clerical permission.  His views led him to reject conventional medicine for more home grown remedies.


Lorenzo Dow was a self-promoting revivalist preacher and writer who traveled the country delivering hundreds of sermons with humorous and dramatic flair.  He was an actor by profession who utilized his talents to communicate a gospel that was lively, earthy, and utterly entertaining.  He claimed that God guided him through dreams and visions, that he could see into people’s hearts and predict the future. His theology was a combination of simple biblicism and common sense meant to appeal to the average person with no formal theological or biblical training.


And how did the traditional church authorities of the day respond to men like Smith and Dow?  The German Reformed theologian and preacher Philip Schaff made this observation upon his arrival in America, “Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false wares at pleasure.  What is to become of such confusion is not now to be seen.”

 If you think what Schaff described was strange or unique, next week we will look at similar events that occurred in West Africa in the early twentieth century.

Overcoming Your History-Part IV

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

We are in week four of a series that began by asking the following question, why do some organizations find it next to impossible to affect real cultural change even when faced with the clear signs of decline or with a crisis that threatens to undermine or destabilize them?  My answer, they have not developed the muscular leadership and courage necessary to overcome their own history.  Overcoming your history could be defined as the ability to critique and honor your history simultaneously.

I have been using Edgar H. Schein’s work on organization culture to get at this issue of overcoming history. Schein identifies three levels to any organization that must be recognized and evaluated if one is to understand the culture of that organization.  For three weeks I have offered reasons why each of these organizational levels offer significant challenges to any organization trying to overcome its history in order to move forward and claim a healthier and more productive future.

Let’s finish this series on a more positive note shall we?  So, if an organization learns to overcome its history, what are the benefits?  What would it be like to serve in an institution that had discovered the critical balance between honoring its history while practicing a healthy form of self-criticism?

First, you would spend your time and energy shaping a future based on a clear set of mutual values that supported a clearly articulated and shared mission.  The organization’s history, successes and failures, would be accessible and open for all to see whether they had been on the team for ten years, five years, or five days; therefore, assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and feelings about the organization’s direction and purpose would actually match the stated mission and vision of its leaders.  All strategies, goals and procedures would be filtered through the mission to ensure that structures and processes were efficient and effective and if it were discovered that the current structures and processes were not consistent with and supportive of the mission, they would be changed.

Second, the key to overcoming history is leadership.  There is absolutely no substitute for good leadership.  By opening up the past as a learning process leaders provide others with the freedom to focus on the future.   If leaders refuse to become the gatekeepers of that history by opening it up for scrutiny and question they create a work environment that encourages creativity, builds morale and gives good people a reason to stay.  A well led and healthy organization works hard at being conscious of its shared assumptions by openly sharing its history.    It intentionally helps newcomers to understand how and why the values of the institution emerged from its history.  It responds to crisis as an opportunity to grow rather than a threat to its stability.  It fosters an environment of participation in which questions and dialogue are encouraged and it invites critiques of structure and process without fearing that its current strategies, goals, or philosophies will be threatened.

The point is, with good leadership and a commitment to buidling a healthy culture through honest communication, you can overcome your history.