A principle of many contemporary movements is the decentralization of leadership.
Organized around common goals (like the end of corporate welfare or a particular dictator’s rule) and with common values-derived rules (use strictly nonviolent methods, etc), movements can spread leadership and decision-making very fast. A community in California can call the shots without consulting their movement comrades in New York, once consensus has been built around the movement’s mission and mode of operation. Groups in a village upcountry do not need to consult their “superiors” in a capital city.
Such a philosophy of decentralized leadership is becoming popular. In the recent revolutions of North Africa, the students’ efforts in Hong Kong, the Occupy Movement, and today with Black Lives Matter, movements are becoming increasingly skeptical of relying on the vision and direction of one charismatic leader (say, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.).
Jesus’ philosophy for organizing was similar.
Forming a core team
Almost every movement begins with a core team, often between 8 and 15 members who spent time griping together about the injustices they are facing. They decide to do something about it.
Whereas this core group sometimes consists of intellectuals and people with a more theoretical grasp of the problems, Jesus deliberately selected people confronted with the oppression in their daily lives, like peasants and fishermen. (This is a topic for another day.)
These dozen dudes, known in the Christian texts as disciples, convened with one another and gave the whole of their lives to the task before them.
Jesus did not cling to power. Rather, he told his comrades that they would do “even greater things” than him. Anything Jesus could do, they could do – and more.
Core team is initiated
At no point should the strategic, core members of a movement consider themselves “above” the petty tasks of actually doing the risky work. They must be examples by putting themselves in harm’s way. They do not have the legitimacy of telling others to do this unless they have done it themselves.
The Otpur! (Resistance!) movement in Serbia which ousted genocidal dictator Slobodan Milosevic recruited new members into the movement by forcing them to go do some kind of action first.
Their philosophy was 1) Recruit, 2) Train, 3) Act. After taking an action – like spray painting the Otpur! logo in a public place – they could also self-identify as a movement member as recruit others through the same process. This distributed leadership far and deep across the Balkans. It was also a system that weeded out some opportunists and spies.
Jesus’ core team members were initiated into the movement by going out to other villages and sharing their vision and values with others.
Recruitment through dependency on external community
Jesus knew that the core team’s relationships, trust, and legitimacy with the external community would be solidified through reliance on them for basic needs. They would be perceived not as passersby, but as comrades in the human struggle, if they were dependent upon the resources of the communities they engaged.
“Take nothing for the journey,” Jesus instructed. “No staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.”
Other rules he laid out included:
- Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. (Notice how he left the duration of stay up to the wisdom of those going.)
- If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them. (Move on. Do not waste too much effort trying to win them over.)
Core team experiences resistance from opponents
Structures in which power is concentrated at the top deeply fear decentralized movements. This is one of the reasons they are so powerful.
I remember training a group of illiterate, urban activists. About four of them were obviously spies. I agreed to train them too. One took me aside and began questioning me, as though I was unaware of his allegiances. He started asking, “Who is the head of this thing?” I told him he was the head, that all may be leaders through their participation and decision-making. He was frustrated and did not know how to thwart the efforts of his fellow trainees without concentrating the state’s attack at someone at the head.
Similarly, Herod the tetrarch heard about the mass recruitment efforts circling around the countryside. He wondered how this could be. He had already beheaded the charismatic leader John the Baptist and was confused about how recruitment could be increasing without John’s leadership.
Retreat and patience for organic interest
Following this preliminary recruiting drive of the core team, Jesus and his comrades retreated for some reflection and quiet. Eventually crowds started following them. They took advantage of the opportunity. This led to everyone sharing their food together. They built an alternative economy in that moment, one based on sharing and generosity.
Filtering the unserious
As the movement grew and more and more interest was generated near and far, Jesus was deliberate about not embracing new members who were half-hearted. There is no point in a movement that is a billion miles wide and an inch deep (like the majority of the global Christian movement today).
One man said he would give up everything to join, but Jesus cautioned him that it would require him to be a homeless vagabond.
Another man said he had to go bury his father, but Jesus, in an abominably offensive statement, told him that the dead bury their own dead so this man was not committed enough.
Still another asked to first say goodbye to his family. Jesus said there is no looking back in their struggle.
(It is shocking to me how so many people wanted to follow such a jerk. Or maybe the gospel writers just wrote this in hyperbole to make a point about the seriousness Jesus demanded.)
Embracing those “in motion”
Solid movements are built upon a foundation of people who are already trying to engender change. Such people are co-opted into the movement, pulled under a common umbrella.
In one case, the core member John noticed a person driving out demons in the name of Jesus. He said they tried stopping him, because he was not a member of the group.
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” People with common goals and methodologies should always be embraced by a movement, and in a movement, people should have some freedom concerning their ability to self-identify with the movement.
In fact, keeping proper records of movement members would be counterproductive to most struggles.
As movement grows, continue replicating recruitment at all levels
Now, by this time, the core team had conjured more interest. They had 72 extremely serious members who were willing to be sent out to recruit others.
They were sent two-by-two (also a topic for another day).
The rules in this second round of recruitment were similar, adapted from the trial and error of the preliminary effort:
– Do not take a purse, bag, or sandals.
– Do not greet anyone on the road (deceptive occupation-affiliates planted to steer teams away from their goals).
– Eat and drink whatever is given. Stay at the same house wherever you go.
– Heal the sick (those victimized and ostracized by the empire).
– Shake the dust off your feet against those who do not accept you. (This rule was more drawn out this time. Perhaps they had tried it a few times and fine tuned the way to do it for increased effectiveness. This new way of doing it was more dramatized with a particular script.)
Concentric circles of movement leadership
In any movement, there will be core members who commit everything to the struggle, and those who come in at a later time after recruitment. The challenge is to give everyone the space for decision-making and leadership.
Most power structures are pyramid-shaped. A few people concentrate power at the top where they make decisions. They are wealthier and have more control over things. Those toward the bottom carry out more difficult duties, earn less, while those at the top relax and enjoy the fruits.
Not so in the early Christian movement. Emerging leaders who had been recruited can interact with core members, and they can assume even more control of their own localities, cultures, and constituents.
Instead of a pyramid, the Christians had organized in concentric circles. Community and cooperation becomes more intimate, even as numbers increase and participants are more dispersed across geography and demographics. It looks much like this: