Strongman or Servant?

Public Lecture at University of Livingstonia

It is a special experience to give a public lecture at the University of Livingstonia. My late lamented friend and colleague Jack Thompson gave a long series of public lectures in the Livingstonia sphere and helped me to gain some understanding of what it involves.

Of course, it is part of a tradition that finds expression in Universities everywhere. Besides the regular courses there are the occasions when a scholar is invited to give a public lecture in which they seek to express how their work might contribute to the wider development of knowledge.

But Livingstonia’s long record of offering intellectual leadership in the north of Malawi invests such an occasion with a distinctive quality. There is a certain gravitas that combines the Western tradition with the African heritage. It is a statement of identity and an assertion of confidence that Livingstonia has its own particular contribution to make to the advance of knowledge.

Some of the work of the Livingstonia University focuses closely on the local and national context. But a University also necessarily has a wide global outlook. The topic for my public lecture was “World Christianity and the Global Leadership Crisis: Forming Servant Leaders in the Age of the Strongman”.

I took account of the dramatic turn in world affairs that has seen “strongman” leaders emerge in many contexts, with devastating consequences for the poor and for the planet. The biblical tradition offers the contrasting model of the servant leader. Might it be in retrieving this model both in its own practice and in its public witness that world Christianity can speak to the crisis of our time?

Some words written by the ecumenical leader Joe Oldham almost 100 years ago are still worth pondering today:

The human heart is so constituted that its fullness comes of spending. When we serve we rule. When we give we have. When we surrender ourselves we are victors. We are most ourselves when we lose sight of ourselves.”

J.H. Oldham, 1925
Sunrise at Livingstonia

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