In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:
The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.
Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).
Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind Singh, Mohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity. Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.
It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.
As a charismatic, ‘magical’ leader, Smith provided divine explanations for the social disruption of the industrial revolution and chaos of the frontier. As people lived short, nasty and brutish lives in the swamps of Nauvoo, Illinois, he claimed that people could become gods and that a mighty kingdom would be establish on the banks of the Mississippi. Like Alice Auma, he promised the coming of heaven on earth. To his followers, the trials of mid-19th century life were thus not simply the result of hard times — they were divinely ordained signs of great things to come.
In addition to promising answers to existential questions, Joseph Smith also arrogated himself to the position of a military leader in the Missouri Mormon War and later formed a 5,000-person strong militia in Nauvoo. Tellingly, Smith provided numerous depictions of Warrior Prophets in the Book of Mormon, notably characters like Nephi, Mormon and Moroni. Smith claimed to offer his supporters security in the chaos of the American frontier, where there were only nascent state institutions and a pervasive vigilantism.
However, the security offered by Warrior Prophets is often ephemeral. Warrior Prophets can actually become a source of insecurity, even for their own followers. Firstly, this is because messianism is likely to lead to hubris and provocation of much more powerful institutions. For example, if Mullah Omar had kept his Taliban a relatively humble and local movement, and turned away links with transnational Islamist movements, he would not have provoked the wrath of the US security apparatus. Secondly, the ardent devotion inspired in their followers is often interpreted as a deeply disturbing threat by other nonbelievers. Thirdly, tempted by megalomania, Warrior Prophets may concentrate authority in themselves, becoming ever more detached from reality. For example, following the defeat of the Holy Spirit Movement, a splinter group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony (who claims to have inherited the spirit of Lakwena from Alice Auma), has become a watchword for bizarre and brutal violence in the region spanning northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern DR Congo. Kony is a source of insecurity even to his own troops, the majority of whom are forcibly abducted.
While Joseph Smith Jr. never reached the levels of madness and psychosis of Kony, he too actually made his followers more insecure, through provocation of surrounding communities. Indeed, the early Mormons were displaced far more than ordinary settlers on the frontier. Counter-intuitively, this heightened insecurity may have actually increased some church members’ dependency on Joseph Smith and his equally war-like successor Brigham Young.
Interestingly, many of the early members of the Community of Christ were those who had been nervous with the militarist direction taken by Joseph Smith, Jr. Indeed, the transition to his son, Joseph Smith III, the first president of the Community of Christ was a classic case of Weber’s transition from charismatic to bureaucratic authority. Joseph Smith III embodied a pragmatic, unobtrusive and significantly less provocative style of leadership than his father. He thus offered a very different approach to security for his followers — that of assimilation and non-provocation of the surrounding population.