One of my essential tips as a driving instructor to my daughters was "look in the direction that you're going". One might assume this to be self-evident until the moment that you realise that the car is reversing and the driver is looking forwards and suddenly the importance of stating what previously appeared to be obvious becomes clear.
As The Salvation Army's sesquicentennial (150th) celebrations approach, the theme of looking back and looking forward has been increasingly on my mind. I'm a first generation Salvationist, so I don't come from a long line of Salvo ancestors. My blood just runs red like ordinary folk, not the yellow, red and blue kind that comes from some of those revered genealogies. However, I do have a strong appreciation for the history and traditions of The Salvation Army. I've eagerly consumed countless stories of the early years of the Army, wading my way through a multitude of fascinating books and other historical artifacts. I've been drawn in by the development of William Booth's theology and approach to mission, the relationships in his family and so many of the other colourful characters that shaped this incredible movement.
Yet, I'm also keenly aware that an unchecked preoccupation with history could resign us to its pages. Even more seriously, I've occasionally discerned an attitude amongst some Salvationists that they would rather see the Army 'die with integrity', than change. Whilst this sounds very noble, it seems to me that it's based on two very false notions. One is an overly sentimental idea of what has been. It usually reflects something closer to the era that this person has grown up in than the formative years of the Army and reads history through this anachronistic lens. The second misconception is a denial that The Salvation Army has not already undergone massive change and continues to do so.
There's a well-known philosophical quandary about the ship of Theseus. The ship was so well maintained over many years that in order to preserve it as well as possible, every single plank, nail, sail and oar was replaced. Philosophers disagree over whether the end result is still the same ship. There are a multitude of variations to this story. Another focuses on George Washington's axe, which since Washington's time has had its handle replaced 3 times and its head twice. Our own bodies are living testaments to this paradox of continuity and discontinuity with cells dying and being replaced all the time.
There will always be debates about what constitutes the core elements of Salvation Army identity and which parts we can dispose with in order to meet changing times and contexts. Sometimes, and sadly, I've seen people use their idea of what's authentic to marginalise or exclude others - for instance, on the basis of status (uniform/position), theology (doctrinal positions or interpretations), or function (the classic church/social divide). However, what I think we need to do right now is make a more critical assessment of where we are today. What does The Salvation Army really look like today and how much is our present form indicative of our identity? Be wary of easy answers when it comes to considering this question. Our international presence alone suggests more heterogeneity than we might automatically assume.
If we're honest about what we've already become, then we might have some hope of shaping what we're becoming tomorrow. If we kid ourselves about the present or the past, then the future's assured - and it's not bright.