Simplicity and Complexity for our Troubled Times

Former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have said “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity”.  That thought has been rolling around in my mind as I think about transformational leadership for our troubled times.

Tension threatens to overwhelm us with the shocking murders in Charleston and San Bernardino, fast moving changes in US sexual mores, rioting in various US cities amid racial tensions and perpetual and instantaneous reporting of all of it by the media We long for simplicity in the midst of the complexity of our world.

As a leader, I feel the tension of insuring my leadership is appropriately complex (robust enough to withstand the reality of our times) and appropriately modeling simplicity (so that it can be catalytic and transferable). Here are some thoughts regarding the challenge that I think may be helpful to you as you consider those same tensions:

Simplicity becomes simplistic when we fail to recognize complexity.  This can be dangerous (and shallow).   Our world calls for a robust and meaningful faith. The rise of the “nones” in recent religious affiliation surveys surveys as reported by the Pew Research Center    ( and the increasing plurality of the American landscape call for a recognition of the underlying principles of freedom of religion we hold sacred in the American founding documents.    Religious freedom in a pluralistic present given a Judaeo Christian dominant past, is a complex exercise and we do well to acknowledge that fact.  People of faith in the United States (still over 90% of the population!) carry a special burden of advocating for religious freedom for others, even those who do not share their specific faith perspective. 

Real faith moves towards simplicity when it is lived out in a loving and redemptive fashion, even in the face of undeniable evil.   While some continue to deny the presence of evil in our world, most of us see tragic evidences of it every day.  This world, this beautiful and evil world of ours, needs faith that is understandable, transferable, and experienced in our everyday reality.  As a Christian, I am called to testify to my faith in ways that are understandable and compelling to the culture around me.  The recent tragic events in Charleston and San Bernardino saw yet another redemptive and loving act as Charleston family members offered forgiveness to the gunman even as they were in the midst of their pain.  In 2006, the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA demonstrated complex and simple faith when they forgave and loved the family members of the murderer who killed 10 of their young girls.

Our times call for faith that is personally, organizationally, and culturally transformative That faith will be both complex and simple; it will call forth love into action.  Movements occur when complexity is translated into simplicity.  Helping others to understand, grasp, apply, and reproduce complex and simple faith is a powerful calling.  This is catalytic.  I need to make sure I am daily translating my faith into simplicity in love and action.  The people of  Emmanuel AME in Charleston and the Amish in PA have given us good models that are both complex and simple.

Dr. John Jackson is the President of Jessup University. He’s the author of 10 books, the most recent being “Grace Ambassador”. He’s a transformative leader, committed to equipping believers and fostering change in their local communities… Read more

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