One of my favorite American folklore stories is the traditional tale of the mighty hammer swinging John Henry. The story of John Henry has become more legend than factual memoir, but the importance can still be found even throughout this narrated account.
As the generalized tale tells, John Henry was born into a slave family. His family was enslaved by a southern plantation owner who had no respect for their rights. However, when John was born, his parents knew life would somehow be different for him. There was something special with this kid, as some sides of the tale say was he was prophetically born with a hammer in his hand.
Eventually the civil war came to an end and the emancipation of those who were enslaved was proclaimed from coast to coast, from North to South. John now a young and strong man found a young and beautiful wife. They were destined to make a better way for their life and their family. John was known for his pure brute strength. Few people could match his ability at hard manual labor work. It’s said when John Henry swung a hammer, the earth shook with reverberation. It’s also said that he was just a gentle giant with a great and unmatched work ethic.
John Henry would come to find work for the railroad. The emerging railroad needed strong guys to lay rails across much of the unexplored and rustic west lands. In exchange for his work he was promised true freedom in life. He was promise Zion – a land, a house and life in a healthy neighborhood. In some ways, he was in pursuit of the “American Dream” as it was viewed in those days. John was a faithful rail worker, he enjoyed life with his rail gang. There was a good sense of community and life together. They were working together for common purpose and mission – freedom and a better life. They worked hard hours of manual labor together with laughs, a sense of family and some song.
However, progress moves on and few things can stand in its violent onslaught. The railroad had a new machine toy. It was bound to be stronger, faster and more accurate than a whole communal rail gang of men. John Henry was known to be the faster, strongest and most accurate rail layer. He held his team together like a backbone. His team worked hard. So, to put this new machine into test – the railroad rolled their steam-powered track-laying, mountain-destroying drill down the line towards John Henry’s fast working rail gang.
The sense of oppressed defeat must have returned into the hearts of those rail workers as they saw this job-terminating machine roll down the line. They knew this meant the end of their community together, it meant the end of their dreams and mission for freedom and a better life. Put quite frankly, the times were changing and standing in the shadow of this machine they most likely knew that their life was about to change too. There was no way they were going to keep up with the violent onslaught of progress.
John Henry surveyed this efficient machine as it stood before him on the tracks. After a few walks around and leaned-in glimpses, he declared that the old way and humanity together was still better than this steam-powered drill. He declared that he alone could beat and outsmart the drill through the mountain with speed, consistency and efficiency. So, the line in the dirt was drawn and the contest of power was on. The old verses the new. Machine versus mankind.
It was in nervous angst that John Henry picked up his twenty-pound hammer and drove his way through the tunnel. He rested very little. He had to prove he could best the coming tide of progress. Hammer swing after hammer swing, he stayed ahead of the steam powered drill. He worked for the same purpose and mission he did before, but know he worked alone and he worked not in a communal spirit – but in a competitive one.
John beat the machine, but only to fail to know his limits and collapse and die on the tracks from overworking himself. His family lived in his dream, but in his mission he failed to enjoy the purpose that fueled him on. He never reached his vision. He may have proved human community is better than progress, but he never stopped progress in it’s tracks. No, progress would progress on.
Followers of Jesus could learn a lot from the tall-tale story of John Henry. Somewhere along the line we tried to keep up with progress. We went from a collective of community-driven groups meeting in homes to working overtime to maintain our place and sustain our role. We even built machines to keep up with the machine of progress.
It would stay this way through the Reformation. In the Reformation we merely adapted this now old institutionalized way with a go-it-alone attitude that has tried to stop progress and stay one step in front of it the whole time. A small sense of community was inside the Trojan horse trying to maintain.
However, a few years ago, we realized this sense of Christendom has ended. Many of us realized we had exhausted the machine we built to keep up with the machines of progress. The corks and screws began to fall out. Suddenly we weren’t sustainable anymore. We had collapsed on the rail with our hammer at our side.
Watch as 3DMovement‘s Mike Breen talks on how Christendom changed us.
What remained in this sad scene was two major camps. There are those that don’t realize it or don’t want to and they keep propping up a dead horse and telling people it’s safe to ride. Yet, another camp realizes maybe we had it right in the beginning. Maybe all those years ago before we tried to outrun progress, we had something better in the small community-driven rail gangs working together with laughs, a sense of family and some song.
The story of John Henry makes me wonder lots of other questions;
- What would of happened if John Henry and his group continued community together and didn’t try to outrun progress and change?
- What would of happened if John Henry didn’t go-it-alone, and worked with his community to sustain the importance of human community against the machine?
- Why was it so important for John to beat this machine on his own? Could he not trust God to provide in a different way?
Sometimes when we step out to sustain, maintain and protect we are doing so out of a weakened faith. A reality that we don’t trust God enough to make who we are enough to survive. Now, thousands of years later – the Missional Community movement is discovering that there is something special about being together without machine or competition.
The warning in Hebrews rings clear to me in a different light than membership and attendance in a institutionalized church.
“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
– Hebrews 10: 24-25
In my opinion, there are some serious Missional Implications from the tale of John Henry. Some of the questions I am left asking are…
- Have we lost the communal spirit for a competitive one?
- Do we trust God enough to keep his promises?
- How might we focus less on propping up the dead horse, and think of the ways to motivate one another to missional acts?
I’d be curious as you read this story of John Henry and listened to Mike Breen and read my blog…
- What other Missional Implications from the tale of John Henry do you see?