Merry Christmas, friends!
For those who haven’t heard, I’m excited to let you know that I have recently accepted the Lead Pastor position at All Souls Knoxville(Tennessee), and our family will be moving from Calgary to Knoxville at the beginning of February. If you’ve ever moved internationally (and prepared to do so during Christmas, no less), you’ll understand my recent absence here. Anyhow, I wanted to break the silence and take a few minutes to briefly write.
The other day, Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns tweeted about a new book authored by the dean of Duke University Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, titled Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race. I bought it almost immediately.
For those interested, you can read all my posts (including this one) and even get them delivered to your inbox by subscribing to my substack account here.
Yesterday morning I took a few minutes and read the preface by Dr. Willie James Jennings. I think many of us who have been touched by Jennings’ work would agree with Powery’s assessment that
“[Jennings’] words are linguistic icons to the deep wellspring of God’s wisdom and presence.”Luke A. Powery, Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022), 23. All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from this source and will be marked by page number.
All the more, I might add, if you’ve ever heard him speak in person. His words yesterday morning have ignited an “Amen!” in my soul.
For those who have been following some of my previous posts, I’ve been trying to accomplish two things in my series on Pentecostalism and the (Mis)location of Power. First, I attempt to point out that what the Spirit did at the genesis of the modern Pentecostal movement had race, gender, and non-violence at its very core. Admittedly, I have not dealt much with Pentecostalism’s pacifist roots, but my contention is that weapons of defense become unnecessary when the Spirit burns the boundary markers of division between us. In the wake of the Spirit there is nothing left to defend. These things, then – the erasure of the boundaries of race, gender, and the removal of the need for self-protection – were not mere byproducts of the Spirit’s move, but rather were the very things that the Spirit was accomplishing. This, I contend, is in keeping with what we read throughout scripture, not least in the book of Acts. The second thing that I have been trying to accomplish is to say that we have misinterpreted, or perhaps not interpreted at all, the signs of the Spirit which we have experienced.
The fire of the Spirit is a boundary-burning fire. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19, we read these poignant words: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” Dr. Estrelda Alexander, recalling the radical way the Spirit removed the boundaries of race and gender in the early 1900s at Azusa Street (one of the prime locations of Pentecostalism’s origin), sadly remarks (as I’ve quoted before),
“These intense early impulses, which went far beyond tolerance to involve actual embrace of persons of diverse ethnic groups, soon capitulated to surrounding racial realities. After the initial period, race became an issue and separation was soon to be the norm.”Estrelda Y. Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 20.
When we refuse to work with the Spirit against these boundaries of division, we are then working against the fire that is the Spirit. This is the fire that we are putting out.
In his preface to Powery’s book, Jennings stunningly addresses our failure to properly address our Western “racial condition” as a resistance to the Spirit:
“The racial condition of the Western world points to a resistance to the Spirit of God, a resistance that has come to be canonized.” (14)
Jennings then begins to address the failure of the preacher to yield to the Spirit. He addresses head-on the way we attempt to generalize racism rather than deal with it in its specificity, calling this a “theological mistake.”
A common theological mistake avoids considering our resistance to the Spirit of God by quickly and sloppily universalizing that resistance under the important theological rubric of sin and the sinful condition. Resistance is indeed sin, but its particularities are what matter not only to God but also to how we perceive divine presence working with us even in our resistance. The preaching life shows us that working and that resistance in slow motion, capturing its details inside the dual exegesis of texts and lives. (14-15).
Jennings insists that our failure to take our “racial condition” seriously is a failure to take the Holy Spirit seriously, and calls the preacher to this exact and serious task. Jennings, of course, is anything but naïve. He rightfully acknowledges that
“yielding to the Spirit of God is dangerous and sometimes frightening work.” (15)
As a result, we often take neither the “racial condition” nor the Spirit seriously. With regards to the “racial condition,” Jennings points out that not only is our avoiding the issue of racism problematic, but so is speaking of the issue but not really speaking to the issue. I have encountered this time and again, preachers saying that we have to be sly about how we address racism since the topic is so fraught. Jennings provides a resounding “no,” and calls this a “tragedy.”
The tragedy at this moment is not only that ministers are refusing to preach about race (or sex), but also that when they do, they very often say absolutely nothing; that is, they say absolutely nothing that has to do with the new humanity established by the Holy Spirit. This is less a criticism and more a recognition that in the age of the white1 self-sufficient man, preaching struggles to turn us toward the Spirit. (17)
This, as he says, is directly linked with our inability to yield to the wildness of the Spirit.
The formation of a healthy pneumatological vision of life continues to be thwarted, because we yet live in the age of that [white self-sufficient] man where we are told to envision the Spirit through very limited options. The Spirit is either a hidden energy in us, vivifying our own designs and efforts, or the Spirit is a liturgical lapdog who comes when called, enlivening our worship, and turning Spirit-filled life into spectacle. (17)
And so, a challenge stands before us: to be bold enough to welcome the Spirit who means to disrupt us, and bold enough the submit to the Wild Wind by addressing the “racial condition” head-on, thus
“rejecting the spells, incantations, and alchemies of our modern racecraft, and moving from acknowledging the humanity of Black folks to a full-throated advocacy for justice and thriving life for them and with them.” (16)
Yet Jennings prophetically reminds us preachers that this is not a hopeless endeavor!
“Hopeless preaching is an oxymoron…” (20)
And so he calls us towards hope by welcoming the Holy Spirit and engaging in “an anti-racist preaching life.”
“Indeed, there is no better definition of an anti-racist preaching life than this: to become a source for streams of living water. This is the doing of the Spirit, who gives us marvelous eyes to see.” (20)
Friends, let’s become sources “for the streams of living water,” by welcoming the Spirit and boldly preaching in such a way that “turn[s] us towards the Spirit” and what the Spirit is about in our time.
1. It is perhaps important here to clarify the term “white.” When many people read this they immediately think of skin pigmentation and thus assume that the author is demonizing all who are born light-skinned. Very early in the book Powery, drawing on Jennings, corrects this misunderstanding: “People get offended often because they believe it [whiteness] is a biological term, referring to all white-colored people across time. But I adhere to the insightful perspective and teaching of Willie Jennings, who writes that it ‘does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making’ (Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 9.). “It is a way of organizing life,” (ibid.) and as Jemar Tisby points out, it “isn’t a matter of melanin, it’s a matter of power” (Jerman Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 17.)