The other day I posted this on Facebook:
I’ve had some really thoughtful people reach out to me privately with concern. ‘Are you condoning violence? Are you saying the Spirit is condoning violence!?’ The short answer, as you might have guessed, is no. But admittedly, the post requires more explanation than the few sentences I gave it. I had originally taken it down a few moments after posting it for fear of it being misunderstood, but a friend in the Twin Cities asked me to put it back up. This was happening, literally, in her backyard. She really resonated with what I was saying, so I put it back up. This post is an attempt to provide some needed commentary to my original (much shorter) post. I hope it helps.
When it comes to moments like this, many of us have been trained to think within two categories: order and disorder. Order is good; disorder bad. Of course, things are not so simple (as history reveals). Order can be good. Speaking of church services, the Apostle Paul says that things should be orderly. But order is not inherently good. Oppressive regimes almost always operate within the confines of precise order. This was as true of Nazi Germany as it was of the South African Apartheid. We can note that this order works for you if you are on top. In fact, it helps you stay on top. And it’s important to say here that you can be on top without even realizing that the order that helps you hurts another. Privilege, by its very nature, is blind (hence the frequent insistence that it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist for me). Saying all of this does not diminish the fact that disorder can get out of control; get violent. We’re seeing some of this now. This should be renounced. However, this doesn’t mean that disorder is inherently bad, just order is not inherently good. Where there is oppression, disorder often becomes a necessary way of (finally) getting our attention. But let us distinguish between disorder and the crowd. You can have disorder without violence and looting. Think of marching in the streets. The streets are meant for driving on, not marching. Marching shuts down the street and its designed order – but this is not yet violence. Violence and looting often take place around disorder, but it is the crowd which does it. Perhaps this is why so many young white people (often following purposeful agitators) are leading the way in violence and looting. The energy of the crowd has overtaken them like too many strong drinks. They’ve become intoxicated by the crowd. In case you’re wondering, I renounce the violence of the crowd. I do not, however, denounce the disorder. But enough of this. As important as it may be to think through these things, I also feel it crucial to move away from the categories of order and disorder. There’s a philosopher who helped me see the importance of this move.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a philosopher who writes extensively on the philosophy of Justice. He doesn’t do this as removed from the situation, however. He believes (over against John Rawls) that justice must start from the place of the oppressed. He had several experiences that led him to this belief, not least of which were his interactions in South Africa during the Apartheid. He noticed an interesting thing about the white Afrikaners during this time which is extremely relevant to this moment. They didn’t deny injustice. Who in our time is denying injustice? Not many. But the thing that is striking isn’t that they didn’t deny injustice, but that they didn’t need to. Wolterstorff says that instead, “they insisted that justice was not a relevant category. Order and disorder were the relevant categories; South Africa was threatened with disorder” (Journey Towards Justice, 8). Sound familiar? We are in a crucial moment when we must move beyond the categories of order and disorder and move towards justice. Talk of disorder is often a way of silencing the movement towards of justice. I believe that we can renounce the violence of the crowd (which I do!) while simultaneously moving towards greater categories of Spirit and Justice.
I don’t think we can talk about the Spirit without talking about Genesis 1:2. This verse is actually all about chaos. The text tells us that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…”. Formless and empty. The Hebrew employs a spooky onomatopoeia – tohu wa-bohu. John Goldingay says that it “suggests something…like desolation…[or] meaningless chaos” (Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, 80). Desolation and chaos sound familiar to anyone? But here’s the thing: “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” There is chaos, but then there’s a greater reality above the chaos – transcending the chaos – the Spirit of God. I want to suggest that the Spirit has never stopped hovering over the chaos. Right now, the Spirit has not fled the chaos. Far from it, the Spirit is hovering exactly over it! So let’s talk about Pentecost.
The truth is, you can’t really talk about Pentecost without talking about the Tower of Babel. For a long time I thought that Pentecost was the reversal of Babel. It’s not. Babel and Pentecost have everything to do with each other. Many people think that Babel had to do with God bringing the disunity of language in order to confuse people. The story, in fact, is far more beautiful than that. But it’s ugly before it’s beautiful. First, it’s important to note that in the previous chapter (Gen 10) we’re already told that there were multiple languages on the earth. This should be a major clue that something other than a multiplicity of language is going on in Genesis 11. Something else is happening. And what is that something else? Well, it’s about oppression by supremacists. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Babel is a critique of imperialism” (Not in My Name, 192). The background of the story (as historical evidence shows) is that people of various cultures and languages were conquered and all forced to speak one language. Their culture was stripped from them. Their language was stripped from them. So what does God do? God interrupts this project and confuses the empire. The result was chaos…disorder. But God was for – we might even say behind – this disorder. The order was corrupt so God threw it into confusion. God was bringing down the imperial empire!
So now we move to Acts 2. Here, the Spirit is poured out upon a group of people. All the people are gathered together. And the Spirit comes like “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind” (2:2). And what happens? the people begin speaking in languages they didn’t know. This is strange. Disruptive. A crowd forms and they hear these people speaking their own language. Notice (!), they’re not all speaking the same language. That was the Babel project that God tore down. This was different. God is speaking the language of people. I really want to bring up Willie James Jennings on this passage, but I’ll save it for a forthcoming podcast (The god of our imagination). Suffice is to say for now that people are confused by this moment. Church people read this text religiously and think, ‘how wonderful!’ Not the gathered crowd. The crowd said something different – ‘they’re drunk!’ This was a disruptive moment, and they didn’t know how to interpret it so they used their usual categories. But Peter steps up and tells them that they are misinterpreting the disruption! He tells them that the people aren’t drunk, rather, this is the work of God’s Spirit. There is something greater going on than they can perceive.
I think the same thing is happening now. God is doing something. Things are being disrupted – powers are being disrupted – and the Spirit is hovering. We need some people like Peter, however, to keep us focused on this truth; to properly interpret this moment. Now some will immediately react since it seems like I’m saying that God is causing the violence and looting. I’m not. But I will not shy away from saying that God is disrupting the old order! I won’t shy away from it because this is what we see over and over again in the book of Acts. Organized religion gets shaken, but so does the broader population.
You can hardly read a chapter in Acts without seeing the violent wind blow. The aftermath is disruption. God does something and the normal modes of order get shaken. Oftentimes things get violent. God is not in the violence, but the reason that things get violent is because the old order is getting shaken up (or torn down, if you prefer). Systems are being disrupted and broken. One of my favorite examples of this happens in Acts 16. There is a fortune teller in the story. She’s really good, apparently. We’re told that she had “a spirit” that allowed her to do this. But God’s Spirit comes in and the old spirit leaves her. Out with the old, in with the New. This is good news – but not for the old order. Why? Because she made them a lot of money. Here’s how the story plays out:
(19) When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. (20) They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar (21) by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” (22) The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. (23) After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. (Act 16:19-23)
Notice a few things here. First, the accusation: “these men are Jews.” See how they are being identified by their race and culture? Then there’s this: “and [they are] throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The real issue is about power and money, but the category being thrown against “these Jews” is disorder. So things got ugly and violent. Again, God didn’t cause the violence, but God was shaking up the old guard; disrupting it. There is example after example of this in Acts. Acts is filled with riots.
So, back to my original post. I’m not by any means claiming that God is for looting or violence. I am a pacifist (though I hate the word). But I do believe that God is up to something. I can hear the sound of a blowing violent wind. It will bring disruption, because it is pulling down strongholds. But I hear the prophet Amos’s voice as we march in the streets: “let justice roll on like a mighty river, righteousness like a never failing stream.” These are the categories I’m interesting: Spirit and Justice. Some can only see violence and looting. I want to see this stop, too. But friends, don’t turn back. Don’t stop marching. There is something happening. Revolution is in the air. Don’t let them change the categories. Yes there is chaos, but God’s Spirit is hovering over the chaos; disrupting old powers and bringing dead things to life. Hallelujah.