A Call to Progressive Pentecostals

IMG_5862Pentecostalism as we know it today began at the dawn of the twentieth century as a progressive theo-social movement grounded in the appearance of glossolalia or speaking with other tongues.  It is a movement that began with only a handful of students and increased steadily throughout the world during the twentieth century until by 1993 it had become the largest family of Protestants in the world (Liardon 2006).  As a Bishop in the Pentecostal church, I am keenly aware that Pentecostalism is often overlooked and undervalued in academic dialogue because its roots do not lend themselves to the euro-centric racially biased philosophical frameworks that are rooted in western constructs of male dominance and sexism; however, it is a great failure and oversight on the part of the academy to ignore the sheer size and impact of its global presence. This movement was birthed in Kansas among white adherents, but quickly spread to the Los Angeles area, where it gained its original popularity and broadest reach, through the teaching and leadership of a Black man (Synan 1971).  Pentecostalism from its earliest roots was movement of racial reconciliation. Leadership from women like Bishop Alma White, founder of the “Pillar of Fire” movement, was normative in the roots of Pentecostalism.  This female leadership was extremely progressive and helped usher in the Women’s Rights Movement.

While it is popular thought that the conservative theology of the Pentecostal movement has always meant conservative politics, the truth is Pentecostalism is historically progressive in matters of race and gender equality. It is unfortunate that this movement with so much progressive potential would eventually fragment onto racIMG_5853ial prejudice and division. The clearest sign of this division was the birth of the Assemblies of God. Now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world, The AOG was formed out of the Church of God In Christ which was led by a Black man. When the white men of the COGIC no longer wished to be led by a Black man, they met during the annual meeting and formed a separate white led organization and thus began the real move away from progressive social policies in Pentecost (Menzies 1971). Throughout the twentieth century, white Pentecostals more than Black Pentecostals have been preoccupied with glossolalia. The Black church has sought to retain the tension between holiness, spiritual encounter/empowerment, and the prophetic Christian social consciousness (Clemmons 1996).

As racism came so did the sexism and other demoralizing social ills, such as classism, creep into the Pentecostal movement.  Original Pentecostal culture was a safe haven for the wealthy and the poor to coexist peacefully with no hierarchy based on finance. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case in the Pentecostal church where consumerism, capitalism, and classism now have found their theological home through the prosperity gospel.  In the Kansas school where glossolalia is said to have originally occurred everyone sold their possessions and pooled their money equally to attend the school for the one year it was in operation (Liardon 2006).  This type of radical anticapitalistic community was not uncommon for early Holiness/Pentecostals and can be seen in the formation of Zion City by Alexander Dowie (Synan 1971). How far Pentecostalism has drifted from its roots.

IMG_5867What would happen if the largest Protestant branch of Christianity returned to its socially progressive roots? How would the world change if globally the Pentecostal movement would adopt an intentionally radically progressive agenda in keeping with its foundations? The church could engage transformation of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy so enmeshed in the social fabric of western society by offering the countercultural narrative that we are one. If Pentecostalism could be the catalyst to bring about social progress during Jim and Jane Crow and Woman’s fight for voting rights, how much more could progressive Pentecostals give voice to the need for social change in this contemporary moment. We must respond to the pettiness of elected officials who seek to divide rather than unite. As we face the spread of fascism at home in the United States, as well as globally, progressive Pentecostals can bear witness to the radically inclusive message of the Christian faith.  Being that on the day of Pentecost the first miracle was unity, there is embedded in true Pentecostalism a call to unity in the most divisive times.

I am calling for all Pentecostal liturgist and all liturgist of good will to think over the next few weeks about the ways in which Spirit is inviting us into a space of progress.  How do we make room in our worship experiences for the “other”? What praxis in your weekly worship is contrary to human flourishing? How have we lifted cultural norms above the liberative message of the Christian faith?  How do we hold fast to our heritage of social progress in the face of hate? How do we intentionally combat sexism, classism, racism and all other divisive forces that try to thwart the unity of the faith and taint our witness in the world?

 

Please feel free to comment below.

 

Peace Is Possible,

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor 

SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

 

Works Cited

Clemmons, Bishop Ithiel C. 1996. Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ. Lanham: Pneuma Life Publishing.

Liardon, Roberts. 2006. The Azusa Street Revival. Shippensburg: Destiny Image.

Menzies, William W. 1971. Anointed to Serve: The Story of The Assemblies fo God. Springfield: Missouri.

Synan, Vinson. 1971. The Holiness- Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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The Purification of Religion

Authentic religious piety or spirituality is about one’s sensibilities or taste for the infinite. Although early in life some religious ideation is shaped for many around moral rules handed down which perpetuate old tribal taboos, actual religious life and spirituality is centered in relationship with the Divine (Ward 2002) . Creeds and speculative beliefs aside, there is an intuition in the human psyche that draws us into listening for the Sacred. This listening has in recent history been interrupted and even hijacked for scores of people by the commodification of religion. Somehow, we have managed to make the rituals of seeking connection with God into mere acts of cultural production. The popularization of religion as entertainment has IMG_4411caused us to lose our deep passion for knowing and being known. Spirituality has been replaced by marketing techniques intended to create a sense of comfort, familiarity, and intimate connections with personalities rather than quenching our thirst to apprehend our part in the Universal orchestra of God.

Where our religious life once left us feeling paralyzed and simultaneously intoxicated by the presence of the Divine, cameras with wide-angle lenses and panoramic shots designed to exaggerate the size of the crowd and the effectiveness of the speaker now memorize us into thinking that obedience to the speaker is Holiness. For major portions of the contemporary religious milieu, it is the believer’s ethical duty to follow and fully exploit an opportunity to turn a profit as fulfillment of one’s duty to glorify God with one’s labor (Walton 2009). Even our conservative religious siblings seem to be more interested in being visible as curators of cultural production than curators of authentic soul change.

Spirituality is the method and manner by which the ultimately real actually touches the depth of being of the human personality, transforms it, and causes it to long for true community (Bridges 2001). Authentic spirituality converts the entire existence. The vitriol we see in the mass media and the venom spewed from the highest political office in the land is symptomatic of a loss of deep spirituality in our society. Our tolerance for showmanship over substance is at an all-time high while there seems to be a huge void in genuine meaning making.  It seems to me, we need religious ritual and ritualizing more now than ever before. We need spaces that celebrate, promote, and create patterns of behavior that lift the collective soul of humanity to the highest levels of virtue (West 2006).  Religious ritual that functions as links between contemporary cultural events and ancient symbols and texts that extol the personal and universal excellence that spirituality calls us to, is essential to reclaiming the soul of our nation and global community.

IMG_4312A properly functioning spirituality nudges us to go beyond what is morally permissible and calls us to what is morally excellent (Volf 2011). As long as we are less interested in what is profitable than we are in what is profit driven we will continue to experience a moral bankruptcy in our realities. Our call must be toward a spirituality which is consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption, but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives (Hartin 2010).  We must raise the bar on what our liturgies present as spiritual. Our preaching must become prophetic as leaders everywhere boldly begin to speak truth to power regularly. Our music must move pass the temptation of vacuous entertainment to hold in it resistance discourse that brings people into intimate accountability with the truth of the Divine. Our prayers must not be routine, empty platitudes and vain oblations, rather they must be filled with the fire and passion of well-chosen words that convict the hearts of people and articulate the vastness of the Holy.  We cannot afford to succumb to the ethos of our contemporary moment, we must be Holy People.

This week as you consider your religious services, ask yourself if your worship experience is a cheap act of cultural production replete with bells and whistles or if it is an invitation for collective spirituality?  Where specifically in your gathering are the spaces and points where people are invited to engage the Divine? Is the call for your time together profit driven or is it universally profitable?

Feel free to comment below.

Peace Is Possible,

+Donalson

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor 

SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

Works Cited

Bridges, Flora Wilson. 2001. Resurrection Song: African American Spirituality. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Hartin, Patrick J. 2010. Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Volf, Miroslav. 2011. A Public Faith. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress.

Walton, Jonathan L. 2009. Watch This! The Ethics and asthetics of Black Televangelism. NewYork: New York University Press.

Ward, Kieth. 2002. God: A Guide for the Perplexed. Oxford: OneWorld.

West, Traci. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press.

 

 

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Radical Hospitality

IMG_3525I have traveled the United States rather extensively this summer. Learning, loving, and listening in fellowship with congregations and communities that span the theological spectrum from ultra- conservative to ultra- liberal has been both riveting and eye opening. In my experience, the more thriving and life affirming gatherings have been those hosted by groups committed to radical hospitality. Our nation is in a spiritual crisis, when it is okay for the President to call a Black woman who is a former employee a dog, which is clearly a polite way of saying something much more culturally offensive, we have lost all sense of moral grounding.   The religious spaces with the most exclusionary theology and practices seem to struggle with the ability to speak to the crisis we find ourselves living through. Those who feature and take seriously the concept of Imago Dei understand the deep longing of people in this hour for connection with the Divine and belonging to community. Imago Dei is the theological concept (based on Genesis 1:26-34) that God made the first people in a way that very much resembles God’s own self. The doctrine purports that humanity is made in God’s image and, therefore, the individual is of sacred worth (Lightsey 2015).  Further, the doctrine of Imago Dei postulates that humanity in its authenticity is united with God in character and nature—even if brokenness and sin, in some theologies, has transgressed this original nature (Ruether 1993).  In light of this, our task—as people made in the image and likeness of God—is to overcome the temptation not to love and appreciate all those whom God has called good (Lightsey 2015).

Radical hospitality in religious spaces makes identity legible; no matter what else you might be, you are God’s creation and therefore you are of sacred worth. Mistreatment based on any social identifier such as race, poverty, gender, sexuality, or being unhoused is overturned in environments of hospitality that reflect the welcoming voice of the cosmic Christ who invites whosoever will to come (Rev 22:17, Rom. 10:13). I found that in those spaces dedicated to radical hospitality people were healed and made whole because they were invited into belonging.  The key to building true belonging practices is maintaining our belief in inextricable human connection (Brown 2017).  I have been reminded in my travels that the more exclusive we are the more we are tempted to create walls. These walls are erected around our churches, temples, and other houses of worship and ultimately there are those calling for walls to be erected around our nation, because we are no longer rooted in love and compassion and therefore committed to our bunkers where it is safe to dehumanize others based solely on their otherness.

IMG_3445My own faith tradition of Pentecostalism was noteworthy in its inception for its egalitarian ethos of worship, with race and gender not determining leadership roles, but later collapsed and fragmented, due in large part to such race and gender equality presenting too radical a departure from prevailing social norms (Lewin 2018).  Now it is often the women of Pentecostalism that hold the strangest criticism of progressive social policies, when once they themselves were liberated by the radical hospitality of the Church. It is fascinating to me to see those who were once oppressed use their liberation as a tool of oppression. I often wonder what would happen in the world if those Pentecostal people I am so familiar with, those women, those poor, those Black, those marginalized people would with the fiery power of the Holy Spirit use their liberation to liberate other groups on the margins of society?  To be saved from oppressive systems does not mean to be saved from oppression. Often disenfranchised and marginalized people still suffer from internalized oppression. It is internalized oppression when any group thinks the same way about themselves as the oppressor. This leads to oppression sickness that causes the oppressed to mimic the oppression of the oppressor.  The effort to mimic dominant culture has greatly infected the Black Church tradition with classism, sexism, privilege, dozens of phobias, and more. Unfortunately, inferior-feeling groups often seek to make someone else more inferior (Flunder 2005).

This week as you enter into your community of faith ask yourself if it is a place of radical hospitality?  Who is the stranger here? Who have we made an outsider? Have we justified being unloving and therefore betrayed the Gospel because someone is other? Where are we living into the idea that everyone is made in the image of God and how are we failing to acknowledge the sacred worth of even one individual?  For those who really be seeking the healing and wholeness of our broken world radical hospitality is not an option (Luke 14:12-14).

Please feel free to comment below.

Peace Is Possible,

+Donalson

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor 

SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

 

Works Cited

Brown, Brene. 2017. Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House.

Flunder, Yvette A. 2005. Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press.

Lewin, Ellen. 2018. Filled with The Spirit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lightsey, Pamela R. 2015. Our Lives Matter. Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications.

Ruether, Rosemary. 1993. Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press.

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