The Radicalism of Pentecostalism

Pentecostalism has fed the fire of my soul since I was a young boy. I loved, endured, and thrived in prayer services, sermons lasting for hours, speaking in tongues, revivals, and energetic music.  As I got older I wanted more theological substance. Of course, there are plenty of Pentecostals who are informed on the origin of the Nicene creed or can demonstrate a depth of information about the Trinity; this was just not my experience. Since my departure at 16, I have treaded my way through many denominations including Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and currently the United Methodist. John MacArthur

A few weeks ago,  John MacArthur held a conference, Strange Fire. It condemned the Pentecostal Tradition and the millions of people who worship God in this way all over the world. So I need to defend my own.

When I was twelve I wanted to read the Bible by myself. My parents read bible stories to me and my brother every morning before school and I heard many more at Sunday School. Yet, this was a chance for me figure out my own faith. So I started with 2nd Timothy, since I am the second one named Timothy in my family. When I began to read my NKJV on my parents’ bed, I immediately didn’t understand why Paul was writing to Timothy to tell him not to let womyn speak in church. This did not fit my own experience. I knew several women preachers and my great-grandmother spoke in tongues weekly. Immediately, I went out to the garage  and shared my confusion with my father. He responded by saying that this was a temporary and cultural passage. His words have stuck with me.

For Pentecostals, following God is performative. God is moving and we need to catch up. In the opposite direction, John MacArthur’s theological understanding does not allow womyn to preach, and his final Word is his own interpretation of the Bible. Pentecostalism in the US has a reputation of the being fairly conservative. They overly celebrate July 4th and often vote Republican. They evangelize when they meet new people and speak of God as if God is their best friend. Yet, Pentecostalism has not always been this ideologically conservative. I’m not saying that there is pure Pentecostalism; instead, that it has the tools for revolution and equality for all.

Let me break it down four ways:

Pentecostalism as democratizing: The most important theological concept in the Pentecostal movement is that God’s spirit is active and alive. During the church service, the spirit moves among the members and fills people with joy for dancing, speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit etc. Note: the spirit does not discern whom the spirit speaks through. In my own experience, there were times in church that an interpretation of tongues was more important than the sermon itself. In spiritual-political terms, the spirit needs the people as much as we need the spirit to fully realize humanity. Similar to direct democracy, which is full participation of the people in the governmental experiment. Theologically then Pentecostals speak of the Trinity as economic rather than immanent. The economic Trinity is how the Trinity works in the world, how it interacts with others. The immanent Trinity is eternal, beyond humanity and the world. Thus Pentecostals focus on the economic and participatory elements of the spirit. Full participation in the active life of the spirit is mandatory.

Pentecostalism as anti-racist: The dissertation from Erik Hjalmeby summarizes the early anti-racism movement in the Pentecostal movement:

Apostolic Mission
Leaders of the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission: a mix of genders and races.

The beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement, within just the first two decades of the 20th century, was one of those rare occasions when black and white  Americans—black and white Christians—came together. At the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, it was reported: “Everybody was just the same, it did not matter if you were black, white, green or grizzly. There was a wonderful spirit. Germans and Jews, black and whites, ate together in the little cottage at the rear. Nobody ever thought of color.” Frank Bartleman, one of the early leaders and historians of the movement, perhaps put it best when he described the situation at Azusa Street in Los Angeles: “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the Blood.

For early Pentecostals, the spirit moved within all people. This lets our guard down and our hearts open to others we encounter. It’s hard to judge others when you know that the spirit moves through them just as well.

Pentecostalism as pro-immigration and anti-gun: In the Acts of the Apostles, the spirit swoops among those gathered for the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem. When the spirit moved, the apostles spoke in the languages known to those at the festival. The writer of Acts describes the different people groups according to region. They represented a wide range of diversity. The spirit loves diversity, just read the rest of Acts, especially Peter’s vision on the rooftop (10:9-16). God’s spirit in its radical love pushes boundaries and rejects national borders, languages, etc. A few years back, I heard Brian McLaren lecture on the current situation of the global church. He shared a story of going to Brazil and listening to Pentecostals who were combating gun violence. He said they had drop-offs for weapons and cooperated with government and local leaders for gun law restrictions. I have yet to know any Pentecostal church to participate in this way in the US. Again, it is a different context, but Pentecostals in the US have the ability from the life-giving spirit to promote alternative ways of living.

Pentecostalism as feminist and anti-patriarchy:  Spirit and experience are the sources and norms for their theological reflection. They do their best to listen to the spirit to guide their lives. This does not discount the Bible as illegitimate. Yet their interpretation of Scripture is usually not found in a commentary, but in the experience of life. This is why Pentecostals sometimes metaphorize and allegorize Scripture. Growing up this was especially true for war passages in the Hebrew Bible. Their experience just doesn’t fit within the framework of war, but within the spiritual and social struggle of life.

Lastly, the spirit touches and moves all bodies. This is true for the early Acts community and the pre-Nicene church. Womyn were evangelists, preachers, apostles (Thecla) etc. The spirit promotes a radical egalitarian community. The early Pentecostal movement understood that, but as it became institutionalized the spirit was domesticated. The spirit stands on the outside of the institution pushing it towards radical inclusivity. I do not deny the work of the spirit in the church among the people; it’s more that I don’t believe the spirit is bogged down by organizations, rules, or logic!

The spirit is moving, let’s try to catch up!

God as stranger/kin

During my teen years, it was drilled into me that we need to believe that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. One is not a true believer if they only accept Jesus as one of those titles. I later found out that my pastor learned this doctrinal idea from the popular Reformed fundamentalist pastor John MacArthur. The sovereignty that MacArthur and my pastor were attributing to God was huge! God is a perfect Being, erring never, and everything that happens in the world is according to God’s perfect will. God’s purpose is present everywhere working in all created beings. God’s world is an orchestra playing together for God’s own purposes. Although we may feel that the violin in our own lives is out of tune on earth, God can only hear beautiful music.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty frightens and haunts me. It has the capability to mean that humans do not have agency, but are puppets. Yet, we are oblivious to being a puppet. Thank God, the Christian tradition has several strains of resistance. Although, most of the early Christians who had a weaker version of sovereignty were deemed heretical that seems to be beside the point. Since even Tertullian and Origen were considered heretical, yet we read and praise their works today.

The alternative approach to a hierarchical sovereignty is to view God as Stranger/kin. These terms are opposite in meaning, but lead to the same engagement of God. First, God/She as stranger presents us with the divine as event*. God moves in the world, shaking it up, and on an individual level transforming us. Bringing together Moltmann and Derrida, God/She is the event that can only demonstrate love. In relation to human strangers, they are always the Other, not having any known relationship to the self. The stranger’s only commonality is their humanness. They have unlimited options in how they can approach us: ignore, high-five, scream, steal, etc. This can cause anxiety when we exit our comforting homes to unknown experiences. God as stranger acts in similar ways. We are shaken when we surrender our self ambitions to the ways of God/Her, which are justice and peace. Flannery O’Connor had it right, when she wrote “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

The stranger represents God/Her well in the Christian Scriptures. God always walks among the people. For example, in Luke’s narrative on the walk to Emmaus, Jesus the stranger walks with the two disciples and is revealed in a transformative moment at the breaking of the bread. This event changed the way these early disciples saw the world, that it was through the breaking of bread among other followers of the Way can we find Jesus among us. God/She also gave visions and dreams to people that effected them deeply. One does not expect such things, but they come mysteriously without warning. God/She penetrates the world and everything therein, transforming it through unexpected measures. The most prominent example with dreams happend to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, when God changed Peter’s view of the ontological position of Gentiles. The only sovereignty that God/She as stranger has comes not with how we as people are transformed, but how God surprises as event.

While God as stranger seems disconnected to anything personal, God/She as kin presents divinity as personal. As I like different theologies, I have read several positions on God as personal. Of course, I am not speaking of Jesus or God as our personal Savior, but the way that liberation and feminist thealogions speak of the divine, as God as sufferer, lover, and kin. Or as one of my favorite feminist metaphorical thealogions Sallie McFague wrote “God as mother, lover, and friend.” God/She as personal practically does not look like God/She speaking with us or demonstrating miracles (though it is hard for me to deny either of those). Personal should sound more like personality. God has particular movements, and moments that She is present. During times of tragedy  God/She comforts and suffers with those who are involved. God is present with those who are fighting for a better world. We may not feel God, but God/She is present. Kin denies the hierarchical/above position for an equal/with one.

Elizabeth Johnson Cross Quote

In conclusion, as the death of God theologians taught us that God is no longer in heaven, but on the Earth, I agree, but take it one step further. God is present and personal, suffering, and loving us as we move toward liberation, justice and peace. It is with our God that justice to come becomes the justice that is. In the name of God/She that stands in solidarity with the oppressed, guides the rejected to love, and the feeds the poor by the works of Her children. Amen!

*a moment that transforms the way we see the world. For Derrida, “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event.” Speaking theologically, God as the event shows that those weak moments in our lives pulsate the divine. If you want to read about this further read The Weakness of God by John Caputo.

radical theology and the lgbtqi+ community (part two): jesus, st. paul, and difference

On Sunday mornings before going to church, I browse the internet, reading friend’s statuses on Facebook, and cruise through Reddit. One particular morning, I stumbled onto John MacArthur, who is a pastor on the West Coast and an astute Calvinist. During the month of May, he preached a series on homosexuality and the Scriptures. Under my own discretion, I watched the video concerning St. Paul in First Corinthians 6:9-10. His translation the English Standard Version read as follows,

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

These verses cause me great uneasiness.They give the hard and fast formula for whose in and whose out. In contrast, when I read the Gospels, I read of a Jesus who believes that “those who are sick,” and the “least of these,” will be in the kin-dom of God. Yet, I wonder if we are misreading these verses, and that they are standing before us naked without a context.  What if practicing adultery, thievery, greed, drunkenness, homosexuality,  and being a swindler posit that you are part of the wealthy and the ruling class? What if St. Paul is saying that these statuses and attributes are an ongoing problem with the rich and it is causing much distress for other people, especially the poor among them?

As noted, St. Paul wrote that it is men who practice the act of homosexuality and not women. (Although, chapter one of Romans speaks of woman with woman in idolatrous worship ceremonies.) To put this in context, around the first century, a graphic mural depicting a man sitting down and a young boy bending over could be found in the middle of ancient villages. The boy was probably one of the man’s slaves and he of course was having sex with him. Thus, men having sex with little boys demonstrates a power dynamic, and was considered homosexuality. If then, this was a norm for the ancient world, grown men raping boys, then I too would be against this type of homosexuality! Thus, when priests who do the same thing, we stand angrily against such acts.

Maybe we could then change a bit of First Corinthians 6:9-10 to contextualize it.

Or do you not know that the those ignoring way of God will not inherit the kin-dom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually limitless ones who hurt others , nor those placing a nation, money, or work above God, nor those who are dishonest with their partners and find other ones while still in the relationship, nor men or wo/men who abuse children and find it pleasurable, nor those who steal, not for the sake of need, but out of luxury for themselves, nor those who have too much and are not willing to let it go, nor those who find substances more important than relationships, nor people who want to change the system to only benefit themselves, nor people who trick the poor into giving them money or goods will inherit the kin-dom of God.

For John Dominic Corssan, Marcus Borg, and John Caputo, God’s kin-dom should be more like the reign of God rather than a futurist place. The common notion that when Jesus states that the “kin-dom of God is like,” he is referring to the future time and place. A problem arises though, the parables that Jesus was sharing was not for the sake of the future, but of the present. This kind of thinking can be found everywhere in the U.S. One finds that the way that they are suppose to live from St. Paul rather than how the kin-dom looks to Jesus.

Of course, it is harder to follow a bunch of parables rather than St. Paul’s direct ethical statements. Yet, the Christian faith is not, and I repeat is not about ethical charges for how to live one’s life. The church seems to be all about that though. We like to judge others and create policies that harm people that we do not like or think that they are doing wrong. The kin-dom of God is like a party thrown for people who are born August, and everyone is invited, some will say that they are busy, many poor, homeless, crippled, depressed people can’t get out of bed, anarchists living down by the railroad tracks, some people with jobs will come on their lunch breaks, and others will ignore the invite altogether. Yes, the party will be uncomfortable, you will have to talk with people who are in different classes, political stances, emotional states! Yet, that is the kin-dom! The kin-dom is difference, lots of difference! We celebrate God by celebrating difference! In the U.S., we want to be a united, hegemonic people. The eleventh chapter of Genesis shows us what the ancients believed about God and hegemony.

This relates to the LGBTQI+ community by once again (from part one of this series) showing that context with the Scriptural text is a must! Second, that a Christian community survives not through hegemony, but through anxiety, un-comfortableness, and difference. The kin-dom of God is one that is vibrant and full of lives. Unless the Christian community starts to embrace the otherness of different people accepting them as apart of the kin-dom, we will not be able to thrive now or in the future.