Growing up as a Christian in the 90s, I learned to be preoccupied with two things: revival, also known as present day manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the rapture. The desire for revival across many churches, at least Pentecostal ones, rose to prominence due to what many considered to be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Brownsville, Florida in 1995. This manifestation, which lasted at least 3 years or so, was often characterized by increased incidents of healing, speaking in tongues with interpretation and prophetic utterances (there was also reports of dogs barking and gold dust being found on people – but we won’t go there). Many people went down to Brownsville in hopes of experiencing for themselves this renewal of the Spirit that was being talked about. Others prayed in expectation for the Holy Spirit to visit their churches in a similar manner. I myself participated in several prayer and revival meetings that focused on this. We prayed and prayed that the Holy Spirit would visit us so that we could also take part in this esoteric phenomenon.
Although the idea of the rapture (dispensationalism) had been around since the 1800s due to the work of John Nelson Darby, the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins helped many Christians to think about it in a new way. And so did the ‘A Thief in the Night’ film series from the 70s and 80s. Both works were pieces of fiction, but they were largely based on an already developed end times theology which theorized that all faithful believers would be taken away from the world, while the rest of the earth experienced an intense tribulation period ruled by Satan and other forces of darkness.
As a teenager, I quickly learned that there was nothing worse than to be left behind when the rapture occurred. Although being left behind still brought with it an opportunity for redemption, one simply did not want to take that risk. In order to guarantee that one was not be left behind, a strict code of holiness and morality were necessary: Don’t listen to secular music. Don’t listen to Christian music that sounded to worldly. Don’t dance, especially not in clubs (even if they are Christian). Don’t swear. Don’t have sex. Oppose abortion. Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize. Pray all of the time. Read and memorize the Bible. Don’t blaspheme the Holy Spirit (though we were largely clueless as to what blasphemy meant).
While this fear of missing the boat here brought with it an intense focus on individual efforts, it largely missed what was going on in the here and now. We were so consumed about the future and eternity for that matter, that we paid little attention to our present reality. This meant that we also were not concerned about reforming or being accountable to this reality. Like the Christians in Corinth, we emphasized the importance of the spiritual world and neglected what was going on in the material. Our negligence also meant that what we did in it and to it didn’t matter. Theoretically, we could exploit the world and destroy the world because Jesus was coming back to take us away from it.
2014, for all of its ups and downs, was a busy year for me. In addition to my 40 hour a week day job, I interned at a church in the Twin Cities, I continued to write vicariously, and I also had the opportunity to take a course at a seminary close to where I live as I wrestled with the idea of going back to school to earn an additional master’s degree. Some of these activities brought with them additional opportunities to preach, teach and write. One such opportunity presented itself in October and I was invited to give a talk on the Doctrine of Discovery’s role in dehumanizing black people.
After spending nearly an hour talking about the long term effects of white supremacy on blacks and others of color, again justified by this doctrine that the Church ordained, I opened the room up for questions and reflections. A white man, probably no more than 25 years old or so, suggested that since the Church was culpable in many of the acts of atrocity against people of color, that the answer was to leave it and work outside it for peace and justice. A few others, also white, chimed in and also expressed their disregard for the Church. They thought that it was better to abandon it rather than reform it, or seek the opportunities for hope, redemption, and salvation within it.
I was really taken aback by this rejectionist ideology. But I checked in with other people outside of that assembly, I learned that this line of thinking is quite pervasive in theologically liberal circles. Because of the trauma that conservative theology has inflicted on people of color and indigenous communities up to the present day, I have witnessed many white liberals distancing themselves as far away from this as possible so as not to be mistaken for those oppressive white people.
In the process, a lot of what is considered to be orthodox theology gets deconstructed and sometimes, reformed. This is particularly true concerning end-times theology (also called eschatology), which includes analysis on the rapture, the tribulation period, the second coming of Christ and the millennium reign of Christ. Among white liberal theologians that I have witnessed, much of this goes out the window – the proverbial baby and bathwater both get thrown out! In its place, there is only an expectation for believers to continue to live virtuous, righteous, and justice-oriented lives. The only hope for redemption, at least according to Pope Benedict, is when we die.
Both of these approaches to end times events appear to be quite different. In reality, however, they are two opposing sides of the same spectrum that essentially believes that God will not right the wrongs of injustice and oppression. The more conservative approach doesn’t believe that God really cares about systems of injustice, since it places a higher priority on the spiritual than the material. The more liberal approach believes that God cares only to the extent that the systems can be changed through human effort – because remember, Jesus is not coming back according to many liberal theological perspectives.
This being said, both approaches give little hope to those who are oppressed. Both approaches, in fact, essentially suggest that Jesus will not challenge the structures of this world which perpetuate injustice. Yet, if Jesus will not hold these systems accountable for the evil that they exude, what incentive do leaders, governments, and others have to change these systems? If the West gets to destroy the world through tar sand removal, deforestation, land-grabbing, and decimating entire populations, and then gets to escape the world in one cosmic act, what pressure does it place upon those who act with such impunity to stop? If Jesus is not coming back, and is busy doing other things as the Pope believes, where is the Holy Ghost power that we truly need to rid our society of racism, genocide, colonialism, sex trafficking, and every other vice that devalues and dehumanizes the precious life that God extends to each and every one of us?
For me, this is why theology must be done by the oppressed, those at the margin in our society. We must have a theological approach that is formulated by the experiences and wisdom of people who are continually disinvested among us – regardless of whether we know Hebrew/Greek or not. This is necessary because our theological interpretations have strong sociological implications. The way that we see Jesus interacting with the here and now, as well as what will be, will influence our own responses to the here and now. If Jesus is unconcerned about our present situation, and therefore, unconcerned about climate change, racism, and injustice, we will likewise be unconcerned. But if Jesus is involved in the present, and not just in a mystical way, but in a very hands-on, influential manner, we will likewise be involved.
Looking at theology from the perspective of the oppressed is also important because Jesus Himself was oppressed. While the Jews once held a lot of power in the Ancient Near East, this is no longer true by the time Jesus shows up: Rome is now running things and it is an oppressive regime. Rome steals from the most vulnerable in society, and then imprisons – sometimes even executing – those who protest this oppression. Rome silences the politically marginalized and even has a disproportionate amount of influence in the temple so that people cannot even worship God freely. Jesus is a product of that environment, and does theology from the perspective of one who has experienced a fair amount of oppression.
Jesus liberates the oppressed, including Himself, by offering good news: Rome’s tyranny will not last forever; the Kingdom of God is here and will be fully fulfilled. In this kingdom, people will not grow richer by exploiting others. In God’s kingdom, governments will not hold sway over people’s decision-making ability and they definitely won’t be imprisoning and/or killing them for posing a threat to that government. In God’s kingdom, love, justice, freedom and unity will fully and completely reign and there will not be the slightest hint of evil. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, has nothing to lose as the kingdom of God unfolds in this manner. In fact, Jesus has everything to gain!
The Kingdom of God, as Jesus described, is forward looking. It will not be fully actualized in this life, but will be made complete in the next as He comes to earth once again, bridging heaven and earth. In the process, as we are waiting, as we are looking, as we are praying, justice happens! Reconciliation happens! All which has impeded the progress of both disappears. Oh happy day! You can’t possibly understand the absolute joy that the news of liberation brings unless you have experienced oppression!
If our future will look completely different than it does right now, we have an added incentive to influence our right now. If we can look out ahead from this moment and see justice, peace, and unity as a result of Christ’s return, we will also begin to imagine pieces of that future unfolding before us now and will subsequently work to actualize it. This is why we must lift up the voices of those who have experienced oppression in our theology, and especially in our end-times analysis. In fact, it is the imagination of the oppressed – that justice really can prevail – which will bring us all closer to actualization of the Kingdom of God as prophesied through Jesus.