The Social Dimension of the Power of God

power“What will people think

When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak

What will people do when they find that it’s true

I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak

There ain’t no disguising the truth.” – Jesus Freak, DC Talk

If there is anything Christian song that characterized my experience as a young person, it would have to be DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. Released in 1995, it defined what it meant to live a life completely sold out to God. Living a life on fire, as we so affectionately called it, was a big deal for youth like me who grew up in a Pentecostal context such as the Assemblies of God. In the era of the Brownsville Revival and the Toronto Blessing, being consumed with anything else simply wasn’t an option if you were truly a Christian.

We competed for God’s blessings, well rather, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The true marker of our commitment to God was whether or not we could speak in tongues. The second was whether we would get slain in the Spirit or at least, have a prophesy directed our way when the evangelist laid their hands on our head. And because I experienced both of these things, I was confident that I was a truly living a life that was pleasing to God.

We were mainly concerned with the visible works of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we cherished the fruits of the Spirit – things like love, joy, peace, and patience – but there were very little sermons preached about how we live in comparison to ensuring that we were full of the Spirit. We prayed for it. We fasted for it. We did all nighters and See You at the Pole rallies to prove just how sold out to God we were. We toiled and tarried at the altar, sometimes for hours, convinced that if we did our part, God would show up and pour out His Spirit in the same way He did in the early church, at least in the same way He did in the Azuza Street Revival. And we judged other Christians who were not pursuing God in the same manner, attaching value statements to believers, and churches, who were not experiencing powerful demonstrations of the Spirit.

And as God filled us with the power of the Holy Spirit, we hoarded the anointing and spent it on ourselves. We did not care, or cared very little, about how the same Spirit might turn the world upside down. Unlike the early church, fullness of the Spirit to us meant more manifestations evidenced in increased church attendance, new conversions, and acts of speaking in tongues. My, how we prioritized speaking in tongues. But we did not think about how the Holy Spirit might use us to dismantle the systems of injustice that were holding people captive to oppression and pain.

See the rest of this post over at Pentecostals and Charismatics for Justice >

Facing Racism, Embracing Hope Part I

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

These are the opening words to Ta-Nehisi Coates seminal work, the Case for Reparations, published in the Atlantic in May of 2014. In this piece, Coates makes it clear why African Americans deserve reparations, or economic restitution, illustrating that the harm done to our communities did not cease after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 but have continued since, stripping our families of wherewithal needed to survive in a deeply oppressive society.*

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Coates specifically addresses our nation’s history of housing policy that has stolen wealth from African American families. After the Civil War, freed slaves were initially promised land as a means to start making a living for their family. The Southern Compromise of 1877, in which allies of the Republican Party candidate Rutherford Hayes were promised his election in exchange for the withdrawing all federal troops from the South, effectively put an end to the Reconstruction Era. Any land that African Americans were given before this devastating deal was taken away. In addition, the removal of federal troops from the South – who were there to protect African Americans – led to a series of Jim Crow laws which mandated that blacks be segregated from whites. That segregation intensified economic hardships in an already disenfranchised community, which included limiting access to quality, affordable housing.

While Jim Crow was perhaps the most egregious of racist policies and practices, the wealth of African Americans has continued to be stripped because of discriminatory housing policy. Restrictive covenants in the North kept blacks out of more affluent, and usually whiter, neighborhoods. Corrupt bank practices effectively steered blacks away from these areas and located them in neighborhoods that did not have as many opportunities. In addition, blacks have historically been discriminated against and ripped off in homeownership – the subprime lending practices of the 1990s and early 2000s, followed by the foreclosure crisis in recent years, disproportionately targeted and affected African Americans over whites.

But housing is just one element of the compounding moral debts that Coates describes. Our nation’s war on drugs has also disproportionately targeted and harmed African Americans. Understand that this war, was in fact, a means for the Nixon’s administration, and others after it, to criminalize African Americans and our leaders post-civil rights movement. In an interview recently leaked to Harper Magazine, a Nixon Aide admitted:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Nixon declared this war to get and keep the White House. Reagan intensified it, which increased the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. And Clinton, yes our Democratic, supposed progressive, former president, put the war on steroids to show that he could be tough on “crime,” even though he campaigned on treatment for drug users instead of prison. His drug policies, coupled with his draconian welfare reform and instigation of the subprime lending crisis, effectively dismantled whatever wealth was circulating in the African American community. His wife is running for President, right?

Exploitative policies like those passed under Clinton’s administration created an inescapable cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement in the African American community because criminal records significantly limit access to employment opportunities. The irony is that people usually turned to drugs because those opportunities were initially lacking. You see, white flight and suburban sprawl took many jobs out of inner city communities where blacks were unfairly concentrated. And the jobs that stayed weren’t hiring blacks, and if they did, were not paying them the same wages as whites on the job. In the absence of economic opportunities and the overnight abundance of drugs, people exercised their entrepreneurship skills and made an enterprise out of selling what Nixon declared illegal. Though not a viable option, selling drugs looks promising when there are no other options around. Nothing is more heartbreaking than a father looking his twelve year old daughter in the eye and explaining that he could either sell crack or see his family starve.

The criminalization of drugs has also led to increased police presence in our communities. While police have long been known for terrorizing black bodies, this war on drugs gave them newfound excuse to profile and assault us without cause. In this system, we are thus guilty until proven innocent. The problem is, many of us are never given that chance as police are trained to shoot and kill no matter what we are doing. Over the last few years, deaths such as Eric Garner, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Kindra Chatman, and locally, Jamar Clark, have brought renewed attention to what has been going on in our communities for years. Through the use of social media, cell phone cameras, and direct action, every day citizens, thought leaders, and Black Lives Matter activists have been able to take part in drawing this nation’s consciousness back towards itself original sins.

Unfortunately, as we raise our voices to demand justice, the backlash has been strong particularly among whites who feel as if our pleas for life somehow minimize their own rights. You get some of this in the #AllLivesMatter crowd, or those who wish to draw attention away from the unique ways African Americans have been oppressed by colorblind inclusive approaches. But racism is also rearing its ugly head among white supremacists who long for a day when it was socially acceptable to violate black bodies. For them, the minimization of our humanity is deeply tied to their identities as whites and feelings of superiority, so that even if they were poor and otherwise disenfranchised themselves, at least they were not black. This sentiment is strong among Trump supporters and guess what, they are vocal about it. How then is he the leading candidate of the Republican party. The situation is telling about just where we are in our nation.

Knowing all of this can lead someone to believe that rescue isn’t coming, at least not any time soon. For all intents and purposes, African Americans have been praying, rallying, protesting, and hoping for 400 years and there doesn’t seem to be any burning bush in sight. In fact, things appear to be getting worse. This level of despair, unfortunately, has the tendency to create a sense of hopelessness and even nihilism. As the author of Hebrews attests, hope deferred really does make the heart grow sick.

In spite of the evidence, in spite of what I see, I choose to believe that there does exist a future completely free of racism and oppression. Stay tuned for part II of this post as I unpack more what that future looks like and its implications moving forward. 

*This post is from a speech that I delivered at a recent gathering for the World Student Christian Federation.

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Forgiveness and the State of White Supremacy in America

Charleston2Yesterday, Mother Emanuel AME reopened its doors after experiencing such a traumatic ordeal Wednesday evening. The congregation lost nine precious souls that evening – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor – when a white male opened fire aiming to start a race war. By holding service instead of keeping its doors shut, the congregants displayed the great capacity of the human spirit to forgive. It sends a loud message not only to the shooter, but to the American society as a whole, that racism and terrorism will not stop God’s people from moving forward. Instead of being defined and crippled by white supremacy, this community is demonstrating that it will conquer it through forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a term that has been evoked since Wednesday’s shooting. Just days after the incident, Chris Singleton, the son of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was praised for his ‘poise and strength’ and ability to forgive the shooter for killing his mother. Similarly, Marcus Stanley, a gospel singer from Virginia, posted to the shooter’s facebook wall an incredible message of forgiveness and grace. These are the messages that have gone viral and that have been uplifted in the media. They are important messages which reflect such amazing grace and mercy, but on their own, they are incomplete.

You see a message of forgiveness is wholly incomplete without a message of repentance. In times like these, we not only need to hear the words of forgiveness but also words of confession.  As African Americans, who have experienced this level of terrorism in our communities for 400 years, we need to hear “we’re sorry” more than we need to say “we forgive.” Yes, forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, but so is repentance. Indeed, we cannot even begin to receive God’s forgiveness until we repent. If this applies to our own relationship with God, why would we expect the arrangement to be any different in our own human dynamics?

Yet, if those in our society who tout the importance of forgiveness are honest with themselves and with us, we will begin to see that the urge to forgive is only masquerading as the gospel. In all actuality, forgiveness is being lifted up at such a critical time as this in order to disarm the grieving and silence the broken hearted. And as a result, the victimized are re-victimized again! In addition, demanding forgiveness without offering deep, sincere repentance, also leaves open the opportunity for such atrocities to happen again because it never deals with the wrongdoing.

Those in power must also be honest and admit that they are deftly afraid of black rage. As such, in rushing a wounded community to forgive they also demand us to put out the godly, justified anger that is welling up in our hearts and force us to quell our raging emotions. But once again, they fail to understand what the essence of forgiveness truly means. Reflecting on the murder of #MikeBrown nearly a year ago, Tracy M Lewis breaks the meaning of forgiveness down:

Forgiveness, and all the good it facilitates, is NOT the equivalent of blind allowance. Forgiveness does not mandate that I be silent. Forgiveness does not mean neutrality. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t rally around those who are the victims of violence or demand justice from the same people I know I must forgive. At some point, I have to think that a demand for compassion and forgiveness for those who hurt me or my children must somehow meet up with the demand for repentance and justice. While a demand for peace is certainly right, every action has a reaction. There are consequences–some of which will be meted out by those being commanded to be peaceful. This is especially true in a world that increasingly refuses God and His grace.

As Lewis states, forgiveness and repentance must meet. Together, these two powerful forces will bring about the change that our society needs. Although slavery was abolished 150 years as of this past Friday, the vestiges of white supremacy are still alive and well. The terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME this week is evidence of that. It is not an isolated incident but is connected to the larger narrative of dehumanization and marginalization of black life. Police brutality is also connected to that narrative, as is as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, unemployment, health disparities and the educational gap. We will fail in dismantling this horrific narrative if we do not raise repentance to the level of forgiveness.

Hand in hand, forgiveness and repentance will not only bring about change but it will usher in reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two individuals, groups or communities, that have been divided find their way back together, whole and healed. Reconciliation is of value because living in peace and harmony with one another is a worthy goal. We should aim to live in a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and no one is discriminated against on account of their skin color is our goal.

In reporting on the reopening of Mother Emanuel AME’s doors, CNN contributor Van Jones suggested that reconciliation had taken place. I understand the desire to want to claim this as a victory, we certainly need a win, but he was so wrong! Reconciliation was missing because repentance was not present. As Curtiss DeYoung states in his book, Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge, Our Only Hope, “reconciliation is impossible until an individual (or a group of people) takes responsibility for the polarization that exists and takes action to create a better future.” To this date, neither the shooter nor America’s white supremacist society have taken action to create a better future for African Americans as a result of this atrocity.

The question before us now is how. How might this society, so entrenched in white supremacy, confess and repent of its sins against African Americans? How might those in power, not just say sorry, but put some teeth behind that sorry so that reconciliation and justice can be a reality and not just some unattainable idea? Here are just a few ways:

1. Confess and repent. The shooter needs to repent. South Carolina needs to repent. Our government needs to repent. The American Church needs to repent. The entire society needs to repent of the ways in which it has perpetually dehumanized, exploited and exterminated black life. This is where we need to start. A verbal “I’m sorry” that goes viral would be nice. At a deeper level, however, this nation needs a process that gives space for public confession of wrongdoing similarly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Canada to address the crimes committed against the Aboriginal people (Native Indians).

2. Call this what it is. It is terrorism that was racially motivated. It needs to be identified as such and prosecuted the same. As much as I believe that gun accessibility needs to be addressed, this is not what this is about. And yes, hollywood has a lot of flaws but this is also not about that, Franklin Graham. It is also not about persecution of the Church, FOX News! It’s about the ongoing persecution of blackness.

3. #TakeDowntheConfederateFlag that flies over South Carolina’s state capitol. No seriously, it needs to go. It is a gross symbol of America’s history and justification of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Tear it down.

4. Enact legislation that starts to uproot the remaining vestiges of white supremacy and that puts an end to policies that systematize the dehumanization of black folks including police brutality, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline.

5. Put your money where your mouth is to ensure: total employment of the black community, quality housing, good schools, access to healthy food, and other economic opportunities that redresses the long standing disparate outcomes in the African American community.

6. Develop and preach a theology of social and biblical justice. Here are two resources written by me that would be a great start: Embracing a Holistic Faith: Essays on Biblical Justice and The Lord’s Prayer as Social Justice Theology.

7. Follow and learn from black theologians, scholars, sociologists, writers and thinkers including: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Charles M Blow, Brittany Cooper, Christena Cleveland, Brenda Salter McNeil, Drew Hart, Austin Channing Brown, Efrem Smith, Michelle Alexander, Lissa Jones, Cornel West, Claudia May, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kimberle Crenshaw. These are just a few, there are many, many more including amazing resources referenced in the #CharlestonSyllabus. Follow them. Learn from them. Support them financially. Just do not appropriate their wisdom or their work.

8. Teach your children about racism. We cannot believe, and we should have never believed, that racial justice and love is learned through osmosis. There is this prevailing notion that younger generations, millennials, are more racially tolerant and open than others. The shooter, who was 21 years old, as well as the students involved in the horrible SAE chant, and the three teens who purposely used their truck to run over and kill a black man in Mississippi, have proven this to be false! Be honest with your children about our nation’s history and ongoing battle with this. They can handle it.

9. Center black folks. Yes, #AllLivesMatter, but all lives are not being threatened. It’s the lives of black men, black women, black children, black clergy, black legislators, black youth, black LGBTQ, black Christians, and black atheists, that are being called into question. If America is serious about valuing all, it must then get serious about valuing those that it treats with the most contempt.

The road to reconciliation in America is long. It will be tough. And it will be arduous. But it is not impossible. If the nation addresses the sin of racism and white supremacy in the ways that I have just outlined above, I believe that we will see the change that we so desperately seek. Let’s not allow that process to be cheapened by inappropriate demands for forgiveness.