Three dead and dozens injured. That’s not a statistic on the victims of a suicide bombing or a rampaging gunman. It’s the outcome of two days of white supremacists protesting from August 11-12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. From the torchlit parade of neo-Nazis, to the chains of peaceful clergy, to a driver careening into a crowd of counter-protestors, Charlottesville rams scenes from the Jim Crow past into our “enlightened” present. One might be excused if they mistakenly thought they had woken up in 1965.
It would be easy wipe this under the rug as an outlier, as a fringe element of society stirring up trouble. It would be more honest and much harder to ask how have we gotten here. How could Charlottesville happen in 2017?
Through the course of this week, Engaged Pentecostalism will be offering various perspectives from different authors on just this question.
I’ve been blessed to grow up with amazing men and women of color in my life, but at the end of the day, I have grown up in mostly white spaces. And, in my experience, it is these sorts of spaces that have the most difficulty dealing with questions like the one above. So, if I can, I’d like to take this first post as as a chance to talk to my tribe, the people I know: white Pentecostals.
I grew up going to services where it may be common for someone to give a prophetic “word from the Lord.” Giving a word from the Lord, or prophesying, means that a person has received a message from God for the community, or is serving as a conduit for God. It usually begins with a “Thus saith the Lord” and is followed by declarations about love, provision, or future success. They are almost always delivered in King James English.
Now, if you’re not Pentecostal that description will rightly freak you out. Speaking on behalf of God is an inherently risky endeavor. However, in most of my time as a Pentecostal I have found these experiences to be generally uplifting and little more than waxes on biblical themes and imagery. Pentecostal prophecy, in most forms, tend to be a type of exhortation.
But, I have a serious question to ask my white prophetic siblings, those of you who hear and give words from the Lord:
When is the last time God spoke to you and your community about racial and economic injustice?
If your answer is never, then we have a problem because a god that doesn’t talk about those things is not the God of the Bible.
While the examples are almost limitless, let me show you what I mean.
God through the prophet Amos spoke to those “who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land” (8:4) telling them that they would no longer receive his words because of what they had done. The entire book of Amos is a lament over the injustice done to the poor and a promise of God’s judgment on the those who oppress them.
God, through the prophet Isaiah, spoke of a day in which God will take people from every people group and “bring them to [His] holy mountain and make them happy in [His] house of prayer” (56:7). Race, ethnicity, tribe, none of these are considered boundaries to the promises of God. God tells Isaiah that his Kingdom will be made up of all people.
And maybe including Paul in the prophetic tradition is a stretch, but he continually combats issues of racism in the Church and sees God’a word clearly spoken in Jesus. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:8) We often skip the call for racial, economic and gendered justice that such a verse calls for in order to stress theological points, but the fact is that there can never be reconciliation without reparation between different parties.
These are only three quick examples of the ways in which God speaks about racial and economic injustice in Scripture. In truth, so much of the Bible revolves around these issues, around the ways in which human beings continually divide and oppress each other, and how God wants to fix it.
White prophetic brothers and sisters, does our prophetic tradition sound like that? Hear me. I love the immediacy of Pentecostal worship and prophecy, even if I think it is a bit weird at times. My own experience with the practice has been powerful. Yet, in my own experience also says there is a glaring omission in the Pentecostal prophetic tradition: we don’t speak of Justice.
White siblings, if God is speaking to us there can be little doubt he speaks in the same way he spoke to the prophets of old, he speaks of love and of mercy, but also of racial and economic injustice. He speaks of healing, but also of judgment.
I am afraid that we don’t hear God’s word to us about our own complicity in systems of racial injustice, about wider societal injustices tied to race, about the privileges that come by way of our skin tone. White brothers and sisters, I am not afraid that God is not speaking to us about this, I am afraid that we are not listening.
No doubt, to listen to that sort of thing from a God would not be easy. To be asked to examine ourselves is never an easy task. There is a reason Jeremiah is called the prophet of sorrows; God’s word cuts deep.
The truth is Charlottesville is not an outlier. It is part of a system that perpetuates white privilege and a history of racial disenfranchisement. We white Pentecostals cannot escape being part of that system. It’s time we pick up the vinegar of the prophetic tradition, and begin to do the “race work” that we’ve been putting off for so long. You can start here or here, just start somewhere.
What do you think? Have you seen these dynamics at play in your faith journey or have you seen something different? Let us know in the comments below.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.