After our exploration into Pentecostal gender history, it seems like a safe bet to say that Pentecostals have avoided all the pitfalls of modern society! We’ve done it! Sure, Charles Parham was racist, but he was the exception to the rule, right? I mean, most people look at William J. Seymour as the founder anyway; racism avoided!
Here’s some bad news: Aimee Semple McPherson––the founder of an American Pentecostal denomination, a powerful speaker and visionary, an early environmentalist, and beacon of hope for women’s rights in a time of great despair––attended KKK meetings alongside Parham.
Perhaps things are not quite as neat and tidy as we’d hoped…
Racism and Sexism
Racism and sexism are often tied together, and there are many explanations as to why. One that I find compelling is that people in power avoid confrontation and ultimately responsibility by doing two things. First, they attack those without power (often women and people of color) in a tone that says, “You need to stay in your place.” President Trump utilizes this tactic regularly in order to reduce people’s identity. He doesn’t attack a job performance, that’s too passive; no, he attacks their very being.
Tragically, for many Americans, many of which are white and seemingly disgruntled about losing prominence to women and people of color, these actions are praised, calling Trump a strong leader. Worse yet, around 80% of white Evangelicals supported Trump. Sure, the argument is that many didn’t support Trump as much as they disliked Clinton; but it is telling that a conservative group of people who once claimed that moral values were paramount abandoned it all so quickly.
Second, people in power find ways to create conflict among those without power. In one of my classes at BU, a hotel housekeeper spoke about her working conditions. She said that ownership purposefully understaffed to save a little money, but they still demanded the same productivity. To avoid an uprising, because people can only take so much, ownership decided to raise a few workers’ salaries. This caused animosity among the staff––”I deserved that raise, not you!” Interestingly, this hotel is owned by Harvard University, and news about their enormous endowment was circulating at the time. Over 37 billion in assets and yet they’re somehow unable to bring on more housekeeping staff.
People in power, often white men, find ways to suppress and oppress women and people of color in order to retain their position.
That is why a discussion on race is important within our discussion on gender. Dr. Kwok Pui-lan explains it well: “A postcolonial knowing subject insists that changing the gender of the subject is not enough, without simultaneously taking into consideration how race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, and colonialism form an intricate web to shape both the identity of the knower and her ‘situated knowledge’” (73). If we only focus on gender discrimination, we might inadvertently ignore how the spirit of oppression is active in many other spheres of society. By claiming a faith rooted in the Spirit of freedom, we must actively seek out every structure and system of enslavement and passionately pursue deliverance for all.
Feminism: A (very) Brief History
A brief look into (Western) feminism history helps us better see the connection between sexism and racism. Now, for some Pentecostals, feminism is a byword, connoting man-hating liberalism. For other Pentecostals, particularly those not not placed in the “white” racial category, feminism is a useful idea but is decidedly incomplete due to who is typically included in that category: middle-class white women only.
Feminism, like Pentecostalism, moves in waves. The first wave included important women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Stanton, who was married to an abolitionist, fought for women’s rights alongside Susan B. Anthony. She was a trailblazer in many respects and she deserves her due. One major issue, however, is that during the women’s suffrage movement, leaders like Stanton felt as though their right to vote was being threatened by the 14th and 15th Amendment proposals that would allow African American men to vote; so, they fought these Amendments. The reasoning was that more men should not get to vote while women, regardless of race, couldn’t (see #2 above). Although not representative of all first-wave feminists, Stanton is an example of the stark racial lines drawn in the movement. It is also important to quickly note that the first-wave was ending in the early 1900s. In other words, American Pentecostalism was born within this movement.
Second-wave feminism moved from voting and property rights to issues like work, sexuality, and reproductive rights. With all its diverse expressions, second-wave feminism remained largely white and middle-class.
Third-wave feminism marked a turn in social consciousness and awareness. In 1983, Alice Walker coined a term for a new category: womanism. The problem with “feminism” is that the “white, middle-class, Western” female experience does not represent all women. Womanism, through the work of many other important scholars like Dr. Delores S. Williams, enabled other women to be represented within the movement.
There is plenty of outrage to be had for gender discrimination, and we’ll keep the conversation going in weeks to come; nevertheless, we must recognize how the same oppressive spirit in sexism is also present in racism.
The good news: things are changing, though things are still far from perfect. Through the work of people like Dr. Yolanda Pierce writing on Pentecostal womanism, many others writing on mujerista theology (Latinas were leaders at Azusa Street), and stories of South and East Asian women leaders coming to the fore, Pentecostals are discovering a much more diverse and therefore glorious Spirit.
Engaging the world as Pentecostals means pursuing freedom for all who are captive. Racial justice is a cause that we (speaking as a white Pentecostal) need to fight for until all are free. This means engaging our neighbors, local non-profits, and government officials. More simply, it means refusing to act like racist jokes, profiling, and backhanded comments are allowable.
And so we are building toward something in this series. It is toward inclusion, but perhaps in a different way than we initially expect. Hopefully in the coming weeks we can continue to examine how to truly be led by the Spirit of freedom.
Up next in the series, “The Women’s March”
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