This post is the fifth entry in a series by Dr. Rick Waldrop. In this series he explores the relationship between Pentecostalism and the global poor. New posts every Friday! Series Links: First Things, History and Contexts, People of the Book, The Option of the Poor, Social Action

This brings us to a final area of Pentecostal praxis that may not be taken into consideration by many observers or critics of the movement, that of social responsibility, social service or social action. For most Pentecostals, social responsibility has been primarily limited—with some notable exceptions—to the spheres of mutual help and some forms of social and material assistance to neighbors in need. But in other situations, Pentecostal efforts at social transformation has led to the defense of human rights and other forms of social and political activism. Here, the results have been mixed. Some researchers[1], would argue for the more recent development a “new face” of Pentecostal social engagement among and for the poor while others would prefer to trace Pentecostal social action back to the earlier days of the movement. Certainly, material can be found in both directions. However, if we are looking for formally organized, officially sanctioned, social or political action campaigns we may be sorely disappointed.

Historical Pentecostal Activism

There are certainly some cases of social activism that were undertaken among Pentecostals from some of the earliest days until now. One clear case in point—although not recognized by many Pentecostals today—are the many pronouncements made by early Pentecostal preachers, leaders and even denominations, against war, militarism, and even capitalism, many of them collected in the volume, Early Pentecostals on Nonviolence and Social Justice: A Reader[2]. Only one example from Charles Parham will have to suffice here:

“The past order of civilization was upheld by the power of nationalism, which in turn was upheld by the spirit of patriotism, which divided the peoples of the world by geographical boundaries, over which each fought the other until they turned the world into a shamble. The ruling power of this old order has always been the rich, who exploited the masses for profit or drove them en masse to war, to perpetuate their misrule. The principle teachers of patriotism maintaining nationalism were the churches, who have lost their spiritual power and been forsaken of God. Thus, on the side of the old order in the coming struggle, will be arrayed the governments, the rich, and the churches, and whatever forces they can drive or patriotically inspire to fight for them. On the other hand the new order that rises out of the sea of humanity knows no national boundaries, believing in the universal brotherhood of mankind and the establishment of the teachings of Christ as a foundation for all laws, whether political or social”[3].

Another case in point briefly mentioned above is that of the social reformer and Indian Pentecostal pioneer, Pandita Rambai, whose crusading work focused on the plight of impoverished women and children, establishing homes for widows, prostitutes, and orphaned children in many different locations around the turn of the 20th century in India. More recently, it has also been documented that many African and African-American Pentecostals have been engaged in the struggles for civil and human rights in the U.S.A. and in South Africa[4]. Another intriguing study was written by Brazilian sociologist Francisco Cartaxo Rolim which revealed the participation of Pentecostals in the Ligas Campesinas (Peasant Leagues or Movements) in their struggle against the injustices of the large landowners of the sugarcane plantations in the Brazilian States of Paraiba and Pernambuco from mid-1950 to the early 1960s[5].

We have already made mention earlier of the Chilean Pentecostals’ struggle against the dictatorship of Pinochet in the early 1980s. Some of the above three cases have been connected to Marxist theories of class struggles and it is quite possible that some Pentecostals would align themselves politically in that direction, as would be the case of the Unión Evangélica Pentecostal Venezolana (Venezuelan Evangelical Pentecostal Union) [6] that has given open support to the government of late president Hugo Chávez. There have also been cases of individual Pentecostals’ support for armed resistance against  military dictatorships in Central America where some church members gave aid to or actually fought or otherwise colaborated with guerrilla forces such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the U.R.N.G in Guatemala[7]

Other recent clear examples of Pentecostal defense of human rights and solidarity with the poor have been, for example, the leadership given to the pastoral de la guardarraya en Vieques, Puerto Rico, a protest movement against the military practice bombing of the island of Vieques, given by pastor Wilfredo Estrada Adorno[8]. Additionally, the thousands of Hispanic churches in the U.S., for many years have also served as true sanctuaries for undocumented Latin American immigrants, providing them with spiritual covering, family networks, employment opportunities, and many times even going to the border to provide transportation after they have “illegally” crossed into U.S. territory.

Problematic Politics?

Finally, in this section, we need to deal with the particularly problematic issue of the more recent Pentecostal participation in politics. Here, we understand that the category of “politics” is much broader than the recent incursion of Pentecostal individuals into “party politics” or the attempted creation of Evangelical or Pentecostal political parties in some countries. Amos Yong helps to address these issues as he writes of Pentecostalism and political theology in his volume on the subject[9]. Unfortunately, however, this seems to be one of the real weakness in the Pentecostal understanding and practice of political participation, although some, such as López Rodríguez[10], are attempting to address this deficiency.

In short, in most cases where Pentecostals are emerging out of situations of poverty, their experiences in party politics have been disastrous. The worst situations come to mind from Guatemala and the cases of the “born-again dictator” General Efraín Ríos Montt and his protégé, Jorge Serrano Elías. Coming to power as a result of a military coup, Ríos Montt headed up the government’s counter-insurrectionist efforts in the early 1980s and was responsible for the massacre of thousands of peasants and people of Mayan descent and the destruction of their villages through the widespread use of scorched-earth military tactics. Thousands of  poor and indigenous Pentecostal pastors and believers lost their lives throughout the civil conflict which lasted four decades after the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz was deposed in 1954 as a result of a C.I.A. assisted military coup[11]. Tragically, some wealthy Pentecostals in the U.S. gave their full support to the likes of Ríos Montt and Serrano Elías, who after being elected president, after his mentor was ousted, proceeded to suspend the constitution and, as a result, was expelled in disgrace from office by yet another military coup. Serrano Elías was a member of the Elim Pentecostal church while Ríos Montt was a member of the Neo-Pentecostal El Verbo church with connections to a church group by the same name in California[12].

It would be unfair, however, to paint all Pentecostal participation in party politics with a somber brush. For example, and in spite of the less than spectacular recent showing of Pentecostals in the Brazilian parliament, there seems to be clear cases of genuine, ethical political contributions made by Benedita da Silva and Marina Silva Vaz. Benedita da Silva, now Presbyterian, rose to prominent political office in the Brazilian Worker’s Party as a Pentecostal and a self-proclaimed egalitarian (which may be why she is now Presbyterian!!). Marina Silva Vaz is also a Pentecostal politician and was a front runner in a recent presidential election, representing the green Sustainability Party. She came up through the ranks in Brazil’s poor Northwest region and was an understudy and coworker of the famed environmentalist Chico Méndez, until his assassination. Both women grew up in abject poverty, and were subject to physical abuse, but found their spiritual homes in Pentecostal churches[13].

[1] For example, see Darío López Rodríguez, El nuevo rostro del pentecostalismo latinoamericano. Edicones Puma, 2002, Miller and Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism, and Kalu’s section on “Pentecostalism in the African Public Space”, in  African Pentecostalism, pp. 169-246.

[2]Brian K. Pipkin and Jay Beaman, eds., Early Pentecostals on Nonviolence and Social Justice: A Reader. Pickwick, 2016. Also see Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief among the Pentecostals. Wiph and Stock, 2009, and Paul Alexander, ed., Pentecostals and Nonviolence: Reclaiming a Heritage. Pickwick, 2012. These three volumes are published in Pickwick Publication’s Pentecostals, Peacemaking, and Social Justice series.

[3] Charles Fox Parham, “Imminent Events in the United States”, in Pipkin and Beaman, Early Pentecostals on Nonviolence, pp. 2-3.

[4] See Frank Chikane’s own account of his struggle against apartheid in No Life of My Own: An Autobiography. Wiph  and Stock, 2010, and Hollenweger, “A Kite Flies Against the Wind: Black Power and Black Pentecostalism in the USA”, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide, pp. 25-40.

[5] Francisco Cartaxo Rolim, “”El pentecostalismo a partir el pobre”, in Cristianismo y Sociedad 26.1 (1988), pp. 51-69.

[6] See Carmelo Álvarez’ narrative regarding the ministry shared between Disciples of Christ and the Unión Evangélica Pentecostal Venezolana, Compartiendo la misión de Dios: Discípulos y pentecostales en Venezuela. CLAI Ediciones, 2007.

[7] This is according to my personal communication with members of the Church of God in Guatemala and Nicaragua during the civil wars in those countries (1979-1994).

[8] See pastor Wilfredo Estrada-Adorno’s account in ¿Pastores o políticos con sotanas? Pastoral de la guardarraya en Vieques. Editorial Guardarrayas, 2003.

[9] See Amos Yong, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology. Eerdmans, 2010.

[10] López Rodríguez, La Propuesta Política.

[11] See Stephen Schesinger and Stepen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Harvard Univerity Press, 2005, Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Monthly Review Press, 1973, pp. 113-115, and Tom Barry, Roots of Rebellion: Land and Hunger in Central America. South End Press, 1987.

[12] Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Living in the New Jerusalem: Protestantism in Guatemala. University of Texas Press, 1998.

[13] In regards to Silva Vaz, see Ziporah Hildebrandt, Marina Silva: Defending Rainforest Communities in Brazil. Feminist Press, 2001.

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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.

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Rick Waldrop

Author: Rick Waldrop

Dr. Richard E. Waldrop and his wife, Janice M. Waldrop, have served as career missionaries and educators with the Church of God (Cleveland) World Missions. They have served for 40 years (1976-2016) at different posts in five countries, including Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and the USA. Today, they lead the Shalom Project, an organization aimed at providing holistic mission education and empowerment.