What is my Responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?

This is a question I ask myself often. What does active faith look like in this particular time and place? Justice has always mattered to me, but my understanding of it has changed substantially over time. Growing up, my biggest hero’s were Harriet Tubman and Robin Hood. My fairly simplistic (and flawed) moral code could be summed up thusly: those with power should leverage it for the benefit of those with little or no power.

Around age 13 or so I stopped believing God. To understand my world better, I began studying atrocities. The Holocaust, the Irish Potato Famine, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trail of Tears, the Rape of Nanking… these events led me to two conclusions:

1. Atrocities supported my hypothesis that God is not real

2. These terrible capabilities sit in the hearts of nearly all people

It provoked me to ask myself: Do I possess the courage required to fight evil at any cost?

The desire in my heart for justice and to be on the side of the righteous did not die with my faith, but it got twisted. In attempting to set my own standards much of my moral compass became compromised. What didn’t change was my belief that racism and oppression are evil. But make no mistake: I’ve said things and behaved in ways that are unquestionably prejudiced or biased. My heightened awareness of mankind’s history of racism, oppression, abuse and prejudice didn’t alter the fact that my entire life is one of default power and privilege.

I grew up in a world of systemic racism which both benefited me greatly and kept its sins largely invisible from me. Right now, I think of my growing awareness on this issue along the same lines as I do sanctification: it is an ongoing process in life rather than a place one arrives. Undoubtedly, some of the very things I write at this moment will embarrass me when I look back on them in the future, but I must have the humility to make imperfect progress. Unfortunately, I can’t get “there” without being “here.” So I must humbly ask for grace I don’t deserve.

The topic of race and justice in the USA has only risen in importance to me during the process of transitioning from an atheist to a Christ-follower and reading what the Bible says about how His people should treat and love others. I also find myself embarrassed that those who continue to pay the highest price in a society designed for me find themselves in the position of explaining and revealing to me how it benefits me and costs them.

I struggle with the number of indifferent white Christians in the USA who point at “progress” and council “patience” to people who have spent generations being oppressed, marginalized, silenced, beaten, killed and shackled by (predominantly) WHITE Christians. I have heard with my own ears the argument by white Christians about how they didn’t have slaves, or support Jim Crow laws, etc. It’s not their sin, after all.

I think of Jesus, who we believe took OUR sin and laid it on himself. Then he looked to the people who called themselves His followers and asked them to do the same thing.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 ESV)

I don’t believe that any white person in America can really say they aren’t tainted by the sin of racism. We have benefited from privilege at the cost of the marginalized and that feels out of alignment with Luke 9:23 (and the rest of the Bible). I struggle to believe that we won’t have to answer for our complicity-I don’t believe God will accept the excuse that we were insulated or unaware. How can we be for the things God is for and calls us to (both in the New Testament and the Old) in the US right now without seeing and knowing?

I don’t know if there’s a “right” answer to the question, “What’s my responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?” But I do know I will keep asking the question, seeking God’s answer, and attempting to align myself in thought, word and action to His Will. I work to make a difference and to be an ally. I pay attention to my words and actions as I seek to grow more aware of my privilege and the presumptions inherent in belonging to the dominant culture. And I remember that even in this place, I have a privilege many in my community do not. I have the privilege of choice. At any point, I can opt out of being an ally. I can say I am weary and need a break. If the road gets hard, I always have the option of retreating into a culture of whiteness and choosing not to stand or speak in difficult places. It is not a privilege I want to exercise but it is a choice I get to have. And as a white Christian in the USA, I believe God cares deeply about what I choose and why.

The State of the Union

Charlottesville. I wish this outrage wasn’t part of a pattern interwoven into the fiber of our country. That this was some tragic, one off event. But it isn’t. I don’t know how to express my sadness, anger, mourning and disappointment. Posting online can feel trite in such circumstances. The inclination of man to use names and stereotypes to remove humanity and ultimately justify oppression, violence and murder of those “others” so they can stand a little higher is no new thing, but that does not mean we do not push back against the storm that rolls relentlessly against us. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” The best representation of any society, I believe, is when we we look at the margins of that society and see how those who stand there are treated. Are we correcting oppression and bringing justice? Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.”

But don’t listen to just me. Tina Fey has some thoughts as well.

Discovering the Feminine in the Triune God

Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.

The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.

This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)

While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.

Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)

Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)

Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)

Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.

What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.

This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)

This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)

A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift.  By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.

A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.

This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.

“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)

When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead.   “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.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)

Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.

To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:

When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”

The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.

Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)

Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)

This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?

“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:

While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)

This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God.  “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.

In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.

Works Cited

Bible. Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications, 2006. Book.

Brock, Sebastian. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.” Ed. Soskice, Janet Martin. After Eve. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp. Electronic.

Clouzet, Ron E. M. “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2006): 11-32. Electronic.

Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.

Hines, Mary E. “Community for Liberation.” LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. United States of America: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1993. 161-184. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.

Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Print.

 

Criticizing Justice Seekers

When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.

Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.

Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.

The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.

Music and Social Justice

I’ve been a big fan of System of a Down since Toxicity was released in 2001, and “Prison Song” was one of the songs on that album. Their lead vocalist, Serj Tankian, formed the band in the 90’s with several other Armenian-Americans. Passionate for social justice and having experienced discrimination personally, the band was very vocal regarding political and social justice issues. I was awakening to the fact that deep and systemic injustice was not part of our past but alive and thriving in the present. I was also starting to see that America was on a path of escalating tension, easily manipulated by fear, but I didn’t have the language or context to fully connect all of the dots. In 1999, the Columbine Massacres had occurred, changing the way we interacted with schools, our administration, the growing police presence, as well as how students even viewed each other. There had been a substantial number of bomb threats within my school and then this album, with this song, was released a week before the September 11th attack. The timing of these events and their effect on me personally forced me to really question what I knew about my country and the people in it, both with and without power. I started asking myself what I didn’t know.

When I listened to the Prison Song, the statements that they were making sounded so extreme and outlandish that, at first, I thought they were using hyperbole to get their point across. But as I started to do the research and pay attention to the headlines and stories I was hearing on the news, I began to see that System of a Down was actually trying warn people, to let them know what was really happening in our country. Much of what they sung about I’ve read about in books, articles or witnessed through my community. For example, they state in the song that, “They’re trying to build a prison, Following the rights movement, You clamped on with your iron fists, Drugs became conveniently, Available for all the kids.” Consider the graphic below from prisonpolicy.org. You can see, based on the years, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the response of an uptick in the prison population. Our readings clarify the how: “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.”[1]
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[2]

 

Later in the song they proclaim that, “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, You don’t even flinch, All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich…” From The New Jim Crow, we can understand what the statistic for minor drug offenders looks like a few years after the release of this song: “…four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in the state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.” (Alexander, 60) Rather than be concerned with the increasing percentage of our population sitting behind bars and asking what we can do differently, our nation responded with fear and the mission to use our taxes to continue to build more prisons. It certainly was a war, but the language around new non-rich is important. I cannot be sure of the bands intention, but there was a rebranding of black and minority America occurring during this time that made a war against them acceptable as long as leaders and people didn’t refer to race. We’d refer to locations (where these demographics were generally the majority), a specific socio-economic status or even a symptom of the deeper disease in our nation (i.e. crack addicts). Rebranding race as the “new” non-rich changed how people could be targeted.

There is so much more that was said in this song that transformed the way I saw my country, the people in it, and understood my responsibility to participate in social justice. Once your eyes are opened you have to make a choice on how you’re going to respond to it. I have to choose whether I will be a mechanism of oppression and injustice or part of the voice and movement against those who would systemically disenfranchise large swaths of people permanently. I am thankful for all of the artists, actors, and creatives who use media like System of a Down did in order to awaken people to the social issues of our generation.

Prison Song (Lyrics)

By: System of a Down

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison

Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated In the prison system, prison system Prison system of the U.S.

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

The percentage of Americans in the prison system Prison system, has doubled since 1985

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences

Utilizing drugs to pay for Secret wars around the world Drugs are now your global policy Now you police the globe

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Drug money is used to rig elections And train brutal corporate sponsored Dictators around the world

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, pg. 60. It goes on to say that from 1980 to the present, there has been a 1,100% increase in drug-related imprisonment.

[2] Wagner, Peter. “Tracking Prison Growth in 50 States,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/overtime.html Written: May 28, 2014

Racial Castes, in the Present

We see racial castes at work in our country today through all sorts of institutions, and the voices that support those institutions are becoming loud. What was, until recently, structured predominantly around race but without any of the language indicating that, is now starting to show a little bit of its true color, and that color is white. Joe Walsh, a Republican Congressman from Illinois tweeted, “This is war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” This clearly expresses a sentiment that there are castes, that Obama and Black Lives Matter “punks” aren’t part of the real America, even if America was built on a foundation of black bodies (and indigenous peoples) who have been told for centuries that they don’t belong and they don’t matter. Joe Walsh is echoing the sentiment of racists that have directed this country’s path since its inception. The Washington Post reports similar statistics to what we read in The New Jim Crow: “Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with 2.2 million behind bars…And while black Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the incarcerated population. Forty percent of police killings of unarmed people are black men, who make up merely 6 percent of the population, according to a 2015 Washington Post report,” (emphasis added). The Sentencing Project is an excellent resource for understanding just how deep this discrimination grows. In their thirties, one in every ten black males will be locked up on any given day. White youths are three times less likely to be held in juvenile detention when compared to Native American youths. While these are examples of institutions, we have events happening on a daily basis that demonstrate the intentional movements of certain people or groups which target the continuation of these racial castes.

The words “Law and Order” are often used when Jeff Sessions is being discussed, a red flag to those who understand the background of the movement of using “Law and Order” as a justification for growing government institutions that have structural racism. He’s served over 20 years in the US Senate and has a previous background in the Department of Justice. He has also been a delegate to the annual Alabama Methodist Conference, according to Newsweek. While he worked as a federal prosecutor, he failed in his nomination to be a judge. The same article cites Ted Kennedy speaking out at that time, saying that Sessions was a “…throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.” The reports of racism are not limited only to Ted Kennedy. “During that Senate hearing, a former assistant U.S. attorney named Thomas Figures, said Sessions called him “boy” and told him to watch himself around “white folks.” Figures also accused Sessions of opposing the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.” BBC further reports that, “He had also joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were OK until he heard they smoked marijuana.” Much of his efforts have been focused towards immigration. In addition to his support of “the wall,” Sessions also believes that much of our economic struggle originates in letting too many legal immigrants into the country. As they move towards confirming Sessions, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates was relieved of her duties. The White House released a statement through Sean Spicer that described her actions as political and a betrayal of the DOJ and the US citizens. Reuters reports that, “Yates said late on Monday that the Justice Department would not defend the order against court challenges, saying that she did not believe it would be ‘consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.’” She was fired hours later. The recent confirmation of Sessions and the handling of Sally Yates are both examples of the struggle to take power by a group heavily invested in maintaining racial castes in the United States.

Christian Life and Politics

I hear the laments of people who feel like their faith has been hijacked; who look at the face of Christian’s in the media and even in the people around them and feel anger and sickness.  They want to disassociate themselves with their faith and God because of what they see playing out locally, nationally and globally in his name. But friends, we must remember that this darkness is not evidence of God’s absence but rather a choice in the disobedience of his people. Therefore we must seek the light and shine it into those places which reject it.

We must remember and be encouraged that even Jesus saw this, that he knew that there would be people proclaiming deeds and works in his name who knew him not. Your spiritual family is not with those who claim a title but do not know what it means. In Matthew 12:48-50 it says: “But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus recognizes those who abide in the Word of God as his family, not the workers of lawlessness. And this is a lawlessness from God, not this world. It says in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’” In really simple terms, what is that law that Jesus speaks to?

There’s several places where Jesus makes this really simple for everyone. One instance is right before he illustrates his point in the story of the Good Samaritan (keeping in mind that Samaritans were a shunned people by the religious, and Jesus later sent his disciples SPECIFICALLY to Samaria, wanting them to continue the work he had started with the Samaritans):

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” -Luke 10:25-28

It’s also expressed again in Matthew where he reminds us that ALL the law and the prophets hang on the fact that we love God with our entire selves (heart, soul and mind) and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Matthew 22:36-40

This might seem fairly obvious and simple but consider that God doesn’t want part of you; he wants all of you. Politics, employment, friendships, policy, institutions, family, finances… these all belong to God and the choices we make matter deeply. It says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We cannot trust in our God, love him with all our being and love our neighbor as ourselves if the space we are operating out of is fear. Fear of Others, fear of terrorism, fear of economic downturns, fear of scarcity, fear of man, fear of loss. This is not what God’s people were made for!

In 1 Peter 2:9 we are reminded, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We bear light into the darkness! We are not a nation formed from blood or heritage but rather from a King who came to earth and spilled his blood not out of obligation but out of love.  Love.  Love for a God that is good. Love for a people that persecuted Him. Love for a world that yearned for salvation even when it turned away. We cannot find anything to boast in unless it is the profound way God redeems every part of our lives. We are told in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” We must remember to not become prideful but be a people of repentance and humility, for who are we apart from God?

But, you say, this is real-life 2000+ years down the road, right? Life feels pretty hard. People we love are dying and suffering, anger and violence appearing to push in from all corners, and things are just so different from that time…how could we possibly know what we are meant to do? Yet, the world has been a messed up place for a super long time, and this isn’t a new story for anyone. It was dark in the time of Jesus and his answer wasn’t to build walls, reject the refugee, and blame the oppressed for their oppression. It wasn’t to deny the existence of privilege. Jesus tells you what will happen to you and it isn’t based on your feelings or the amount of money you gave or the roles you held in your church. You will be sorted based on how you cared for others.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ -Matthew 25:31-36 

And then you consider the ‘blow away moment’ that comes next when we discover that even the righteous didn’t recognize God as they were meeting the real needs of others rather than protecting what was theirs.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40

Consider how truly profound this statement is. How could Jesus be present in the strangers we welcome, or in the naked we clothed or the sick we care for? What relationship could Jesus possibly have to us visiting those in prison?

Love. Our God is love. Agape. God doesn’t just feel love; God IS love. It says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Because if you know Him, you know love, and where there is love God is present. When one of us goes to the prisoner to show solidarity, God is there. When you go to give warmth through clothing, God is there. When you welcome the foreigner, the refugee, the stranger, God is there.

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46

Our fate is clear; it is a choice. Will we be a people who chooses to care for the sick? Who gives asylum to the stranger? Who quenches thirst and satisfies hunger? Or will we choose to be a people lost to our basest fears?