“There is tension between the need for upholding genuine unity and the need for comforting and even addressing the hurt within Christ’s body, so that all may flourish, bringing honour to His name and credibility to the gospel as we proclaim it together.”
A look back at 2020—and Pentecostal foundations
There are many characteristics that define the 21st century as different from any that came before it. Three important ones that come to mind for me are the commonness of cross-continental immigration within extended families, the prevalence and accessibility of technology in our daily lives which allow for minute-by-minute scrutiny of events anywhere in the world, and the disruption of homogeneity in many Western church congregations.
The events of 2020 uncovered many painful feelings for people of colour, and especially for people of African descent living in Western nations. While I am both mindful of and grieved by the ongoing struggles faced by our Indigenous brothers and sisters, people of colour in general, and by the rise of violence against Asians and Pacific Islanders in North America since the start of the pandemic,1 there is a lingering burden tied to the protests of 2020. In the aftermath of watching George Floyd die, gasping for air as he begged for his life and called for his mother, I watched what seemed to me to be a struggle for the church overall to fully identify with the murder’s impact on many in the Black community—to name the tragedy for what it was. It wasn’t just a singular gross injustice—it was representative of a pattern that has been protested across Western nations for generations, caught on camera and viewed globally in a matter of a few short hours.
Then January 6 happened. Protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol all the way to the Senate Chamber, something that was unthinkable weeks before when Black Lives Matter protestors were met with an extreme show of preventive power at the same location. Even worse, many protestors in January were bearing signs that suggested they believed their actions were inspired by Jesus. In fact, some stopped to pray in His name, hands upraised, standing in the Senate Chamber rostrum after the legitimate occupants had scampered to safety.
These developments urge us to consider what Jesus originally intended for His people to represent. How does He feel about injustice? What does a godly response look like? There is tension between the need for upholding genuine unity and the need for comforting and even addressing the hurt within Christ’s body, so that all may flourish, bringing honour to His name and credibility to the gospel as we proclaim it together.
Scripture affirms that because the Lord hates the uneven application of justice, so should we (Proverbs 17:15). And people experiencing injustice are not encouraged to hide it, but to cry out. God promises to hear those cries and respond (Exodus 22:22-25). It is a difficult thing when those cries don’t find earthly sympathy, as Peter encouraged: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart” (1 Peter 1:22, NLT).
In the midst of a deadly and stressful global pandemic, I see that tension as a tremendous opportunity to consider revisiting the early foundations of our Pentecostal beginnings, to re-establish our dependence on the Holy Spirit’s power for intimacy with Jesus and fruitful service, and to examine the cracks that appeared early in its foundations on the issue of cultural engagement. In Constructive Pneumatological Hermeneutics in Pentecostal Christianity,2 D. T. Loynes explores the early roots of the Pentecostal movement and how its early promise of kingdom witness to the world of cross-cultural unity quickly gave way to the segregated norms of the culture around it. He proposes that early Pentecostal hermeneutics (i.e., a Pentecostal approach to interpreting Scripture) did not consider the culture around them, which would have aided in paving the way for lasting unity. “In looking at early Pentecostal hermeneutics, we find that scholars did not employ a hermeneutics of culture that might have allowed them to expand the racial idealism held by some in the movement into a theologically robust mandate for genuine racial equality at all levels. Instead, in looking at three recent analyses by Pentecostal scholars, we find that hermeneutics was almost exclusively conceived of as interpreting Scripture. Furthermore, this approach was not employed in order to develop a compelling, Pentecostal account of racial justice. In fact, theological doctrines regarding the intersection of race, culture, and Christianity were rarely considered, subordinate to emerging theological positions justifying the uniquely Pentecostal theme of a ‘persistent emphasis upon the supernatural (charismatic) manifestations of the Spirit within the worshipping community’ (i.e., Baptism in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, divine healing, miracles, prophetic utterances).”3
This methodology was adopted and continued for several years, even as events like the Red Summer of 19194 were wracking the soul of the U.S. and The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada came into being. After initial manifestations of unity, Black and white Pentecostalism went separate ways, with some lost ground beginning to be recovered since the 1994 Memphis Miracle.5
Differences in how we approach the understanding and application of Scripture remained, the consequences of which are being felt acutely since the events of 2020. The reality is that across generations—even pre-Pentecost—inherent in Black Christian/Pentecostal faith is a need to apply the Scriptures to currently lived events for the purpose of overcoming the ever-present racially oriented trials we face as well as for informing the pursuit of a godly approach to advocating for policy change inside or outside of church walls. Those policies—and their pain points—often don’t affect those we have Christian fellowship with in the same way when they are from a different racial, cultural or economic group. And none of us can claim to be fully experiencing the truths of Scripture regarding Christian community when we know that we are not all fully seen, known and encouraged in our day-to-day realities (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 12:25-27).
The historical flow of theological thought around these issues has typically excluded marginalized voices; it has become an urgent need that they be more frequently considered. Our challenge will be to proceed in a way that honours what Christ has done for us, given our demographic complexity and the realities I described at the outset. Please take the time to read Peter Dove’s contribution, “Race, Power and Voice,” here. It is a valuable thread in our ongoing shared dialogue.
This article appeared in the April/May/June 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.