Thursday, May 4, 2006

PENTECOST AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

"Pentecost laid the axe at the root of social injustice." - Phoebe Palmer Knapp, 19th-century American holiness preacher, teacher, author, and social justice advocate

TRANSFORMED AND EMPOWERED TO LOVE. Officially, June 4th will be the celebration called Pentecost. An ancient Jewish holiday that follows fifty days after Passover, Acts 2 records the event that forever changed the context of Pentecost. On this day, now celebrated as the "birthday of the Christian church," Christians believe the holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus' disciples in fulfillment of ancient prophesies and the promise Jesus had made (Acts 1:4-8). Pentecost turned cowering converts into bold advocates; it transformed a rag-tag band of despairing disciples into people indwelt and overflowing with the very love of God. Pentecost launched a movement that, for all its 2,000-year ebb and flow, has never quite ceased to transform people and challenge core human injustices in every generation through a burning love that overwhelms fear, paralyzing inertia, despair, violence, domination, pride, and corrupt power.

LIVE THE KINGDOM NOW. I am part of a Christian tradition that places Pentecost at the heart of spirituality, both personally and corporately. Wesleyan holiness folk think that every believer in Jesus Christ as Lord should directly and personally--in one way or another, at some point or another--encounter a Pentecost-like transformation that catapults one from initiatory and fledgling faith into maturing love and self-giving activism. We think the evidence that one is "filled with the Holy Spirit" and growing in Christlikeness is found in a love that is notably self-forgetful, service-focused, and redemptively confrontational to the powers of domination at work in the world. We see in Pentecost not just a personal empowerment, but an empowerment for the church both (1) to embrace and express the new eschaton--the very Kingdom of God--and (2) to bring the influence of this future-focused reality into every possible social relationship, structure, policy, and practice as a signal and sign of what God wills for the world's future.

FREEDOM AND LIBERATION. That is the context of Phoebe Palmer Knapp's statement. To her, "social injustice" at the time primarily meant human trafficking and oppression of women. She expressed her confidence in the radical change Pentecost called for by advocating vociferously for the abolition of slavery and for the sufferage of women in America. She saw in the gospel of Jesus Christ a clarian call for freedom for all human beings and the liberation of women from the age-old system of domination that reduced them to objects and possessions. She set a tone and standard both as a woman and as a Christian leader that fueled many in the evangelical and Christian holiness movements at the time. I would welcome her voice anew on similar issues in the 21st century.

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