I don’t know about you, but I have been to my fair share of faith-based social justice vigils around any number of social issues, and while I deeply appreciate the opportunity to gather with like-minded people of faith and believe that doing so lends significant legitimacy to the causes we are there to witness to, I almost always leave feeling we have missed an opportunity to bring the full repentance-inducing power of God into the situation—the power to seize people, move them, pick them up and set them going in a different direction . I think about the descent of the Spirit on that first Pentecost—a dramatic public event that could be considered a direct action; certainly it was perceived as a threat to the ruling powers—and how effective it was in calling new people out of collaboration with empire and into participation in the Kingdom or Kindom of God. And isn’t that what we want our social justice actions to do?
It’s just that, having experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to literally move people’s bodies, to say nothing of their minds, hearts, and souls, I can’t help but feel that we are losing something by throwing the charismatic baby out with the homophobic, nationalistic, and overly personalized bathwater.
Bob Eckblad, one of the founders of Tierra Nueva, an advocacy and healing ministry in Skagit County, Washington, has spoken frequently about the power of the Spirit in his own work. In the early 1990s, he reports, he was suffering from deep depression after years serving and advocating for black and brown people who were systematically criminalized and seemed to end up back in the criminal justice system over and over, no matter how earnestly they tried to change their lives. He frequently spoke with his brother about this depression, and his brother told him, repeatedly, that he didn’t have enough Holy Spirit in his work to help in counter the demonic prison-industrial complex and systematic oppression his people faced. Bob resisted this idea, associating the Holy Spirit with political conservatism, nationalism and militarism, but finally he agreed to go to a charismatic gathering in Toronto (joking that he thought there at least he would be safe from American triumphalism). At that gathering, amidst the expected right-leaning rhetoric, he had a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit that literally knocked him onto the floor, brought him deep personal healing, and gave him power for his work that was of a totally different magnitude. His writings now are full of dramatic stories of healing and restoration among the incarcerated migrant workers he serves.
While Bob’s story further convinces me that we need the Holy Spirit in our ministries, it doesn’t yet address this question of what the Holy Spirit wishes to do in our public actions.
Last week, at the Festival of Radical Discipleship hosted by Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, I saw people, seized by this same Spirit, leap out of their chairs and run to the dance floor to move their bodies, and there was so much power in it. I wonder, again, what would it be like to bring that power into our public actions?
Confession: I ask this question as someone who did not jump up to dance at these moments. I was too self-conscious. I believe self-consciousness is the enemy of the Spirit and also that it is systematically instilled in us by the dominant culture in order to guard against Spirit-induced rebellion and disruption of the status quo.
Can I be honest here? I think we resist the power of the Holy Spirit and fail to bring it into our social justice actions because it embarrasses us. Let’s admit it: a lot of us (at least a lot of us white folks with enculturated middle class aspirations) suspect deep down that speaking in tongues is unsophisticated, that moving our bodies too much is undignified, that shouting and singing at the top of our lungs is inappropriate, but I have to ask: “What does this so-called sophistication, dignity, and appropriateness serve?” Are we really so invested in being respectable through the eyes of those in power? Or are we willing to risk being fools for God, being accused of being drunk, as were the earliest followers?
Please understand that I am asking this question of myself as much as or more than of you.
A small group of us here in the Bay area are working on a public justice-oriented liturgical action for Holy Week, and this is a question I intend to bring to our planning of that action: How can we most effectively create an opening for the inrushing of the Holy Spirit that is nothing short of the “militant presence of the Word of God…acting incessantly and pervasively to renew the integrity of life in this world,” to borrow from William Stringfellow?
I covet your insights as we struggle together to rehumanize ourselves and each other in the face of widespread systemic dehumanization.
Nichola Torbett, the founding director of Seminary of the Street, longs to participate in the movement of God's Spirit as it is manifesting in growing resistance to the spiritual and often physical deathliness of American culture under corporate capitalism. She walks dogs for a living and participates in justice work to stay alive.