Aug 5, 2011

Social justice in a Pentecolstal cosmology

I once saw a man prayed for, and saw him stand up out of his wheel chair and raise his hands in Pentecostal prayer.

I tried to find something at least that dramatic for my students, when telling them about Pentecostalism today. What I found, instead, were less dramatic healings, healings that, on Youtube, can be hard to believe.

Someone running around, saying her torn ACL was just healed. Someone taking off his glasses. Someone breathing deeply, saying the asthma is gone. Healing for an eating disorder.

There are videos of wheelchair healings, but what you see -- what I could find -- is not the healing itself, but the testimony.

Evidence like this doesn't do much against skepticism.

For my students, as for most people, and for Pentecostals themselves, the pressing question is whether or not these things are real. Can they be proven? Is there evidence, verification?

For me, the question is different. The question I ask isn't "is this real?", but, what kind of God heals a torn ACL for a woman in Kansas, but does nothing about the worms that eat children's eyes in Africa? What does it say about the God one believes in, if one believes in this God who cures short-sightedness in America, but doesn't intervene to stop genocides?

The theological problem presented by these healings seems way more problematic to me than the epistemological questions about how we know if a miracle is a miracle.

I mean, was it because the asthma girl prayed, while the woman who's kid was killed by the stray bullet in Atlanta wasn't begging God for anything?

There's something about the Pentecostal cosmology that makes this make sense, and that idea of reality means practical solutions for practical problems is not going to be a main focus of Pentecostals practice of their faith.

This is one of the reasons I'm very suspicious of this idea there's a "new kind of Pentecostal" devoted to "social justice."

Is there really?

Christianity Today says there is, but that would probably mean a serious shift in Pentecostalism, probably a re-imagining of their conception of the structure of reality. Evidence of that is kind of skimpy.

Pentecostals have traditionally seen the spiritual realm as the most important, considering the real conflict, in any given problem, to be one of "principalities and powers." This is the whole idea of "spiritual war." The most essential -- most real -- cause of any problem is understood to be spiritual. Not practical. Not logistical.

In the same way that Evangelicals in the reform movements of the late 1800s - 1920s thought the most basic problem was individuals' personal salvation, so that no matter what practical efforts there were the understanding was always that the real and permanent cure to any social ill was, at root, more personal relationships with Jesus, Pentecostals think the real problem is in the spirit world. The real fix is there too, whatever other practical, short-term measures they may also employ.

This is why the healing of problems that can be solved also with glasses or inhalers isn't considered to be small -- it's not understood as a this-worldly issue at all. In the Pentecostal conception of the universe, these people weren't delivered from physical infirmities as much as they were cured of a spiritual problem. For them, then, it's not that God's priorities are quite odd, but that these things are this-worldly outworkings of the war between God and Satan, a conflict which has many fronts.

A response to social ills that fits very well with traditional Pentecostal cosmology, then, is, e.g., "grid praying."

If that has changed or is changing, and there's a "new kind of Pentecostal" that is focusing on "social justice" as essential in a way that doesn't just make it a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, it would seem to be a notable shift that could be looked at in detail.

The Christianity Today piece, though, fails to look at this supposed shift in any detail. It fails to say what this shift is, really, if it really is happening.

Instead what we get is a little wishful thinking, at the top, from some seminarians, a run down of some of the social efforts Pentecostals have historically been involved in (without any attention to how such efforts are different from, say, the work of an NGO, or how these efforts fit into the theology that frames social problems as the effects of spiritual problems). There's then some general stuff about the global swelling of Pentecostal ranks (a narrative that's repeated quite regularly in Christian circles without any attention paid to some of the real questions that have been raised).

There are a lot of quotes with ministers saying that the thesis of the article is right, but not a lot of evidence.

Jack Hayford says "There is a huge awakening for social concern today, especially from age 30 and down. It is profoundly present, and it is a welcomed renewal." George O. Wood, from the Assemblies of God, says "Our churches increasingly have focused on the poor in practical ways: food banks, Adopt-A-Block, mentoring programs for children of prisoners, assistance to single mothers, and so on." Yet solid information is lacking.

We are told, for instance, "Pentecostals have demonstrated an accelerated interest in social issues, especially in North America." Except that the evidence for this is a stat that includes that last 30 years, "since 1980, Pentecostals and charismatics have contributed over $2.3 billion and 250 million people in goods and services in over 100 countries," and a program that was started when Dwight Eisenhower was president, "Established in 1958 by the late Assemblies of God minister David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge is the oldest, largest, and most successful drug rehabilitation program of its kind."

So, where's the increase?

Pentecostals have had social programs and have been interested in helping people for a long time, and Christianity Today establishes that. It's not clear, however, than anything has actually changed or is changing, which was supposed to be the point of the article.

If there is a change going on, it would be important to know where and what it looks like. It would be even more worthwhile to know how that change is happening within Pentecostal thought, within the Pentecostal conception of things. Is this a change in the theology, or just a shift in attention? Is it a change, actually, in the cosmology that doesn't have a problem with a God who spends a lot of effort fixing minor health problems in the first world while ignoring great devestations and human degradation?

If there's a new generation, and a renewal, do they see spirit realm as the real locus of problems?

Or is this just a continuation of, basically, what we've seen with Pentecostal social work for the last 70 to 100 years?

It is the case that Pentecostal efforts at helping people are understood by those involved to be extensions of the more real struggle, which is with demons, not practical problems like a lack of health care, or clean water, or a corrupt government. Extensions at best -- there's a more cynical way of seeing these efforts as, basically, cover stories. The real goal of a Pentecostal drug treatment program in New York City isn't drug treatment. That's seen as a side effect of the real problem.

This has to be understood, if one is to understand Pentecostal "social justice" as it has been practiced: these practical efforts at helping people who need help are done with a Pentecostal cosmology, wherein ecstatic prayer is the most essential response to any problem. E.g., it's not just the case that in Pentecostal drug treatment programs, "A vital part of the recovery process is prayer for conversion and baptism in the Holy Spirit." That's considered more vital the getting-of-drugs part, as the addiction is seen as the physical outworking of a spiritual reality.

If there's really something different going on now, something new and of a "new kind," this theology and cosmology is what we would see being shifted, re-framed, or narrated in a new way. That doesn't seem to be happening though, at least, not by the evidence we see in Christianity Today.