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The Holy Spirit, Jesus and Social Justice in Black Churches: Making Noise or Making a Difference?

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In a 1999 essay titled "A Good Time or a Good Life? The Black Church in the Twenty-First Century," I attempted to chart the opportunities and obstacles facing black churches on the eve of the new millennium. An extensive quotation from the essay revealed my concern for the lack of social justice engagement in many churches:

"In urban and suburban America, the up-and-coming trend is the 'mega' black church with state-of-the-art classrooms, administrative offices, banquet facilities, and gymnasiums. Many of these 'mega' churches have enough members to populate a small city. ... Many factors contribute to this groundswell of membership ... but, most of all, it is the resurgence of a more charismatic style of worship in the black church that has motivated much of this interest. It is the vibrant, exciting worship of the African-American tradition that is drawing people. ... Yet I am concerned that congregations cultivate spiritual lives, and not simply provide energizing worship. People are coming to church, but what are we doing in church?

...Has our style of worship become more important than the substance of worship? Has having a 'good time' in church become more important than living a good, disciplined, and empowered life before God? Has the phenomenon of stirring up feelings in church become more important than encouraging faithfulness once we are outside of the church? In the midst of all of our excitement, are we really making a difference in the world? Or just making a lot of noise?" (Spiritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America from Young Spiritual Leaders of Many Faiths, pp. 139-140).


More than a decade after raising those questions, it troubles me that many churches still are simply making noise but not making a difference. Over the clamor of our Sunday morning merry-making, God continues speaking through the prophet Amos: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. ... Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21, 23-24). This Amos text reveals a divine impatience, even intolerance, for exuberant worship unconcerned with social empowerment and communal wellbeing.

By contrast, small communities of early Christians, motivated by the power of Pentecost, exerted enormous influence on their society. They were accused by their opponents of "turning the world upside down" (Act 17:6). As contemporary followers of Jesus, we must do more than simply "make noise" in church. We, like our ancestors in the faith, are called to shake the foundations of demonic injustice and in so doing turn the world right side up.

The paltry social justice engagement of many churches, and especially some charismatic churches that adamantly claim the Holy Spirit's power, is cause for alarm. Among other factors, a distorted understanding of Jesus' mission and ministry has severed the connection between Spirit-filled worship and Spirit-led activism. Having suffered through several decades of "prosperity gospel" preaching, we must now insist on more theologically sound understandings of Christian social witness.

"Fleshing Out" a Justice Agenda: Luke 4:14-30

When Jesus inaugurates his public ministry in Luke 4, it comes as no surprise that the text for his first sermon refers to the Holy Spirit. The first four chapters of Luke emphasize the Spirit's profound role in Jesus' life. When prophesying the immaculate conception, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Simeon, a devout man longing to see the Messiah, attends the Temple at the right moment to meet, and even hold, the infant Jesus (Luke 2:25-35).

Furthermore, at Jesus' baptism, his tangible receipt of the Holy Spirit is underscored when Luke says the Spirit descended "in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22). Finally, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and sustains him throughout his temptations (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus' wilderness encounter with the demonic does not lessen the anointing in his life. As he begins his Galilean ministry, Jesus remains "filled with the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14).

Aware of the Spirit's intense presence in his life, Jesus finds some "Spirit" passages in Isaiah as he reads scripture in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17). Jesus' text is a modified version of Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, and 61:2. We should pay particular attention to the first portion of Isaiah 61:1: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor."

Jesus quotes from the Greek translation of Isaiah in the Septuagint. An interesting nuance arises if we return to the original Hebrew of Isaiah 61:1, where the verb "to bring good news" (basher) is related to the Hebrew noun meaning "flesh" (bashar). Consequently, the Hebrew of Isaiah 61:1 could be rendered more poetically: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to enflesh good news to the oppressed" (Jaco Hamman, Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry, p. 179).

At its best, Spirit-filled preaching embodies the good news that is proclaimed. Thus, genuinely good news must involve tangible liberation for oppressed bodies as much as intangible elevation of weary souls. We must put flesh on our words in order for our words to heal and transform sisters and brothers beset with real, fleshly afflictions.

Jesus understands the fleshly implications of Spirit-led justice work. As the scripture lesson in the synagogue concludes, Jesus' sermon begins with a bold opening line: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). The sermon continues with a provocative interpretation of God's inclusive salvation that transcends cultural boundaries (Luke 4:25-27).

It might appear that Jesus' sermon ends in Luke 4:28-30 as enraged synagogue attendants attempt to throw him from a cliff. However, Jesus escapes their murderous machinations in order to continue the sermon. He travels to a synagogue in Capernaum where he preaches or "enfleshes" good news to an oppressed man by exorcising a demon from him. The spoken sermon in the Nazareth synagogue interprets the enacted sermon in the Capernaum synagogue, and vice versa. Sermons preached in words and sermons preached through deeds are both necessary for a holistic ministry of social justice and healing.

In contrast to Jesus' attempt to "flesh out" a justice agenda in Luke 4, James 2:14-16 provides an example of abstract, irrelevant religion. In a stinging critique of socially unengaged piety, James writes:

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

According to James 2, Christians should "flesh out" a social justice agenda by fighting poverty. In the example, instead of filling a hungry stomach, the believer sends the poor person away after spouting an empty cliché. Death is the consequence of socially irrelevant faith. Physically, death will overtake the poor, naked, hungry person in the text. Spiritually, death has already overtaken the unengaged faith of believers.

James 2 concludes with a clear analogy. Faith that fails to address serious social dilemmas is like a dead body with no spirit. Indeed, apart from the Spirit, congregations will suffocate, and the body of Christ will become a handsomely embalmed corpse. The Spirit's agenda is life -- abundant life. The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, and that same Spirit can enliven the body of Christ to "flesh out" a revolutionary social justice agenda in Jesus' name.

Jesus and Economic Justice

The alleviation of poverty should be a significant part of a Spirit-led, social justice agenda. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was greatly concerned about economic justice. However, some Christian communities preach so much about the blood and death of Jesus that they neglect the justice principles Jesus taught during his life. Bestselling journalist Barbara Ehrenreich rightly criticizes Christianity's amnesia about the living Jesus. She says that in many churches "Jesus makes his appearance ... only as a corpse; the living man ... is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify [Jesus] again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth" (Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On [Not] Getting By in America, pp. 68-69).

Jesus blessed the poor and cursed the conditions that made people poor. At its core, economic injustice is "an assault upon the dignity of God" (Allan Boesak, Running with Horses: Reflections of an Accidental Politician, p. 343). From Atlanta to Accra and from Harlem to Haiti, the diseases and despair caused by poverty are an attack against God, since God has placed the divine image in every person, regardless of income.

In the name of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians should have a holy urgency to alleviate, if not eradicate, poverty. We can do more than run revivals, put on prayer breakfasts and sponsor fashion shows. Hopeless, homeless, hungry people need us to "enflesh" our faith.

Here are some things that any congregation can do at some level. For starters, every minister and lay leader should read Marian Wright Edelman's recent book The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small. Her book provides concrete steps for congregations that want to combat poverty. Suggestions from her book and from other justice activists include the following:

1. Provide evening childcare so that parents and grandparents can attend job training classes.

2. Create a support network for seniors in handling their financial and medical affairs.

3. Encourage at least one family in each congregation to adopt a child from foster care.

4. Sponsor after-school homework centers, thereby decreasing the likelihood of after-school youth violence and vandalism.

5. Establish SAT or ACT prep-courses for high school youth.

6. In addition to sending food and clothes to our sisters and brothers in impoverished parts of the world, send money for them to buy tractors and food so they can grow their own food and make their own clothes.

7. Hold politicians accountable for the effective education of all our children, and especially at-risk children. Mayors, city council members, governors, congressional representatives, senators and even the President of the United States should know that the full prophetic witness of faith communities will be mobilized either with them or against them depending on how serious they are about educational reform. If at-risk children fail, let our politicians know that they fail.

These suggestions represent a variety of entry points for congregations to become more socially engaged. As congregations gain proficiency with these tasks, they will grow more confident and competent for increasingly sophisticated forms of social justice activism including 1) creative partnerships with public and private institutions to foster economic development in neglected urban areas and 2) public policy advocacy to ensure greater political protection for socially marginalized persons and more equitable resource distribution for economically vulnerable persons.

When the final history is written, and the roll is called up yonder, let it be said that Spirit-led people did more than make noise on Sunday. May it be said of us that we made a difference -- a serious difference -- every day of the week!

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