The Holy Spirit and social justice

May 1st, 2018

I’m fortunate to work and worship at a church where the Holy Spirit is welcomed and celebrated. Fellow congregants often begin to recount joyful stories with the opening statement “A weird thing happened this week,” only to correct themselves and admit it was God’s Spirit at work, not an unexplainable coincidence.

As United Methodists, we readily acknowledge the need for the Holy Spirit in the work of discipleship, worship, character transformation and prayer. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide us when we’re faced with difficult decisions or circumstances. We call upon the parakletos — the Paraclete, the one who goes alongside of us — when comfort is needed for ourselves or for our brothers and sisters in Christ. However, until I read a recent article on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) and the Holy Spirit, I hadn’t fully contemplated the role of the Holy Spirit in movements that seek to undo racism, gender inequalities, economic disparities and other injustices.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Just over 50 years ago, on April 3, 1968, King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. The next day he was murdered while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. While King’s legacy lives on, his mission isn’t complete. Racism is alive and unmasked in the United States today. The August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the June 2015 slayings of nine black worshippers by a self-declared white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, are just two of the more heartbreaking examples in recent memory.

Spiritual forces of evil

To mark the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, the quarterly magazine Plough devoted its entire spring 2018 issue to King, calling him “America’s prophet.” The article “Powers and Principalities: King and the Holy Spirit,” by the Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III, traces King’s theological formation and unpacks King’s insistence that the civil rights movement be grounded in Christian principles of nonviolence, love, and unconditional forgiveness. Rivers writes, “It was the Holy Spirit, which he allowed to work in and through him, that made Martin Luther King Jr. the most influential voice of conscience and religious freedom in the United States in the twentieth century.”

Rivers’s statement about the role of the Holy Spirit in King’s work resonates with profound consequences. When we recognize the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power, we discover that the same Spirit who inspires our worship services also empowers movements such as Black Lives Matter; and the same Spirit who responds to our private prayers is the one spurring on those who fight for clean water and an end to sex trafficking.

In his article, Rivers argues that forces such as white supremacy are “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV) and can only be combatted with those spiritual weapons given to us by the Holy Spirit. “Whether or not the Holy Spirit inspires our political and cultural activism is of urgent importance today,” writes Rivers. The virulence of white supremacist discourse and action “demands that the church reclaim the power of the Spirit to discern the most effective response,” Rivers states.

Same Spirit, new movements

Any movement that addresses racism or other social ills today won’t look the same as it did half a century ago. Secular activist groups such as Black Lives Matter use different tactics and methods of communication than those used by MLK and other 1960s-era civil rights workers. If we’ve grown accustomed to old-school activism, these differences can make us feel uncomfortable.

Rivers argues that the work of these newer movements “highlights the moral and political failure of the black church to speak prophetically against the use of excessive force against black people, especially in the inner city.” However, Rivers also warns that these secular movements won’t achieve long-term success if they’re not Spirit-led. They must build on the foundations laid by King and others, who leveraged biblical understanding and intercessory prayer when standing up for the poor and marginalized.

Sadly, churches are often behind the curve when it comes to essential social change. In his book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, Brian McLaren calls out white churches who defended slavery in the 1800s and adopted antislavery attitudes only after society at large had agreed on the evils of this system. “Where was the Holy Spirit at work, outside the religious institutions or inside them?” asks McLaren. When the power of the Holy Spirit is ready to move, “God simply overflows the structures that are in the way and works outside them with those willing to learn,” McLaren states. 

Holy Spirit coincidences

In his book Questions of Life, Nicky Gumbel tells a story about MLK and the Holy Spirit. Gumbel writes that in 1955, King was arrested on a petty speeding charge in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, where he was organizing a boycott to end segregation on city buses. After continued harassment by the local police force and even death threats, King was pushed into utter despair. He began to pray, and he heard a voice telling him to call on the power “that can make a way out of no way.” As the divine presence filled him with courage and purpose, “my uncertainty disappeared,” King said. “I was ready to face anything.”

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