Paul Alexander, Professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, earlier this year delivered “Raced Gendered Faithed and Sexed”, the Presidential Address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Paul’s paper is one of the texts being considered by the Culture and Mission post graduate class at San Francisco Theological Seminary this week. I’ve written this summary of Paul’s paper to provide my class an opportunity to be in dialogue with Paul, who’s currently attending a conference in Jerusalem.
Paul’s section on white supremacy and light-skin privilege (pigmentocracy) is in part a response to the challenge of George E Tinker in his 2008 book, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (also one of our texts). Tinker challenges Amer-Europeans to come to terms with systemic and ingrained violence that has been part of the American experience. Paul in his 2011 suggested that racism was a significant factor in the founding of the Assemblies of God in the USA. In this paper he goes on to look at whiteness as a system of oppression, symbolic of oppressive systems through the ages.
Moses, raised as child of the Egyptian privileged class, seeks to flee from “Whiteness” by fleeing into the desert and journeying with foreign women to deconstruct his sense of identity. Despite his transformation, Moses still needs the voice of Aaron, his brother who has not been conditioned by privilege and participation in oppression.
Pharaoh, in Paul’s metaphorical narrative, represents the coercive voice and structures of “Whiteness”, unable to be redeemed, despite his attempts at apology, asking for forgiveness and offering freedom. To step outside a posture of oppressive power and be reconciled to God Pharaoh would need to cease being Pharaoh. Now here’s where it gets even more creative. Paul presents the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who must die during the “passover”, as the White Jesus, the son of the White God Father. God killed the White Male God and delivered Israel. Paul makes it clear that today’s “raced-as-White gendered-as-male” construct must die, like Pharaoh’s son had to die.
Now to the conquest of Canaan. Paul sees the White Male principle of supremacy that operates through annihilation, control and assimilation personified in Joshua, who coincidentally has the same name as Yeshua (Jesus). God has been moved from the liberating force to the conquering force, displacing and oppressing the indigenous peoples of Canaan, working through the first Yeshua. The second Yeshua found by Paul in this narrative is the first century CE Yeshua, descended from the Canaanite woman Rahab, who critiques the conquest of his namesake.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite (Matthew 15) is presented in the context of dispossession and racism. This woman persists in challenging the blindness of Jesus. Jesus’ response gives us clues about the journey out of privileged “Whiteness”. He ignores her, excludes her and insults her before she directly challenges him to acknowledge her humanity and show his solidarity with her. Paul says the Canaanite woman healed and saved Jesus from succumbing to Whiteness.
Paul’s point, in all this creative, at times stretched, typology, is to challenge North American theologians, no matter the colour of their skin, to resist the dominant narrative of Whiteness. He calls his colleagues to work on identities for equity, not oppression. This is not just about conflicts between European, African and north american native cultures. Without this kind of re-engagement with scripture we can found ourselves unwittingly repeating the memes of oppression found through two millennia of Christian history in the ways we engage with gender diversity, theological diversity and sexual diversity.
In 2011 Paul’s paper at the Society for Pentecostal Studies included a reflection on the recognition of women in pastoral ministries in the Assemblies of God denomination. Despite women being ordained since the beginning of the AG movement, there are many congregations and pastors who refuse to recognise women in leadership. He’s now saying that academic administrators and faculty members who are sexed as male and gendered as man should advocate for intentionality in hiring practices in their institutions. Paul includes a note on the complicated possibilities of sexing on the spectrum of intersexuality.
Paul makes the case for the Society of Pentecostal Studies being open to religious diversity. This begins with the acknowledgement that there are many expressions of pentecostalism. “There is no capital “P” in pentecostalism. In 2002 Paul presented papers on peacemaking and nonviolence, a minority position at the time. In a similar way, Paul hopes that the SPS can build on its openness to ecumenical dialogue by making spaces for interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.
Now Paul moves on to what one of our class members referred to as the “pelvic issues”. He names the LGBT+ historical and spatial realities. There are Christians who are gay. There are Christians who are lesbian. There are Christians who are bisexual. There are Christians who are transgender. There are Christians who are intersex. Some of these Christians are pentecostals and charismatics. Some pentecostal churches believe that homosexuality is a sin and oppose civil and human rights for LGBT+ people. Some believe that homosexuality is a sin but support civil and human rights for LGBT+ people. Some believe that having ‘same-sex’ attraction is an orientation and not a sin itself, but argue for celibacy. Some pentecostal churches believe that homosexuality is not a sin. Some members of SPS think homosexuality is a sin, others that homosexual intercourse is a sin, and still other members of SPS think homosexuality is not a sin and want to work against heteronormativity and heterosexism.
Paul invites his colleagues to argue civilly and charitably about biblical, theological, ethical, historical, philosophical, ecumenical, missional and cultural perspectives regarding LGBT+ realities, both within and beyond the pentecostalisms they experience and study.
The SFTS post graduate class of seven had a range of denominational perspectives, including United Methodist, PCUSA, United Churches of Christ, Independent Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and Uniting Church in Australia. The group received and discussed Paul’s paper with warmth and intellectual rigour. We wondered how Paul’s colleagues at the Society for Pentecostal Studies received his address. The “Raced” section had most of us spinning as we tried to get our heads around what he meant by “Raced as White” and how that might relate to the exodus and conquest Biblical narratives. It may have been quite a challenge for people hearing this for the first time, without the luxury of reading through at one’s own pace.
We appreciated that Biblical reflection is a requirement in the Pentecostal stream of the church for any re-orientation and renewal of practices. Something we could learn from perhaps. It took us quite some time to get used to the idea of entering the Biblical texts not from the perspective of the liberated oppressed, but that of the oppressor’s liberation. We wondered about what Biblical metaphors could be explored for the Gendered, Faithed and Sexed sections. While we realised that the last three sections were being treated as the down-to-earth on–your-own-patch applications of the first section, we would be keen to read fully developed papers for each.
The class reflected also on the global questions surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflicts, along with the search for human rights for women, men and children in our own contexts.
We were also aware that the delivery of such a paper to one’s colleagues can be risky. Inviting one’s colleagues to take stands on race relations, equity for women and religious diversity, all in one paper, is going to get the blood pressure levels rising. But naming the GLBT+ sexuality and gender realities and calling for honest and charitable conversation is bound to offend people who would like to keep their part of the Church on the straight and narrow.
Our class talked about courage, wisdom and a sense of timing. The gospels indicate that Jesus in his three years of ahead-of-his-time public ministry weighed these up, knowing that at some point he’d have to choose between retraction, death and exile. As Peter Steinke wrote in his book, “How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems“, being a prophet is nice work, if you can find a job.
If you’re interested in reading Paul’s work, check out his blog, paulalexander.net, and his books Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (The C. Henry Smith Series), Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism Is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (foreword by Martin Marty), Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace (Pentecostals, Peacemaking, and Social Justice), and Pentecostals and Nonviolence: Reclaiming a Heritage (Pentecostals, Peacemaking, and Social Justice) (foreword by Stanley Hauerwas).
Photograph above is from the Society for Pentecostal Studies Facebook page.