Raced Gendered Faithed and Sexed

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 Alexander Presidential Address

Raced

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.

Gendered

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.

Faithed

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.

Sexed

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.

Feedback

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.

4 Replies to “Raced Gendered Faithed and Sexed”

  1. Duncan, I’m sure this paper raised a few hackles and maybe it would have wise to have a St John’s Ambulance person on hand when it was read! The concepts are certainly hard to conceptualise and to accept for some people I’m sure, but if you stand in the shoes of someone of a different colour, race or gender, yes of course it makes sense. He really is a brave man, but then so was Jesus, turning people’s opinions upside down and making them think in new ways. I’m going to include this in the next Red Wings and see what St James has to say about it!

  2. Well done, Duncan, thanks. And thanks to Paul for this very helpful and thought-provoking work.

    I’m wondering if Paul would please expand on the “White Jesus” — does he alone sustain Whiteness and the domination system or are there other agents as well? I ask because Paul says that with WJ’s death the captives are “(almost) free,” suggesting there may be something/someone left to deal with before the oppression of Whiteness is lifted.

    Also, Paul refers to George Tinker’s book. I notice that Tinker uses the Caananite woman from Matthew 15 as the means of Jesus’ repentance (Tinker, 124), much like Paul uses her as the agent of Jesus’ salvation. The notion of Jesus repenting and being saved is tough to wrap my head around, and I wonder if Paul might say more?

    Again, many thanks!

  3. I’ve not been as intrigued with a pentecostal (no capital p on purpose) presentation as I was with this one since I heard a pentecostal pastor from Atlanta give a talk on his spiritual journey unfolding in the form of process theology.
    Being in the class with Duncan and the others, I attest to the vibrant discussion we had. As for me, being raced, sexed, faithed and gendered honestly and wholly testifies to the Holy Spirit in the process of identity development. Alexander’s thinking gets a new way of thinking about how we become who we are started. While we are “ed” by something — culture, family, struggles, etc. — the thing that can be is Spirit as well. This dimension adds a layer of spiritual credibility to the identities we inhabit.
    The ideas expressed about whiteness work for all the dominant notions. Being gay myself, I wonder if Paul would apply his heterosex –ness the same way. Since he is sexed as hetero, is it possible to see Jesus as other than that and get the Jesus of the dominant culture –the unmarried hetero-Jesus – saved from that damaging role by a different gospel character?

  4. I am so thankful for this conversation! I love your questions and thoughts and will try to engage with each of them as fully as I can. I’m also sorry that it’s taken this long to respond but I’ve been traveling too much and along the way spilled coffee on my laptop which knocked it out of commission for several weeks. But I’m back. 🙂

    Dear Rev. Kev,
    Thanks for the affirmations, I’m so glad the paper prompted vibrant discussions! Regarding your question about Jesus & heterosexedness, I’m writing an article/chapter now where I explore that and would love to hear your thoughts on it. I hadn’t thought of another biblical character who heals/saves Jesus in the narratives, but I did hint at that idea in the address when I wrote that Jesus became another one of the Canaanite’s healed daughters.

    “Jesus is the descendent of Canaanite women, and in this final sentence I read The-Jesus-Recapitulating-The-Structures-Of-Whiteness as (an)other Canaanite woman’s daughter who was healed. I read the Canaanite woman as not only healing Jesus’ temptation to be the White Jesus, but also redeeming his maleness as he becomes her healed daughter.”

    If we resist heteronormativity and heterosexism, which I’m doing very intentionally in this other paper and which I think is tremendously important, then I think there are wonderful ways of reading the stories that are liberatory and life-giving. And I will particularly be working this out through the ways we construct the Jesuses. I’d rather not put it all in this response, but perhaps we could continue the discussion somehow?

    Dear Mark,
    Thanks! The White Jesus doesn’t alone sustain the systems, but it’s a very powerful construct that idealizes and empowers a certain body (lighter skinned male). There are many other agents that sustain White Supremacy – the “White Jesus” is a way of highlighting the religious and theological support structures.

    I say the captives are (almost) free when Pharoah’s son dies in the sea (the White Jesus in this reading) because when they enter Canaan the religious and theological justifications for ‘racial’ superiority are reactivated. The oppression of Whiteness is not lifted even after the Exodus – even with Pharoah and Pharoah’s son dead – because Joshua becomes the new conqueror and the indigenous are to be exterminated. So in Canaan, the Promised Land, the liberated turned conquerors are still captive to an ideology of superiority.

    Regarding Tinker, others, and me reading that Jesus ‘repented’ or is ‘saved’ or ‘healed’ in the encounter with the Canaanite woman…. In some of our Christian traditions, Jesus is the answer to everything. This is very true in my Pentecostal tradition and I work and think very Christologically. But I learned from First Peoples theologians that thinking and talking a lot about Jesus doesn’t prevent conquests and genocides. So some uses of Jesus – or White Theology – or Religious Justifications for Bullcrap Ethics – need to be healed. Since I was so into Jesus (“you abide in me and I abide in you”, very Dude, by the way) and also so into racism – and I see these coexisting a lot – it makes sense to me that my over-identification with the White Jesus needed healing and saving. Well, lo and behold, there’s a story where Jesus gets corrected by a Canaanite woman. So I personally have learned so much and changed the very way I see and experience the world because of reading my colleagues who are not raced like me or socially located like me, this has been a 20 year process of me being healed little by little from my ‘Christian’ White Supremacy. So seeing Jesus – the ‘Savior’, the White Power, the answer to all the world’s problems (the things that White people sometimes think are true about themselves) – learn and change because he finally heard a voice from someone ‘dispossessed’ and falsely perceived as ‘beneath’ him, resonates with me very deeply. But rather than it be just about Jesus or me (how narcissistic, yet also testimonial), I think it can point to the need for self-congratulatory supremacist theologies (many kinds, but here this time I’m thinking racial/ethnic ‘Whiteness’ and all the pain it brings into the world) to learn from those they’ve excluded, abused, and ignored.

    Dear Merilyn,
    Thanks for the affirmation that when you stand in a location of a different colour, race, or gender this stuff makes sense! And so glad you found it worth including in other conversations at St James!

    Dear Duncan and class,
    Thank you so much for this excellent summary of my paper! My colleagues at SPS had (and have) a range of responses – from affirmation and appreciation to concern and serious disagreement. I think that these conversations will continue both within and well beyond that particular academic society. I’m certainly not the first (or second, third, fourth, fifth….) to raise these issues at SPS and I without doubt will not be the last. I think my reading of the exodus was a lot to follow live, but it was the LGBT+ section that stirred things up the most.

    I too am keen to think about biblical metaphors for the gendered, faithed, and sexed sections and write them as well. Biblical reflection is such a part of the ethos of Pentecostalism and I love the ways that the rabbinic traditions engage scripture – arguing with it, disagreeing with it, playing with it like a good yet sometimes difficult friend. I appreciate metaphorical, literary, liberatory, counter readings and since the bible is such contested territory anyway I can sometimes enjoy jumping into the fray with a possibly helpful reading.

    Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts…. When you posted this initially I was at the Shalom Hartman Institute & American Jewish Committee’s Christian Leadership Initiative in Jerusalem. One issue that came up while there was how that these ancient texts of terror have been re-opened in new ways and used to justify destruction – Christians have been doing this for millennia against Jews and many others and we must keep saying that and changing it, but it’s new (a century or so) for some Jews to be using these narratives to justify taking land from Palestinians (like ideological settlers in the West Bank). That hadn’t happened in Judaism for a long time, and now there are biblical narratives that can be read as calling for extermination of the Others living in the ‘land God gave us.’

    These are complex issues that Jews in the State of Israel are arguing about continually, with many Jews opposing settlement expansion and confiscation of land in the West Bank. But for those who want to read scripture as entitling them to the land, the narratives are there. It just sucks to be one of the ones who lose your land and livelihood to the ones with the power to take it and keep it – like my Palestinian friend Shireen Hillal Awwad and her family who have lost a lot of her family farmland to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc just south of Bethlehem.

    I’m really thankful for the many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian people who read our scriptural texts and histories not as justifying domination but who read them in ways that lead a bit more toward greater justice for more folks, peacemaking, and mutually beneficial coexistence. It does happen, even in Israel & Palestine.

    And this applies to human and civil rights in our own contexts in our own institutions and communities, not just way off over there somewhere, for there are plenty of issues within 5 kilometers of any of us to keep us working.

    Regarding courage, wisdom, and a sense of timing…. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I don’t know if there’s no greater agony than that, but I asked myself, ‘what do I really think?’ and for some reason I felt like I’d try to say as much as I could since I had the opportunity. And I’m hoping I have other options besides retraction, death, and exile! 🙂

    Thanks again to you all for engaging with this paper, and I welcome any and all further conversation. As some in the Pentecostal traditions say, “you’re a blessing.”

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