110 years ago last weekend, there was a phenomenon that occurred at Azusa Street, Los Angeles, which saw the birth of the Christian Pentecostal movement and forever changed the face of global christianity and society as a whole. In the gatherings and prayer meetings that happened during this time, many people encountered the egalitarian love of God and were utterly transformed by it. In a day and age in which there was still an utter domination of Black men and women by Whites and the general degradation of women of all colours and backgrounds, something incredible unravelled. Suddenly, men and women, blacks and whites found themselves to be equally loved, equally honoured and equally transformed. Sadly, within just a couple of years, much of this free and radical move of God, this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had become commodified and controlled with the separation of men and women, black and white as entrenched as ever.
What we can recognise, however, is that something had been birthed that was unstoppable. It is without doubt, that one can trace this awakening force all the way through to the bravery of Rosa Parks and the peace-fuelled dream of Martin Luther King. But, I want to argue that between the early 20th century and the time of the Civil Rights Movement, a virus had infected the movement that has ultimately led to it being ineffectual in creating a truly egalitarian society.
In a recent blog I wrote on Christmas, I stated that the Christmas story is not about God changing his mind about humanity, but about humanity reconfiguring its understanding of who God is. So, it was with Azusa Street. The movement of God in the earth, what some people term ‘the river of God’, flows to “bring down rulers from their thrones and exalt those who are humble”, or to “bring the mountains low and raise the valleys up”, creating an equal playing field for humanity. To state this even more clearly: There is a whole new way for humanity to walk in together, which is utterly different from the status quo, where we move from a place in which the power and wealth is held by the few, to a ‘new creation’ of egalitarian grace for all. The Azusa Street ‘awakening’ was not given so that more and more Christians could sing more and more songs for longer and have ever more wonderful experiences. No, it was to begin something that could change the whole of society and put right age-long injustices.
In the flow from Azusa Street into the Civil Rights Movement, something precious was lost and a distortion took place. Azusa Street offered a new way for humanity, a partnership between kenosis and ecstasy. However, a misapplied understanding of Sovereignty through a leadership of domination and control, meant that rather than creating a new dance, to which all could be invited, it was believed that it was only through the positions of power that one could affect change. So, the contemporary critics of MLK may have been onto something when they said that he should not be knocking on the door of power in order to be part of the white man’s game. Rather, the movement could have found a new way of being that they invited all, including the powerful to join in with.
If we take the journey right through from Azusa Street to Obama, even with a black President, the problem still remains. So much hope rested on one man. ‘Yes We Can!’ has become ‘Oh no you couldn’t’. Not because Obama isn’t brilliant (I think he was ace in many ways). Not because his motives were wrong. Not even because he was naive. No, the truth is that real change doesn’t happen from the top. The positions of power are incapable of making the changes that many long to see. Generally the positions are filled with good people, but they find that the power they thought they might have is utterly impotent. They are actually powerless to do the very thing they were elected to the office to do! Otherwise, we would have implementation of Obamacare, and many other injustices put right…..only we are seeing the very opposite of this occur on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is the powers that have to shift and the processes that need to change. The systems are so strong and built on such endemic injustice, violence and control, that they simply cannot shift their ground. If people movements try to get ‘the right people’ into positions of power in the hope that they will bring some kind of salvation, they will be sorely disappointed. We cannot knock on the doors of power to try to gain that power. We must fundamentally see a power shift and redistribution. This requires an entirely different kind of culture and an entirely new politics. It is the movements that must help those in power to make the shift into the new future we are all longing for, rendering the current power structures null and void.