Power when the Spirit comes:
I am a somewhat agnostic, negro-spiritual follower of Christ who has tentative, frequently re-adjusting roots in the Christian tradition and my Dad is a pretty cool and charismatic, open-minded Christian.
We have some surprisingly cordial conversations which often give me much to chew on but this wasn’t always the case in the course of our relationship.
I was raised to not just love Jesus, the Bible and all that entails, but to understand the primacy of my role in creating converts up until my religious deconstruction a few years ago. This departure from a traditional faith made dinner-table conversations with Dad contentious for both of us as my desire to be heard and respected would often clash with his coming to terms with my departure from orthodoxy.
It was a bright, crispy, winter morning just days before Christmas and I dropped by my dad’s place to pick up some old mail. I clicked on the old, shiny kettle perched on the worn kitchen countertop and proceeded to make myself a Cappuccino while gazing through the window at the picturesque garden.
An old, somewhat ominous, yet tenderly familiar sound of his heavy set footsteps on the approach was a premonition of what was to come. The scene was set, the opportunity ripe for one of our theological conversations. I had a pressing question at the fore of mind so I jumped in to beat the traffic with no inhibitions…
Dad, do you believe miracles still happen today?
He replied in the predictable affirmative and we ricocheted from Genesis to Revelation as it were, trying to find evidence for our arguments about the case for the miraculous today. Inevitably, the conversation dramatically motioned a spotlight on the state of my soul.
My coffee dregs by now started to cement at the base of my cup as I became existentially aware of the time elapsed so far and anticipating things were about to get really personal. My dad then broke the waters after a tensely pregnant pause with this statement.
"The lack of power you experienced in your former belief system drove you to create one that puts you in the driving seat."
At first, I felt unsure about what he meant but this anxiety was quickly assuaged by the realization that such knowledge was unnecessary to put his evaluation to the test. I stumbled a verbal attempt to answer but opted to write him a reply that I’ve made available to a wider audience with his approval. The first question that came to mind on deeper reflection was:
What is the personal power one often looks to garner from their religious belief system?
I can think of three domains of power:
- The moral strength to live righteously, fulfilling my duties honourably and making a great impact on the world through my faith.
- The ability to operate in and experience the miraculous.
- A rooted identity and dignity that gives one the ability to withstand discrimination and oppression.
Domain 1 — Moral Strength
“This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, this little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine”
- Old Song
I, my parents and two younger siblings spent the hottest week of June 2018 in Jamaica with my paternal Grandparents to partake in their 60th wedding anniversary celebrations. As I heard testimonies of my Grandparent’s legacy, the impact on their community and the difference they made in the lives of everyone around them inspired by their pragmatic faith, my heart swelled with a sense of pride. Grandpa was able to climb the highs of success in business and raising successful children but crawled through the depths of burying a 30-year-old son and having his entire farming business wiped out overnight by the torrential winds of Hurricane Gilbert in the ’80s yet going on to rebuild it profitably. Through it all, he attributed his life’s accomplishments to God’s faithfulness despite how weak his faith at times had been along the way. He has managed to live well into his late 80’s married to one woman, without a criminal record and scandal-free as far as I’m aware.
That was the blueprint set for my Dad and me and I took it to heart.
Along the way, my desire for moral perfection increased in fervor as I just didn’t want to be that guy who fell from grace and disgraced the family legacy. I think the unspoken pressure began to erode the power and determination in my heart to live up to the standard.
If I was to face the music, I’d admit that I had always felt inconsistent in my moral performance as a Christian. I bounced between pious, prayerful and proud to bear the cross but slump into defeat and sexually frustrated by lust. I understood the gospel and what that theoretically meant about the atonement for my sins or my proclivity to sin thereafter but there were other verses that seemed to imply that my willingness to sin indicated I probably wasn’t sufficiently regenerate.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think my faith was producing fruit in my life nor making me a better person on a consistent nor particularly outstanding basis. I expended more moral energy wrestling with the guilt, shame, and depravity theologically inculcated by formative religious indoctrinations than really making a moral mark on the world around me.
It frequently occurred to me that something must be missing, dysfunctional or disconnected but I was too embarrassed – perhaps conceited to admit. I suspect the dissonance was too much to bear any longer and this moral impotence led me to re-envisage the source of my moral intuitions and where the responsibility to direct them ultimately laid.
Domain 2 — Holy Ghost Power
“There is power, power wonder working power in the precious blood of the Lamb” — Old song
A typical Sunday morn, in rural St. Catherine, Jamaica.
The rooster had not just long crowed and there was a bustling excitement of the earliest arriving saints who came to give their all on the altar in the zinc-roofed reconstructed truck container where we had our weekly church service. My parents were one of the first in to open up shop as my Dad’s duty as an Elder meant I could never get a lie in on a Sunday morning. A short pre-service bible study was followed by an intense time of charismatic worship lead often by my mother with my dad playing melodiously on his Fender Rhodes. The chorus of what can only be defined as a cacophony of wailing, screeching, throat singing would signal a climax during the worship service and the stewards repositioned on cue with dignity cloths as the altar was opened for deliverance. I witnessed every Sunday mostly during the service a fairly graphic exorcism of the usual suspects who presented their bodies a living sacrifice on the altar for their weekly dose of the same ferocious ritual. I had the fear of God in my heart from a tender age as I never wanted to find myself the next weekly victim of the demonic purge for all to see and gossip about.
These formative experiences influenced my expectations of the supernatural power the Spirit-filled believer should experience and channel through their life. There was an unspoken pressure to measure how radical your faith in Christ was against the standard of the Apostle’s ministerial accomplishments.
By record of the New Testament and the testimony of believer’s in antiquity, and in my beloved church community, the indwelling, outwardly manifesting Holy Spirit; was and is capable of performing nature-bending miracles on request. This was surplus to making the believer righteous but never seemed to feature in my life. I was always fairly disenchanted by how devoid of the miraculous my life was which jigsawed complimentarily with my quiescent prayer life.
How had the drama that unfolded in the lives of the believer’s recounted in the book of Acts been so far removed from the relative mundanity of my life? I figured it was either a symptom of low expectations or spiritual disconnection and led me on an oscillating yet unfulfilling pursuit for more of this kind of power.
Where I find myself as it relates to prayer — I don’t pray for miracles anymore. I've settled at praying for endurance and strategy to overcome. I see no point asking God to take away personal burdens when sickness, poverty, slavery, and racism still ravish the world at large and thoughts and prayers don’t seem to activate the miraculous on those fronts.
Domain 3 — identity and dignity maintenance.
“I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name
Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name
Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name ”
— Old song
I got my old man’s name, temperament, and resemblance. It never ceases to amaze me how similar we are becoming despite the divergence of our spiritual convictions. I felt I needed to explain the next way in which I feel my formative belief system failed to really address the deeper questions of my identity.
For many years I have struggled to accept the tensions within my complex identity. As a young black man growing up in a post-colonial, post-independent Jamaica, by tertiary educated, moderately conservative and loving parents in a stable Christian home; one would think I had the perfect ingredients to be sure of who I was. As a teenager, I’d stand in front of my partially smudged bathroom mirror silently reciting the words
"I am Joel Oneil Alastair Brown"
with a sort of engineered resolve. With my eyes wide shut the name resonated deeply with me; “It’s all I have; It’s all I know” I thought. With eyes opened staring at my puzzled reflection, the same name made me shudder as it told a story that seemed incongruent with my ethnicity.
How does a black Jamaican boy identify with a name that sounds so alien, so European? From whom did I get the name Brown? What is his legacy that earns it being perpetuated by my forefathers, me and my children?
It hasn’t sat comfortably with me since my initial enquiry and its dis-ease was only made worse after moving to England as a teenager. This was where I was forced to square with my conspicuous blackness as a political statement; a shared identity that harboured societal contempt and limited aspirations. My experience of religion at that point made my race politically invisible and spiritually inconsequential. I was indifferent to the historic ways that the Christian religion, armed by weaponized anti-African theological sentiments, was used in alliance with European imperialism to disenfranchise a continent and enslave swathes of its populace. I have a tendency to be fairly diplomatic when writing formally but I would hate to underplay my deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the political and ethnic detachment of my religious belief’s posturing.
Further to the point of the powerlessness induced by being culturally disconnected from a rich cultural legacy, I reference and expound a quote by Winston Churchill. The quote immediately follows this brief but necessary disclaimer that Churchill was undoubtedly a greatly influential leader of his time in spite of his shortcomings and the several ways we disagree on how the Empire’s nobility is historically reconstructed by the Western imagination.
He had this to say about the abiding cultural memory of a society:
"One of the signs of a great society is the diligence in which it passes culture from one generation to the next. When one generation no longer passes on the things that are dear to it: it’s heroes and their stories and it’s religious faith, it is in effect saying that past is null and void - of no value.
This leads young people to feeling a lack of direction and a lack of purpose and opens them to the dictum of Marx that a people deprived of their history are easily persuaded."
– Winston Churchill
I think his sentiments are self-evidently true and poignantly explains the sense of cultural, moral, and spiritual despair that has plagued the descendants of slaves who were disconnected from the cultural memory of Africa including her spirituality, language, and broader cultural values. We were made to feel we were lost savages in need of salvaging and indoctrinated with myths alien to our precedent narratives.
Once we have awakened to this as I did, one feels overwhelmed at the seemingly unsurpassable distance between where we are and the legacy of that heritage. This has decisively cultivated a loss of direction and purpose in some which have been co-opted by malevolent and/or self-destructive obsessions. I tremble at the memory of the pent-up anger, frustration, and resentment that paralyzed my sense of orientation in the world and undermined my dignity.
I felt my religion’s configuration failed to provide the means to understand and really affirm the threatened dignity of my blackness and often demanded allegiance to creed at the expense of that dignity.
A power outage that led me to explore more powerful ideological ways of affirming that dignity and identity like Pan-Africanism.
So finally, was a lack of power the root of my religious deconstruction?
Power has to be the most coveted commodity humans have sought to acquire and leverage which has been to our glory and demise.
A lack of power undermines self-determination and agency, while superfluous power corrupts and displaces the dis-empowered. A relative lack of moral and miraculous power as a traditional believer most certainly contributed to the sense that a reconfiguration of my spiritual posture, theology, and expectations was urgently necessary. The constant sense of moral inadequacy and the malfunctioned drive to normalize the miraculous in my life destroyed my agency and made me miserable.
However, the most crucial lack of power leading to my deconstruction was the political ineptitude of my religious obsessions in charting a path of understanding and navigating my blackness in a world hostile to my existence and flourishing. I am not presumptuous enough to claim the driving seat as it were, but I feel I’ve taken back my power by relinquishing ideas that don’t serve my purpose or maintain my holistic wellbeing in every way that matters.
Besides, who else is best to drive?
“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
In closing, my Dad’s probing question has facilitated an introspective look at some of the disconnected circuitry that precipitated an existential crisis of sorts in my life. Power seems to be the dividing line of the haves and the have-nots in every domain. Some efforts of organized Christianity from antiquity until now has leveraged the power of the Jesus narrative to accomplish everything Jesus stood against, building empires and crushing infidels who stood in the way ideologically. There are faithful Christians who have stood against such a maladaptive use of faith and I have grown to see them as allies in the cause of liberation and true empowerment. I am acutely aware there are more questions generated to explore here than there are answers and while I've often placed more value in finding answers, writing this piece has served to remind me of the unparalleled spiritual growth found in faithful questioning of my assumptions about life’s biggest questions.