A Gospel of Liberation and Self-Scrutiny - by Alisha Lola Jones
During the 2016 presidential election news coverage, I cringed as several white national evangelical leaders failed to demonstrate socio-cultural competency or empathy for a kindred cohort – those evangelicals who are African American, Latinx, working class, female, or queer. Their continuing affirmation of a ruthless businessman in the highest political office bears no relation to any gospel politics I recognize.
Even so, listening to popular critiques of the evangelical movement, one gets the impression that they are the only white Christians who are willfully oblivious about social injustice. This is simply untrue. I believe that the reoccurring, widespread failure among white Christians to face our racial divide is rooted in a refusal to acknowledge humbly that at any time it could be any one of us who are misguided.
Now more than ever, theological leaders are noticing what happens when we disengage from our siblings. As a womanist ethnographer, I believe we need to take seriously the myriad Christian perspectives among us and commit to intra-religious dialogue, which begins when we listen to diverse, faithful resistance stories through the prism of race, gender, and class.
I must confess that when I am among religious scholars I talk apprehensively about my upbringing in evangelical Christianity. In many of those conversations, my community is reduced repeatedly to the negative stereotypes of charismatic Protestantism: zealous believers who lack intellectual depth, social justice consciousness, and direct-action grit.
The experience is shaming and silencing. It is also ironic, given how much we scholarly theologians boast of welcoming everyone. Evangelicals are presumed to be a monolithic spectacle absent from the ivory tower and dismissed for their theological ideas.
And yet, to borrow from the Negro Spiritual, “here is one”: I am a scholar and minister of evangelical African-American heritage, produced by a long tradition of African-American evangelicals who have used multimedia to preach resistance to white supremacy and classism. They have done so while disputing white colleagues’ tone-deaf agenda of spreading the gospel of an assimilationist Jesus Christ throughout the world without getting our house in order here in the US.
My most indelible evangelical memories are associated with my parents, the Rev. Dr. Alvin Augustus Jones and the Rev. Dr. Martha Butler Jones, who were co-pastors and religious broadcasters from 1981-1998 at Miracle Faith Centre (MFC), a multiracial, intercultural, and multilingual evangelical church of 1,000-plus members in Washington, DC.
In its heyday, MFC hosted national televangelists such as Billy Graham, Bishop I.V. and Pastor Bridget Hilliard, and Kenneth Hagin Sr. As professional broadcasters, my parents were sought after as hosts and consultants who pioneered African-American religious broadcasting; they were founders of the first black-owned network The Dream Network on The Dish Network, DirectTV, and Sky Angel in 1992. Countless nights after their broadcasts we stayed up as volunteers answering the phones, praying with people who were sick, depressed, and lonely. Reclusive luminaries like Etta James would call and tell us that our programming comforted them. This unexpected feedback gave us a sense of our impact through the media, which provided a platform to illuminate important social issues in the nation’s capital such as homelessness and refugee advocacy.
When people ask me to situate the faith tradition in which I was raised, I sing a TV theme song – “Ev-i-dence, ev-i-dence, does your life show enough evidence?” – from the Rev. Frederick K.C. Price Sr.’s national broadcast Ever Increasing Faith, a weekly Sunday morning program that aired nationally in the 1980s and 90s. Price is the most prominent African- American figure in the Word of Faith movement.
A 76-Week Series
Price was one of a handful of black male pastors who were mentored by famous white male televangelists at the time (Oral Roberts mentored Bishop Carlton Pearson, Kenneth Copeland mentored Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Hagin Sr. mentored Price). Eventually, though, Price in Los Angeles organized the Fellowship of International Christian Word of Faith Ministries (FICWFM), a group of predominantly African-American ministries, and my parents decided to align their church plant with it.
Price’s teachings over the years have yielded many spiritual deliverance testimonies and attracted criticism for his emphasis on prosperity, despite overwhelming evidence of the socio-economic barriers that people of color and the poor face. But I will never forget when he took on his white colleagues in 1999 with a reported 76-week series of sermons entitled “Race, Religion, and Racism” and launched a boycott of books and donations of white evangelical leaders who had revealed segregationist attitudes.
Price’s stance shocked the picturesque dynamic of the Word of Faith movement that relied on presenting the Body of Christ as harmonious and international. FICWFM ministries were urged to confront the sin of racial injustice by any means necessary.
Unfortunately, such newfound insight also revealed the extent to which the oppression we hope to eradicate may be so internalized that it is overlooked. Numerous male pastors within historically African-American Protestant traditions are clear about racial injustice but remain reticent about gender inequity in installing women as senior pastors. I’ve learned that theological liberation is won when we fight simultaneously for our freedom while unlearning our own oppressive behaviors.
To this day, I am thankful for what my parents taught me about how God can be experienced through multicultural charismatic worship and media engagement. They pursued a risk-taking, forwardthinking, prophetic ministry through what political scientist Benedict Anderson coined as “imagined communities.” These values are foundational to my own entrepreneurial parachurch ministry InSight Initiative. And as a scholar, I consistently remember the tradition in which I met God. I bring that witness into the classroom and pulpit wherever I go.
My call to action is to remember where we have come from. Surely all of us can claim communities that we both love and yet wrestle with. Nevertheless, we are all uniquely equipped to be ministers of reconciliation; we can challenge our communities with respect and care.
May we model what self-examination looks like. May we share our transformational journeys with our loved ones, yet listen more than we speak. May we engage our loved ones in our research and our service. May we have the courage to renounce any stance that would threaten the well-being of God’s children. It is my hope that we will begin to listen to the evidence of our many faith journeys, lifting our voices, meeting needs in our ministries, and holding each other accountable.
Alisha Lola Jones ‘07 M.Div. teaches ethnomusicology at Indiana University. With a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, her research interests include music and religion in the African diaspora, men’s studies, gender and sexuality, the music industry, food studies, violence, and voice studies. She is also founder of InSight Initiative, Inc., a firm that consults and produces arts-based empowerment events that focus on minority, underserved, low-income groups.