Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Visions of Protest and Resistance

Author: 
Jeremy L. Williams ’16 M.Div.

Grasping the multipronged origins of the Protestant Reformation – its principles of resistance, its spiritual and political undercurrents – is a matter of urgency for the longevity of congregations and the life of faith. Even getting a fix on the dates of its beginning requires nuance.

Although 1517 famously marks the moment when Martin Luther nailed the theses to the Wittenberg church door, that was not the first time that he or others challenged the church to reimagine itself. The ringing of Luther’s hammer was preceded by the sounds of disgruntled parishes underserved by priests, loud complaints about a distant pope, and clamors of frustration over the questionable relationship between economics and church politics.

The Protest Continues

However, what made Luther’s spark significant was what happened after his excommunication four years later. With apocalyptic flare, a keen marketing sense, and a weighted belief that the world was coming to an end, he convinced Catholic parishioners to form resistance communities across Germany and Europe. Their resistance encompassed socioeconomic disparities, worship reform, and shifts in theological emphasis.

Those resistance communities developed into congregations and denominations, each defining itself up and against its predecessors and contemporaries. Each evolved in self-understanding or birthed new communities out of them. There was no moment when this trajectory stopped or reached a culmination. The legacy of the Protestant Reformation continues – not only through mainline traditions, but in places and among people who embody the ever-changing resistance or “protest” core of movement.

This is important to consider at a time of widespread concern about the decline of Christianity in the West and the apparent hijacking of Christianity in America by aggressive right-wing organizations. Using the Reformation as a corrective lens, I identify three types of surging Protestant communities relevant here. These types may seem unconventional, but I believe they embody the principles of the resistance movement and have the potential to serve human liberation.

The Fire This Time

The first communities involve the most religiously committed ethnic or racial group in the US, according to Pew Research: those who participate in the African-American Christian experience. I do not wish to suggest by any means that this group is monolithic; it is far from such. However, it is helpful to consider the nature of worship among African slaves in the US, their seeming worship of the god of their oppressors. A closer examination shows a more complicated story. The Africans in America by and large did not accept the slave-holding gospel peddled by their Protestant masters. Instead, they founded resistance communities by worshipping in hush harbors and proclaiming a God who liberates slaves from bondage like those in the Exodus. Although they may not have considered it such, they were embodying the legacy of the Protestant Reformation’s challenge to socio-economic disparities. In their case, their resistance was protest against Protestants.

Note that Luther’s 95 Theses were not only theological; several focused on the material effect the pope’s policies had on the poor and how the selling of indulgences ultimately benefited the wealthy elite. In many ways, the African slaves’ experience tapped into this Reformation theme and set the groundwork for generations of Christian protestors who are concerned about the in-breaking of God’s justice in the world and the liberty of human dignity. This particular development in Protestantism is a pointed critique of white Protestantisms that side with racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and oppression. In our current political climate, African- American Protestantism may provide the blueprint for keeping the fire of resistance burning.

Reimagining Worship

The second type to embody principles of the Reformation are virtual communities. Cyber sanctuaries today function like refashioned worship spaces did in the 16th century: They reimagine worship. Pushing the boundaries of worship and reshuffling liturgical priorities are Reformation hallmarks. One major shift in many iterations of Protestantism was to lower the frequency and status of the Eucharist and heighten the value of preaching. This even led to reconfiguring sanctuaries – the place where people go to worship God. Many of these changes were inspired by a desire to grant people new opportunities to meet God and to be in community with each other.

Today we are presented with a very similar task of creating worship spaces that make God more accessible to people. Sometimes those spaces are not physical places. People have friends whom they have never met in person, receive advice from reviewers who they know nothing about, and spend much of their money through plastic or virtual options rather than cash or check. Such changes implore us to rethink what ekklesia means in a world where people can worship together but never shake hands. Congregations that lean into the world of social media and online ministry are resisting the notion that brick-and-mortar is the only way to gather God’s people. The next Great Awakening could happen on Facebook. A new Pentecost may break out on a podcast. Instead of 3,000 people hearing one message in one place at one time, there could be 3,000 people hearing one message in 3,000 places at 3,000 times.

Children of the Divine

The third sort of communities resist in matters of theology. These are not primarily concerned with previously contentious debates around grace, faith, and Scripture. Instead, these are Pentecostal communities that focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in worship and lifestyle.

This is not to say other groups do not have a healthy pneumatology but to suggest that the emphasis is not the same. The activity of the Spirit is witnessed by many of these congregations, church bodies, and denominations through ecstatic worship, speaking in tongues, and healing services. The Spirit provides a path to resisting hopeless poverty, unrelenting oppression, and dehumanizing conditions. In spite of harsh circumstances, acknowledging God’s Spirit within them is a constant reminder that they are children of the divine.

This movement has a history in the US, but it is particularly ascending today in the global South. It takes the Reformation notion of democratizing revelation to its extreme by going beyond making Scripture accessible to making the very presence of God available to all. These communities recognize  that God’s power is not monopolized by an institution but is accessible to all believers. In this way, they too continue the spirit of resistance – a protest against other forms of Protestantism that attempt to contain its fire.

Protestantisms continue to evolve and reimagine themselves. That is a gift and a curse. It is a curse for those who are comfortable with the past progress of the Reformation and consider its development to be completed. Yet it is a gift for those who reconceive how Christian communities can continue to dismantle systems of oppression both within and outside Protestantism. It is a gift for those who recognize that God is not limited to a room or building but realize that God’s omnipresence can be tuned in through Wi-Fi. It is a gift for those who believe that God’s Spirit is still blowing on God’s people to kindle their spiritual flames.

Jeremy L. Williams ’16 M.Div. is an ordained CME minister, speaker, writer, and Ph.D. candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard.

Issue Title: 
Reformation: Writing the Next Chapter
Issue Year: 
2017