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The Asbury Revival?
Firstly, many Disabled, Queer, Black, and other Non-Black People of Color and marginalized identities have already underscored the oddities of a “revival” or “awakening” that excludes bodies and experiences like theirs from the physical and spiritual location of the event. Alicia Crosby Mack said on Twitter, “A mass unmasked event in a pandemic that’s racially & culturally homogenous is not a revival. …We cannot speak about an event being a revival when the most vulnerable among us are excluded & at minimum the lack of covid safety precautions render this place unsafe. The Scriptures teach that where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. If we hold that to be true, how can a revival in which this Spirit is present take place when disabled & medically vulnerable people are not free to engage without significant risk of harm? …If their Imago Dei is excluded what exactly is being revived?”
Plenty of disabled people have underscored similar issues with this hyper-located “revival” that will undoubtedly act as much as a superspreader event as anything else. So it is hard (okay, impossible) to affirm the idea that this is a true movement of the Holy Spirit when it is at best excluding oppressed people and at worst placing them at increased risk of illness and death.
Secondly, I’m moved by what Zach Hunt noted yesterday: “Why is [it] that ‘revival’ and a ‘sudden outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ are only ever used for worship services and never to describe things like fighting injustice and caring for the poor?” To me it is rather curious that the 2020 Global Uprising for Black Lives -- which began in the streets and was marked by the literal fire of the Spirit against the powers of oppression and injustice and was led by (masked) people fighting for the Life and Liberation that flows from the outpouring of the Spirit -- was never called a “revival” or an “awakening.”
Indeed, many of the very same voices now heard lauding and making pilgrimage to the “Asbury Revival” only ever called the 2020 Uprisings “riots.” And, perhaps more importantly, there is a flaming direct thread from that Awakening, the one that happened in the streets among all those fighting for Black Life and Dignity, to the current “anti-wokeism” among conservative white nationalist politicians and their evangelical Christian comrades cheering for Asbury. The 2020 Awakening, which was not the kind of "religious festival" God despises but actively and directly called for "justice to roll down like a mighty river" was condemned by those praising what's going down in Kentucky, so I am skeptical of their ability to discern the difference between a true Awakening of the Spirit and a Mass Euphoria Event.
And on that latter bit -- the Mass Euphoria produced by these worship events -- I can, despite my own triggers directly related thereto, speak with some authority. I was, after all, born and brought up in evangelicalism, and I participated in said events from the time I was born until I lost God in 2016. (Which is a story better saved for a different time but was also, notably, a direct result of my performances in choreographed Mass Euphoria and being told I was “bringing the Spirit” when, in fact, I was putting on a great show according to the event producer's -- I mean, pastor's -- directions.)
I grew up in the era of Billy Graham Crusades, Carmen “concerts,” and Maranatha Weekends, of Summer Camp Recommitments and weekly church altar calls, all of which began with rock concerts masquerading as worship services whose music was specifically composed and ordered to evoke heightened emotional responses from those gathered. It is the very energy and power that sells out Hillsong Concerts and Louie Giglio Conferences, and -- more toxically -- shows up in every weekly service offered at Mega Churches across the country.
I know this because I was a worship leader at one such Mega Church, and I "led worship" at those churches and was directed by pastors to sing, raise my hands, and even weep in such a way that "audience members" (i.e. congregants) would not join me in raising praises to God (lol) but rather listen to me sing and then fill the coffers. If the weekly rock show / TED talk sermon production did what leadership intended, there might even be an altar call at the end when people, “moved by the Holy Spirit,” would come and either give or rededicate their lives to Jesus -- and to the church's budget.
Crucially, there was never any talk or expectation of Spirit Movement leading to social action, to “doing justly and showing mercy” in ways that tangibly helped or partnered with the marginalized. In all of the settings in which I learned and led, the “movement of the Spirit” only ever maintained the status quo. She never awakened people to the reality that the status quo is harmful, never revived us unto disruption. And, dear reader, that was the point. They convinced a couple entire generations that if we got some big feels at spiritual events and knew to attribute that euphoria to the Spirit, we wouldn't be inclined to disrupt the Powers and Principalities or question why the poor & oppressed remained poor & oppressed despite "God moving all around us." We wouldn't wonder why the Spirit's movement stayed in a fixed location and was, magically, always ours.
I also know first-hand that the Neo-Revival Culture which began in the 70s with the Jesus People Movement and was soon co-opted and replicated by evangelicals throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 00s (a culture which was the water I swam in until my mid-30s) cannot be divorced from the rise of the Religious Right. Both of those movements together -- evangelicalism & its political centerpieces --culminated with the ascension of Donald Trump to the US Presidency alongside White Christian Nationalism and regressive “complementarian” theologies which now dominate modern evangelical culture.
And, as Diana Butler Bass underscored at length in her discussion of the CDCs recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the Public Research Institute & Brookings report on Christian Nationalism in America, all of these theologies and ideologies-- the weekly hyper-individualistic megachurch revivalism, the ubiquity of the Hillsong [substitute Bethel, Passion, whomever, etc.) Concert revivalism, and the rise of Christian nationalism & complementarianism -- directly and critically harm vulnerable and marginalized populations.
Currently, according to the YRBS, girls and LGBTQIA+ youth in the US are “experiencing extremely high levels of mental distress, violence, and substance use” and are reporting experiences of sexual violence and battery at unprecedented rates. As Butler-Bass plainly said, “The girls are not okay.” And that not-okayness among female and LGBTQIA+ youth corresponds and interacts directly with the rise of christian white nationalism, entrenched patriarchy, and current anti-wokeism.
And I haven’t even begun to look at the ant-Blackness and entrenched whiteness both expressed and enforced in homogenous “revivals” like that at Asbury, in which locating darker-bodied worshipers becomes a game of Where’s Waldo in a sea of white! Neither have I touched on the 400+ years of institutionalized, systemic anti-Blackness that so defines both USian and Christian cultures. I leave the fullness of that conversation to Black folks, who are far better qualified, by experience and expertise, to address the absence of Liberation, Womanist, and Indigenous theologies in American Evangelical Revivalism.
What I can say -- having attended Billy Graham crusades from before I could walk, having been part of both weekly “Wednesday Night Cry Nights” and the week-long “revivals” or “worship festivals” at every place from church to fairgrounds to summer camp to youth group to concerts to college, over 35 years in ministry; and having marched, fought, and suffered the legal ramifications of my own awakening to the racial injustice around me -- is this:
There is a particular kind of whiteness, white supremacy, and anti-liberation in events like this that stoke our personal feelings of righteousness and closeness to God (as individuals) without demanding any true, liberating transformation from us as individuals, as a community, or as a culture.
I don’t know if what I experienced during the many evangelical “revival” events I participated, performed in, and produced was the Spirit’s movement or a manipulated emotional response to certain psychological triggers. I cannot trust those who led me and trained me to lead. While I do not doubt the Spirit’s ability to move within me to affirm my belovedness and belonging, it still takes effort and diligence to go deep into the Quiet, Secret places where She speaks my name in a voice, in a timbre, that only She and I know.
But I have only ever experienced the kind of inside-out transformative awakening and revival that disrupts, acts, and takes personal and professional risks, in the streets with my Black, Indigenous, Asian, Queer, and Disabled siblings as we marched and some of us rioted for all our dignity and humanity. For all the euphoric mountain-top feelings I had at evangelical events, I only ever experienced revival in the church basement where we organized food and clothing donations for people displaced from their homes during the Minneapolis Uprising; where we resupplied medics coming and going from the streets and hospitals to the church; and where we extracted people from kettled streets and gave them overnight refuge within the legal sanctuary of church walls.
I never experienced revival on missions trips or at youth group cry nights, but I did live it at George Floyd Square, that autonomous zone held down by neighbors, beautified by the community, and where worship services looked like Anishinabe and Dakota drum circles, Block Parties headlined by neighborhood artists and DJs, and by the sustained commitment to mutual aid and solidarity against powers of injustice with neighbors near and far.
In the end, it’s not that I don’t want the Spirit to move or that I am outright rejecting the Asbury Revival as such. I am, in fact, a huge believer that the Spirit is often most-potent and discernible among young people who seek Her with tireless passion and fury, and occupy spaces of power to make spiritual and cultural demands of those who hold the keys.
So I hope beyond hope that this awakening in the Asbury chapel becomes a revival of consciousness and causes disruptive and indisputable cultural transformation among evangelicals. I hope it awakens all present to the Resplendent Glory of God’s Image in Queer, Trans, Disabled, Neurodivergent, Black, Indigenous, and Womens’ bodies. I hope the Spirit of Transformation, the God who is still transfiguring in front of our own eyes, spills out of that chapel into the streets and blows New Life into the community, county, and country.
I hope and pray this is a real Revival and not just another Mass Euphoria Event. I'm just not holding my breath.
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