In this Episode
“…people are not speaking in the tongues of angels. They are speaking each other’s languages. So what you just said is that ‘the other is in me.’ And that’s what the Spirit does.” Lisa Sharon Harper
“But what we have here is the affirmation of diversity. And what I love is the embrace of the spirit of difference, right? It’s an affirmation, a blessing by the Holy Spirit on those. And if we’re thinking historically on black and brown people: historically, the Spirit comes upon those that have been deemed ugly to say, “No, you’re beautiful.” Dr. Powery
“So when God came to show God’s love for us, God performed an incarnate sermon in Jesus Christ.” Dr. Powery
On this episode, we are joined by Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He is also the author of the new and celebrated book, Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race.
We invited Dr. Powery to speak with us today, because we have been on a decolonizing journey this year. And the wisdom Dr. Powery drops in his book, Becoming Human, can help us on this journey.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet to Lisa @LisaSHarper or to Freedom Road at @FREEDOMROADUS. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to Freeom Road and The Truth Is… And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
For a behind-the-front-lines conversation be sure you are subscribed to our Substack or are a Patron
Other Works Referenced:
Sylvia Wynter’s work, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being”
Harper: [00:00:00] Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road Podcast.
Each month we speak with national faith leaders, advocates, and activists to have the kinds of conversations we normally have on the front lines. It’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces, and you are listening in. And this month we are joined by Reverend Dr. Luke A. Powery. He is the dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School.
He’s also the author of the new and celebrated book, Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric [00:01:00] of Race. Now I invited Dr. Powery to speak with us today because we have been on our own decolonizing journey this year, and the wisdom of Dr. Powery that he drops in this book becoming Human. Well, this can help us on our journey.
So we’d love to hear your thoughts. You know, tweet or Insta me @lisasharper or to Freedom Road @freedomroad.us, and keep sharing the podcast with your friends, free people. I’m serious. This really does make a difference. We have been growing. We have people more, more people downloading. I’m hearing from people all over.
I mean, literally I go places and you’re like, yeah, I listen to your, your podcast. And I’m like, really? And they’re like, yes. And thank you for that last one. So thank you for listening. Seriously, you do not have to spend an hour of your time each month to listen to our, our conversations, but you are, and so we are grateful.
Now, let’s jump in. Okay, so Dr. Powery. First thing I [00:02:00] want I wanna ask is, can you tell us a little bit about your faith journey? We like to start there on Freedom Road, just to have a sense of the person as a person. Right? How did you come to serve as Dean of Duke Chapel? That’s kind of a large jump. I know.
How did you find Jesus? And then how did you come to serve as Dean? Maybe you can kind of link those for us.
Powery: Sure. Thank you so much for, for having me on here. Yeah. It’s a great privilege to be in conversation with you, man. How much time do you have, ?
Harper: About an hour?
Powery: Yeah. In, in short. I’m the fifth child, uh, and the last one of the Reverend W Byron Powery and Emma Powery, and so I’m a PK and, uh, which means problem kid , but party kid, but a pastor’s kid.
So I, I grew up in the church and my denominations have [00:03:00] varied. It’s been a very ecumenical experience. My father came out of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. When he worked for the American Bible Society in New York City back in the sixties.
Uh, into the seventies for 16 years. Uh, so I was born in New York. , um, he was very ecumenical, um, in his ministry. Baptist churches, Lutheran Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and also, I would say, you know, knowing New York City, it was very cosmopolitan. So then when I, we were, when I was small, six years old, we moved to South Florida to Miami, Florida.
Harper: Oh, interesting.
Powery: Cosmopolitan City and my father. at the time ended up, you know, doing his own business on the side. Hmm. But then he was connected to various social outreach programs, the homeless, you know, feeding those who were hungry [00:04:00] and, and eating and that kind of thing. But we were connected to at the time, um, a Church of God, which was out of the Holiness Pentecostal tradition.
So there’s a strong thread in the family history: Wesleyan Holiness Pentecostal. I’m ordained Baptist out of a church out of Trenton, New Jersey, Progressive National Baptist, which was Dr. King’s, you know, ended up being the denomination he became a part of and spun out of the National Baptist.
But I would say that upbringing was key for me, meaning. Music was important. A very musical family. Faith was important, education was important, and, and kind of ecumenicalism, you know, ecumenism across different denominational traditions because what was key: my father did a lot of ministry in Black Baptist churches in South Florida, and when I went to undergrad, California, it was a lot of non-denominational [00:05:00] experiences.
The Presbyterian Seminary ended up teaching. Presbyterian USA. Served a church. So after I was ordained, I ended up serving an English-speaking congregation in Zurich, Switzerland, the International Protestant Church of Zurich. So again, this kind of denominational, geographical cross-cultural, crossing borders has been my sense of calling.
Harper: And so can I ask you Yes. What, like, do you, what is the ethnic heritage of your family? Do you know that? Because, you know, I’ve done a lot of family research and I tend to think that part of our, our calls come from our families, like our fam. If, like for example, in my family, you just have a lot of different kind of people.
And you’ve got white folk and black folk and Native American folk and you know. And so [00:06:00] because of that, I actually think that’s part of what makes what God brought all together to make me a bridge builder, right? So how did you get this ecumenical call?
Powery: Yeah, I mean, most definitely. Um, my father is from the Cayman Islands.
Both are my parents. Were immigrant.
Harper: Oh, wow.
Powery: I, I was born in New York. My, my mother is from Jamaica. My dad’s from the Cayman Island. So that whole, the Caribbean, the West Indies, as they would say. Right. Yeah. And yeah, long history, I mean, of all kinds of, which is linked to colonialism, , and all of that, right?
Harper: That’s right.
Powery: That’s playing out in the bloodline even. . And so, you know, there’s the saying in Jamaica is “out of one: many people. Out of one many people.”
Harper: That’s that. That’s actually really deep. Yeah. So, huh.
Powery: There is this [00:07:00] sense of, because what you have there as an example and in other parts of the, the world, but you know, you have, you know what they would say, they would say Chinese, Jamaica.
You have what they would say, Indian Jamaicans, I mean people, right. All of these different complexions and ethnic influences. Spanish, German, you know, all of that mix, um, because of the history of colonialism, shapes what people look like. And also I would say, you know, the mentality. I mean, Bob Marley was right: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,”is so true in a lot of ways. But that’s sort of, my parents came in the sixties to, to New York.
Harper: Okay, so, you know, so this makes sense to me because, you know, they are both immigrants. So they actually have the ability, and they don’t have that, um, that African American history in America, so that they were, they were blocked into one part of the [00:08:00] church.
So they’re actually able in some interesting way to kind of move more fluidly through Wesleyan. White Wesleyan Church is this kind of deep, and then the Pentecostal tradition, which is both black and white, and then into the progressive or the Baptist. That, that’s just really interesting.
Powery: Oh, yeah. No, I, I think that that experience and you are right.
You know, you’re right. Our lives play out. Our bloodline plays out through our lives. Right? You can’t escape where you come from in so many ways. And that’s the good and the bad, maybe, right? Um, and that, that has been so my view of the church and the journey, which is why I came to Duke, because the University Chapel is interdenominational from the beginning.
It might be high church and have all the, the Divinity school is Methodist, but the chapel is [00:09:00] interdenominational and so it, it, and, and that was the draw for me. Because I recognized that as a key part of my own calling is to cross the borders because there’s something beautiful about that. It says something about the breath and the beauty of God and who God is.
Right. It’s not just monochrome. Right. It’s polychromatic. And, and, and I think that’s the, the beauty. We get a sense. That’s why my work on thinking about the spirit is so critical and Pentecost because multiplicity is the gift of God. Hmm.
Harper: Okay. All right. So what a great segue into Becoming Human. Okay. So we’re gonna talk about this book because this book is so rich and you’re, we’re gonna need the whole rest of the time to dive into it. Um, one of the descriptions that I read about Becoming Human, it begins [00:10:00] The dominant story told in our society about race has many components, but two, stand out. One: Racial difference is an essential characteristic, right? So fully determining individual and group identity. And so that others would actually add to that. If they’re coming from a faith perspective, it is from God, right? So race is from God. And then two, um, that racial difference means that some bodies are just simply less human than others and I, I just really wanna hear you talk. How have you experienced either of these dominant stories up close and personal?
Powery: Oh, yeah. I mean, I could go into a whole lot of things, but let me, lemme just stay, which story will I choose?
Harper: Right, right. Yeah.
Powery: But let me, let me give you a story that’s not even in the. But it’s in, it’s, it’s [00:11:00] in another story. And I shared it for the first time publicly, recently, locally here in a session about Becoming Human, actually.
Okay. And it was local, about 50 people, local church setting. And it’s, when I first, early on in my time here in Durham, North Carolina, there was a, a very, uh, elderly man who was. The father of someone who was connected to the congregation here at Duke Chapel, he was, you know, in a wheelchair. He lived in a senior community here, and he was an alum of Princeton Seminary many years ago, like from the thirties.
And so, and then obviously he loved Duke and, and that kind of thing. And so I had taught at Princeton Seminary before coming here. So there were all these connections. So one day I was new to the area and I thought, let me go do a pastoral visit basically, and have lunch with him in his community. And [00:12:00] while we were eating, I was eating, he, he asked me, he started with:
Do you, because my undergrad was at Stanford University in California, and he said, um, “Do you think you got into Stanford because of your color?” That’s how he started, just out of the blue. I mean, he had a red file and out of the blue. and what, you know, I, I was eating, I was thinking, is this man saying this,
Harper: Like the, the, the fork is in the food.
Powery: You know what I mean?
Harper: You don’t know whether to keep going or to stop and drop it and run.
Powery: Thank God my hand was on a fork. So then he says, um, after he asked that question, he asks, he says, what were your SAT scores? Ah, I didn’t answer him, but I was just, I just kept on eating and then he went quickly to, you probably wouldn’t get in today.
Probably wouldn’t get in today. [00:13:00] Wouldn’t get in today.
Harper: What to Stanford?
Powery: Yes. That’s how, so here I am. Let, I mean, you paint the picture right here. I am the first black dean of the chapel. At Duke University, the sixth in line, there’s been six of us. And all these degrees, right? The pedigree and all of this stuff.
It doesn’t matter. There’s, there’s a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion of blackness. Doesn’t matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done, how many degrees. and, that kind of interrogation, hyper interrogation of blackness was really my, you know, this is just an example of my early time here.
Harper: Like your baptism into Duke.
Powery: Baptism into Duke and the South. I mean, it was my, this has been my first time really [00:14:00] living in the so-called South. Because South Florida is not the South . My is .
Harper: North Florida is, but not South Florida.
Powery: Right, exactly. Exactly. And so this idea of what I try to use in the book a lot the term racialization, this kind of racialized mentality and reality.
It was a clear example, right, that I was suspect because of the way I looked. And you know, I tell a story in the book of my daughter, this is also early on, she was, would’ve been 12 at the time. She’s now almost 21. So pray for me.
Harper: I will pray.
Powery: We, and it was a special. because Dr. Raphael Warnock was here to preach.
He was then, he wasn’t the senator, um, right at the time at [00:15:00] Ebenezer. And he came to preach, but also a portion of his choir came. Tony McNeil was their director of music at the time, and Tony brought, and he’s from North Carolina. It was awesome. It was a great service. But what I learned after that service, which which was really disturbing and really propelled me forward after I made it public over time, because I sat with it, you know, you sit with these stories.
Harper: Yes, that’s right.
Powery: And these experiences. And so what happened was my daughter, during the service, I learned this afterwards, my daughter, during the service leaned over to her mother, my wife at some point, and asked, is daddy going to get fired? 12 year old girl, my daughter leaned over to my wife and asked her if I was gonna get fired. Because you had brought Raphael Warnock, who wasn’t [00:16:00] even a senator at that time, just talking the truth. Raphael Warnock, but also the collective and the choir. Blackness of the choir, right? Yeah. Historically. Duke Chapel has had black ministers.
Benjamin Mays way back, Samuel Dewitt Proctor was the first. So that wasn’t really anything necessarily unusual, but I think it was the collective blackness on that day. The sounds and sights. That a 12 year old girl would take up whatever the cues might be, or the liturgical police at play.
Yeah, right. She got it. She sensed it. Is Daddy going to get fired? And for me as a dad, man, that struck me in terms of the grappling with what am I doing here? What did it make? You know, the impact, the things that are not said, or even what she felt in understanding the kind of society as [00:17:00] a whole to experience that to say that in that setting really moved, has propelled me forward, um, in a lot of the work and thinking that I’ve been doing that a child, the psyche, right, of the kind of racialized psyche and mantras and oppression and discrimination, whatever you wanna say. However you wanna say it, is at play that a young child can raise that question to her mother.
Harper: So you say in the book, the church has another story about race. Now I, I wanna say this is the church you’re talking about. Yes. So it may not be the church, it might be Jesus that has another story, It might be God that has another story, right? Like, maybe not the church so much, but so what is this other story that you re.
Powery: Yeah, I think you’re [00:18:00] right because it’s, it’s the sense that, you know, the when you’re following Jesus, you might have to resist the church.
Powery: Right. So we’re not following the church, we’re following Jesus. And that might put us in tension with the church sometimes. So I’m totally in, in agreement, but for me it’s really about the story in the book. I really draw on the day of Pentecost that we see in Acts chapter two, and that story has to do with multiplicity of tongues, of culture, of expression is a sign of the beauty of God. And Pentecost opens up a different kind of conversation. It is the embrace in the book.
I talk a lot about blackness in the historical chapter early on, and a little bit of this [00:19:00] colonization and colonialism and all of that, that history of slavery and how the church is intertwined in all of that, right? But it’s, this other story is a story, I guess, through the lens of Pentecost.
It’s another way of being in the world of multiple tongues and, and that’s the argument that we need to, in the church, need to find a new tongue, a new language for speaking about race. Because if we only say, that’s why I try to use in the book “racialization” over and over because it’s something that’s done to people.
It’s not as if, so race. Tony Morrison would say there’s the human race. She’s trying to, in her, um, Norton lectures in her book that became the book, the Origin of Others say, I’m trying, she says to “defang racism” and, and this race as a social construct. So it’s socially real, but not necessarily biologically.[00:20:00]
And so I’m trying to make a, a kind of theological turn, a pneumatological turn in particular because a lot of the works that have been have come out. Don’t have the spirit emphasis that I do. So I’m trying to foreground pneumatology in this conversation.
Harper: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road Podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
So now you talk about the raced world that we live in, and you just got finished talking a little bit about the reality that you do actually draw this very clear, clear line, um, between humanity and the racialized world. So I’m just wondering, I wanna give you a little bit of time to break that down for us.
What does this raced world look like and how [00:21:00] did it happen?
Powery: Well, I mean, we have a, a history of, I mean, colonialism, right? That is, and you know better than me in your work, that it was really about power and control, I would say. That is, that is, was baptized by Christianity, religious expression.
Right? It was about domination and economics and so a kind of racialized hierarchy is created, even presented in such a way that was presented as being grounded in science and biology as a way to make the case of this racialized hierarchy and the kind of European white ideals are the top.
Right? And so, and at the very bottom is blackness [00:22:00] right? Black people. So therefore, if this is kind of God-ordained hierarchy, therefore those that are deemed the lightest, the whitest, et cetera, are the brightest, are the most powerful, are the, are the wealthiest should be at least, right? Should be if it’s God-ordained.
Harper: And I think what wouldn’t you say are the most human?
Powery: The most human, exactly. Mm-hmm. Exact. That, that is the, the standard of humanity.
Harper: Yeah. You know, I, I say that because I, I’ve been reading, I’ve been kind of beginning to dive into Sylvia Wynter’s work, um, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being”, and that was referred to me, recommended to me by Dr. Reggie Williams, um, who is doing a lot of work on this right now. And I’ve been really blown away by the way that the depth of her thinking on, on what [00:23:00] created this, even this thinking, this, this thought we have called
“human,” like this idea of what human means. Now, what she does, which I, I don’t do, she, what she does is she places it inside the creation of this construct called “human” inside of the enlightenment period.
And, but by doing that, she’s actually, of course centering this human concept in Europe, um, and in what was happening in Europe at the time. And what I tend to do, not tend to, what I’ve learned to do as I’ve done my own research, is to go all the way back to Rome, actually, that it actually starts with Plato and then especially get, gets torqued up with, um, with Aristotle.
And then you, there’s a lot in between there, but it helps me to jump forward to Pope Nicholas the fifth. Right. So, I’m wondering like, I guess, what is this, the genealogy of humanity or the, the timeline of the development of this concept? And I think it’s [00:24:00] just really fascinating that what you do in your book is you call in the Holy Spirit, hand say “Holy Spirit, would you please speak to this?”
Like, you just, like, you’re like, look, you know, the, the scientists say this, and, and the philosophers said this, and we just need, we need some Holy Spirit to speak into what does it mean to be human? And then that takes you to Pentecost, like you were saying. So I’m wondering, you know, what are some of the main lessons that you gleaned as you were working out The Pentecost?
And what it means to be human.
Powery: Yeah. I mean, one of them is the gift of breath. Right? In the sound. I mean, we see that at the beginning of creation, even in Genesis, but here it’s the sound of a rushing mighty wind. Right? Ruach or pneuma? The the sound came, right? So [00:25:00] breath. Wind is a gift.
It’s the grand equalizer across human, the human spectrum, so to speak. None, none of us are, we’re stewards of breath. We’re not owners of breath. So it’s, it’s coming to a, a, even those we disagree with those who look different than us. Right. We all have the breath of God, you know. Right? The John Wesley would call it prevenient grace for any that, even the heathens he would say.
And in our time that there’s a sense of, I think, it’s a calling to honor the other human being because of divine breath is in all of us, regardless of who we are. That’s one gift. The other is this interesting gift and what I would call the gift cuz it is a gift again: the power to speak and understand cause [00:26:00] often in the Pentecostal count, the gift of speech because of glossolalia: the gift of tongues and all of that is emphasized and that’s important because that’s once a gift. But what’s interesting is, what’s also there, is these folks who are listening in and saying, wait a minute, how is it that we are hearing them in our own native language?
Harper: Yes. Mm-hmm.
Powery: So it’s, there’s a gift of understanding as well. And what’s interesting, those that are speaking are speaking a foreign. The other is inside my tongue is inside of me. It’s, right?
Harper: That is so freaky. Yeah. Okay, so wait, let’s just break that down cuz you said that really poetically And for people who may not be familiar with the text, I mean I think this is really important to understand like, you know how people say that, you know when tongues, you might have heard of like the gift of tongues, if you ever heard [00:27:00] Pentecostalism is like, you’re not a Christian unless you have the gift of tongues.
That was one of those beliefs that got passed around, I don’t know, eighties or something. At least that’s when I came across it. But actually here in the text, in Acts, um, one what your or Acts two, what you’re seeing is you’re seeing that the people, the tongues are fire, you know, are resting on people’s heads.
And as it does, people are not speaking in the tongues of angels. They are speaking each other’s languages. So what you just said that the other is in me. That’s so deep. And that’s what the spirit does. Oh my God. What? Jesus. I never really thought of it that way. That’s so deep!
Powery: But there’s this sense that there’s a kind of, how do we come to understand one another?
How do we speak each other’s language in some sense? Right? In a real [00:28:00] sense, how do we get on the common, kind of, common tongue? See, this is the other thing. There’s the affirmation of diversity because historically it was like a, this is what counts as real theology or alternative, right? Or alternatives.
But what we have here is that the affirmation of diversity and, and what I love is the embrace of the spirit of difference, right? It’s an affirmation, a blessing by the Holy Spirit on those. And if we’re thinking historically on black and brown people, uh, historically the Spirit comes upon those that have been deemed ugly to say, “No, you’re beautiful. You speak in the spirit language. You, you, you speak. I’m, I feel you because you’re beautiful. I use you, I speak through you.” So it’s deeply affirmative. And [00:29:00] then what we have, a kind of a center. God is the center. This is the other interesting thing to me. Is that you have a God-centered community because they’re all speaking different languages, but it says that they were all speaking of God’s deeds of power.
Harper: Wow. Wow.
Powery: Now this is the interesting move is because we’re not in.. It’s an interesting time to plop this in our culture. Mm-hmm. and in church often, I understand self-affirmation. I understand self-assertion, especially when you’ve been demonized, right? Ostracized. But the challenge in this text is really about, I’m not even proclaiming myself.
Powery: I’m proclaiming God. God is the center, is central in this conversation about racialization. God has to be center, you know, [00:30:00] and, and so the spirit both does both what I call in the book, “A turn to the human,” meaning our particularity, there’s an em embrace. It’s not an erasure, right, of our humanity.
Right? Turns us to humanity and the affirmation in the particularity of tongues culture, but it’s also a turn to God. And sometimes God gets left out and we’re only talking about ourselves and the spirit in many ways is saying, here I am, I’m in you. Breathing through you, in you and, and you know, hello!
Harper: And you know what I love the most about, honestly, I wanted you to weave that back in, is that at the center is God. And we are not even speaking our own language. So it’s not, it’s like, it’s like doubly, it’s not about, It’s like we’re, we’re, we’re centering the other. Even in the language that we’re [00:31:00] speaking, isn’t that deep?
That is just, I’m serious. I’m kind of, I’m kind of parked there cause it’s the first time ever really considered that and that’s really deep. You said two things that have kind of been deep for me in the last… you’ve said many deep things, but these two kind of made me stop and, and think one of them is that, that you just said that God, that the other is in us and, and the decentering of the self, the centering of God and the other.
You know, I really, um, would add because of what you said. And then, you know, just to hearken back to the saying in, uh, in the Caribbean, I believe it’s Jamaica, you said? That out of one many,
Powery: Out of the many one the, it’s one of the, what? I would have to look it up real quick. Out of many one? One or out of one many? Either. Either one. One of those.
Harper: E pluribus unum is our American saying, which is out of many one. Was that their saying as well? [00:32:00] That’s what I’m saying, yes. Okay. Okay.
Powery: And I might, I might have flipped it to say, out on the, , but it’s, I’m out of many one. Out of many one. I get it. Okay.
Harper: Okay. So that makes a lot of sense too. Yeah. So, so this, this question of diversity, you talk about it as particularity in the book, right? So the desired particularity of humanity. I, I, I wa I wanna, um, interact with you over this thought that I had once when I was, I did a deep dive on Acts two, inductively and manuscript style. So I had all these like, you know, lines going from this to that and repeated words and going back and seeing what’s this word mean? And, and I saw for the very first time two things. And you mentioned one of them as you were starting to talk about the spirit and the breath, um, that pneuma, that it’s just like ruach, which is happening on Genesis one and Genesis one, very first page of the entire Bible.
And it struck me that what’s happening in Acts two is like a [00:33:00] do-over of Genesis one, it’s a recreation. It’s a new act of creation. So when Paul talks about, when Paul says you are a new act of creation, what he is really doing is he’s describing what happened in Acts two. That’s what this is. This is a new act of creation because you see in Acts two, a lot of the, a lot of the, um, references go right back to Genesis one and actually in Genesis two.
And so if you see that, then the breadth of God that comes in Genesis one is the same as the breath of God that comes in Acts two.
Powery: Yes. Yes. And in many ways, one could say, and I do say it at one point, it’s a, in thinking about the, it’s a kind of, the spirit is a rehumanizing spirit.
Powery: Right? Because racialization is dehumanizing spirit, [00:34:00] but the Holy Spirit is a rehumanizing spirit, and that’s, it’s reclaiming that through this lens of Pentecost. You’re, you’re exactly right. Right? I mean, some would say it’s the church’s charter, right? This is who the church was, and it’s called to be in the mo.
You see the past, what you’re pointing to, but you see the present and the future all at Pentecost. It points us to who we should be become. Right? And who were becoming as a people, as a church.
Harper: What’s the, what’s the relationship of colonization to Pentecost? Because this is one last thing that I saw that just literally blew my mind and I wanna hear your thoughts on this as well, that all you know, um, the, the writer of Acts, Luke, your namesake, hello, great, right? Right. The writer of Acts goes through great pains to tell us [00:35:00] all the people groups that were there, right? who were speaking each other’s languages. And as I looked up all these people groups, one thing really struck me that they are all colonized people.
They are all, all of these people groups are all under the thumb of Rome at the time. And then I said, okay, well what does language have to do with Rome and, and the public square, cuz it’s important. They went out into the public square and spoke all of these languages. They didn’t just do it up in the upper room, it was out in front of everybody.
And so what’s that? Well, I don’t know if this was law or if it was custom, but it was definitely custom, if not law. But basically in the Roman Empire, there was only one language that was supposed to be spoken out in the open. It was the trade language of Greek. And so if people were not speaking Greek, they were actually rebelling against the [00:36:00] empire.
They were, their tongues, through the power of the Spirit, the very first act of the Holy Spirit on Earth was to decolonize tongues. To decolonize the voices.
Powery: Yeah. Yeah.
Harper: Right. The languages the, the communication of colonized people. What do you think of that?
Powery: Oh, wow. Yes. I mean, Willie Jennings in his commentary on Acts calls it, it’s a, it’s a revolution that happens at Pentecost. It’s what’s what you’re pointing to without a doubt. Right? That’s this whole idea. Talk about the loosening of tongues. These tongues that are loosed, it’s a kind of unlearning, it’s a, it’s a liberating, it’s a surplus beyond this one tongue or this one language of the empire.
It’s breaking that open, right? [00:37:00] into something new and something more beautiful, right? Something more holy actually. So without a doubt, what you see is, yet in some ways, one might see, you see it as a expression or act of redemption, it’s also act of resistance to the empire.
Harper: Yes, yes.
Powery: You know, and the spirit is the one who’s resisting through human bodies and tongues and cultures and languages in the face of empire.
That’s the, I mean, that’s the gift. That’s the real gift.
Powery: Power! The dunamis in that, in Acts one, the dynamite, that’s where we get the word dynamite. It’s ex, it breaks the empire open for something new.
Powery: It’s dynamite. It, it’s explosive. . And what I love at Pentecost is you, you see it, you, you hear Peter [00:38:00] talking about in others, this kind of to the ends of the earth, you’re gonna be my witnesses.
We hear earlier act to the ends of the earth. Judea another part, right? Yeah. That is cause you can’t confine the spirit to one way.
Harper: You can’t!
Powery: One song, one denomination, one ethnic group. No, the spirit’s too broad and big and beautiful. So to the ends of the earth. Every tongue, every nation and every language, every tribe.
I mean, that’s.
Harper: Yes. And isn’t that like the Genesis one call to multiply and fill the earth? It’s almost like I’m just having all kind of synapses snapping over here. I wish any people could see us, but I mean, I’m like, I’m like really ready to bust because it’s almost like on Genesis one you have that original or you know, creation epic Hebrew poem and then you get God in the muck and Genesis two and you get the fall and, and the break of all the relatedness and relationships on earth and then [00:39:00] the snowball of brokenness, of broken relationship snowballs through time. And we see Genesis four and Genesis 12 and 11 and, you know, and, and, and then war enters the picture in Genesis 14 and that was the first time we have a mention of, or the, the you maybe see colonization in its text. Um, one king trying to exact his will over another smaller king or several smaller kings.
And it seems like Acts two: It’s like after all this time has gone by and the people, you know, the Israel, the, the Jewish people, the Hebrew people have now been enslaved several times. They’ve been colonized several times by several different empires. And here in Acts two, what I’m hearing you say is that the Spirit once again broke like dynamite, into the world, and said no [00:40:00] to the colonizer who wants to squash particularity.
Powery: Hmm. Yes.
Harper: To the, to the colonizer. Who said the empire who says there’s only one way to be human and that’s to be like me, right? Like that’s right. White male. Um, able bodied And all the things.
Harper: So can I ask you this and, and then we’ll, we’ll continue this conversation in our next segment. How has this changed the way you follow Jesus?
Powery: The way I follow Jesus,
Harper: I got these big questions.
Powery: Wow. You know what? It has helped me on one on one level to understand my theology, I’ll put it this way, that my theology of Jesus is not the same thing as the reality of Jesus. [00:41:00] And, and so what I mean is that Jesus is bigger than the Jesus I even imagined.
Harper: Hmm mm.
Powery: It, it’s so, so, I mean, but that’s been an unfolding in my life journey, I would say, for sure. But that Jesus is in all kinds of tongues and languages and cultures. Ones that I don’t even know of know about. They’re blessed by the Spirit, right? I mean, Jesus is not the Christ without the being anointed. So this is all Jesus works and ministers in the power of the Spirit. And so if I wanna know how the spirit works, look at the life of Jesus.
Look at what Jesus did. Look at who he was. And so for me it’s been the widening of [00:42:00] Jesus and, and feeling grateful for that because there’s also the affirmation that, oh my, even me Lord, even me, you can use my tongue, my gift.
Harper: Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe. This is the Freedom Road Podcast.
So Dr. Powery, I want to talk with you about your chapter “Toward a Human Sermon.” Can you tell us about that? Tell us about “Toward a Human Sermon?”
Powery: Yes. That chapter five is really one that’s on homiletics, which is, I define as the theological study [00:43:00] of the art of preaching. Uh, it’s what I teach mainly, um, here and, and, and have done that for a while now when people, and, and one of the things that we have seen in homiletics is you have two approaches in a lot of the literature. You either got people who are writing about race as a thing, so say preaching about race or preaching against racism as a topic, right? Another way that racialization and what has functioned is black authors, Latino authors, right? They are writing about African American preaching traditions, or Hispanic preaching X, Y, and Z, or Asian preaching traditions. It’s been racialized. And what I, this book has been about specifically as it relates to homiletics, is really about [00:44:00] not, it’s about preaching through and beyond racism and I, I draw quite a bit here and there on Howard Thurman and as someone who embodied this in his life. And so when I talk about a human form toward a human sermon form, generally when we are thinking about sermon forms in preaching if I take you into my introduction to preaching class, we’re talking about you can do a sermon. in all kinds of forms. You could do it one just by do it first person, a first person monologue.
Maybe you’re a biblical character and you speak as that person, right? That’s one way, right? You can do, you know, the typical three points end with a poem.
Powery: You can do something that, from Paul Scott Wilson, [00:45:00] the four pages of a sermon there, that’s a metaphor pages. You talk about trouble in the text, then you move to trouble in our world and analogous trouble in our world. Then you go grace in the text, grace in the world. Those are forms.
Now, what I, and that’s nice. That’s good. You know, that works, right?
Harper: Right. Yeah.
Powery: What has often been missing is to think about cause form, it’s not just on the page, whether you’re an outline preacher, you go up with no notes or you have a full manuscript. Form is also about you as a person. The word performance, I don’t mean in a negative way, but performance means form coming through.
So when God came to show God’s love for us, God performed an incarnate sermon in Jesus Christ. We, the form coming through, the [00:46:00] form of God, coming through Jesus, right? But the pneumatology, because of the emphasis on tongues, embodiment body, right? Multiplicity.
Harper: Wait, so you say pneumatology, you mean the study of the spirit?
Powery: Study of the spirit, yeah. Mm-hmm. , because it moves in that direction that we have to take the human body more seriously and embrace that. I think we are getting better in homiletics, definitely, um, have done taking the body more seriously. There’s other people who have written about the body and all of that, but sometimes it’s just talked about in a metaphoric way and not literal. And so what I mean by the human form is, what I’m suggesting is what does it mean when we hear in Philippians that when God became a human, took on human form, he became a particular form, the [00:47:00] form of a slave.
Harper: Yeah. Now
Powery: What does that mean for Christian preaching? If the Christ came, took on the human form of a slave? What does that mean for our human form?
Harper: That’s right, right. I just got chills. I mean, literally
Powery: I have attention to our human form. I mean, St. Augustine and what’s considered in, in the book on Christian doctrine is considered to be one of the early, even early textbooks. Fourth century talks about how your life, cuz this is where I’m going, your life can be an eloquent speech.
So what I think in the preaching classrooms, it’s more than just your sermon. That’s easy. The hardest sermon you’ll ever preach is the one you preach with your life. Now we’re talking about the human form. What form does your life take? What sermon does your [00:48:00] life preach? How is the spirit blowing in you and through you for the life of the world?
Now let’s talk about preaching.
Harper: Wow. And, and now let’s talk about decolonization , because Right, because you can’t talk about decolonization without being decolonized.
Harper: Right. Because you have to live the sermon.
Powery: You have to live it. And so paying attention to formation in human form and, and, and, and let’s not, let’s not get this twisted because a lot of seminaries.
Divinity schools are talking about spiritual formation, but Okay. Formed into what And how do we assure that we are not mal forming? Nobody wants to talk about mal formation.
Harper: Wow. Yes. Wait, wait. We just gotta sit for a minute. Formed into what? Formed into [00:49:00] what? So if you are not doing the, the work of decolonization, if you are not doing the work of particularization, of yourself in relationship to the whole rest of the world and relationship to all, if you do, and if you are not bringing the other into yourself, then in other words, embodying the sermon.
Hello? Doing the sermon, then what are you forming into? I love that. Are you forming into, and like with the picture I get in my head, are you forming into that enlightenment period, Platonic, Aristotelian vision of the human?
Powery: Right. Right. And, and how do we, I mean, for me, This kind of formation into the human.
Harper: I’m about, I’m about to break out in tongues right here. . . [00:50:00] Oh my Lord. I’m sorry. Keep going. Keep going.
Powery: But I mean, when we talk about the human form, you know, we have to, to me, at least in my own theological senses, think about the form of Jesus and the, and draw the implications for that because the spirit is forming us in hopefully, right, in theory at least into the, the likeness of Christ, the image of Jesus. And what I do in the book is really draw on Thurman, who really focused on the human Jesus in Jesus and the disinherited. He doesn’t deny the metaphysical. He even says that, you know, the more focus on the divine Jesus divinity, but that’s been part of the problem.
We can be so divine, we lose our humanity, right? Divinity has been the conquer. Has been the colonizer. Right? We only focused on the divinity of Christ [00:51:00] and we forget the humanity of Jesus.
Harper: Oh my God. So wait. Yes. How do you come back on that? Divinity? Is the conqueror, are you saying like, so I, I kind of get it and then there’s another part of me that goes, Ooh, you know, like, I just just got caught there. Right? So I kind of get it, as in when you look at the pictures of imperial, like imperial pageantry, uh, or even, I mean, my goodness, even take a look at the coronation, that’s gonna be coming up pretty soon for Prince Charles, right? So the third, now King Charles the third, there is an actual belief that now he, he is one with the divine in some weird way. Right? So the divinity is the conqueror in that way? Is that kind of what you’re, are you kind of thinking about some poetically.
Powery: That’s, yeah. I mean, that’s how it plays out, [00:52:00] right? I mean, I think that’s what the history of colonialism has been.
And when I say divine, that’s the power, right? Divinity, I’m only, and it’s detached from the earth. It’s detached from people on the ground, really, and human and suffering and the oppressed. Cause you can wipe out the humanity when all you’re doing is emphasizing the divinity, the humanity doesn’t really mean.
So when you start talking about salvation, we’re gonna focus on the divine, the divinity, so the humanity doesn’t really matter. Right? Wow. This is the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy. Because how do you, you, you striving to be immortal? Trying to be more spiritual. I have to escape the earth, but that’s the Christian tradition.
That’s not pneumatology.
Harper: My brain is twisting over here in a very good way. In a very good way. [00:53:00]
Powery: We’re not escaping our embodiment, our human flesh, our bodies, no, the what do we see? We see God becoming incarnate, becoming in flesh. That’s the call as Christians to become more embodied, more in fleshed, more in touched with Jesus on the earth, because to be more spiritual, God helped me become more incarnate.
It’s not to become more spiritual. I have to escape the earth, and going to the pie in the sky, in heaven, in the sweet by and by. No. God help me to be in touch with my neighbors on the earth. Help me to be fully present and people when they preach often will say. Sometimes you’ll hear them pray before they pray.
Lord, move me out the way. No, God uses us. God, it. The prayer should be, God, help me be fully present in this moment. Help me to be fully embodied and incarnate in this moment. And what we realize is that the work of [00:54:00] the Spirit is incarnation. That’s the movement, the incarnation, the spirit is the agent of incarnation.
And so it’s the enfleshment. Of life. It is the enfleshment of the word. It is the call to follow the human Jesus that becomes critical and to be in touch and proximate to pain. Those who are suffering, those who are in prison. That’s the work of the spirit. How do we become to get to realize, back to Genesis, that we are all dust and to dust, we will return. Right? We are breath and dust. The breath and dust of God. And so perhaps if we embrace what I call in the, in the book, the Ethics of Dust, we might be able to make some progress. We might be able to see some more justice in the world, right? To be able to experience the truth of God in our midst.
If we [00:55:00] recognize you’re dust and I’m dust. There’s a sense of humility. That’s what it means to be human humus in Latin from the earth. That’s where we’re all from. And so it’s connected to the land and connected to our brothers and sisters across time, across cultures, across place. But it’s the gift. It’s this expansive vision.
That’s what happens when you engage the spirit. It’s not just a shout in a church. What’s the shout all about? If you’re not helping out in the streets and helping our community? I mean, what, what, what’s going on? If we’re not pairing and tending to the neighbor in need, those who are struggling with mental illness.
And so the spirit helps us become more human, more in touch with the. More in touch with dust and breath and water and wind. That’s where the spirit has been blowing me. That’s [00:56:00] the call of of God on, on our lives and on the, on the life of the church, the real church. If you’re gonna follow Jesus, look, I’m following the human Jesus, because what I’ve discovered is that people often are turned off from the church, the institutional church.
Mm-hmm. , they are often not turned off by Jesus. Mm mm And, and when you follow, when you blow, the wind of the spirit will blow you in the human way of Jesus. And so that’s, that’s what this, this book is about. It’s a call for us to embrace our mortality rather than get over arguments again and again over morality, because theology is really about life and death.
It’s about our mortality. We are mortals; we are dust. And in the season of Lent, I’m reminded we, we shouldn’t need lent [00:57:00] to remind us on Ash Wednesday. We’re dust. And to dust we shall return every day of the week. We should remember that’s who we, we are, that’s who we’re called to be. And there’s something very humble about that.
Thank you for joining us today. The Freedom Road Podcast is recorded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and wherever our guests are joining us. This episode was engineered and edited by and produced by Corey Nathan of Scan Media. Freedom Road Podcast is executive produced by Freedom Road, LLC. We consult, coach, train, and design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment, and lead to common action.
You can find out more about our work at our website, freedomroad.us. Stay in the know by signing up for updates. We promise we won’t flood your inbox. We invite you to listen again. Join the conversation [00:58:00] on Freedom Road, and for our special subscribers on Patreon and Substack, we have a really, really awesome treat for you.
We’re gonna have a special conversation on those platforms with Dr. Powery, so join us there.