Race is not a biological difference but one crafted for the purposes of colonialism.
That’s a key assertion in Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race, the latest book by Luke Powery, the dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. The book is a breath of fresh air for churches and religious institutions that no longer want to treat race as a taboo topic.
Powery calls on the Holy Spirit to help the reader talk about race. In each chapter, he proves that we need the third person of the Trinity’s aid in crossing its boundaries and, in doing so, becoming human.
Beginning with the history of dehumanization in America, Powery lays bare for the reader the effects of racialization and the inhumanity experienced by persons racialized as black.
Powery then invites the reader to think theologically about the scene described in Acts 2 and reflect on the proof that the Spirit affirms all human beings. A mark of the Spirit would then be resistance to the dehumanization of any body.
A chapter for preachers and pastors points to Jesus as a “humanizing homiletic.” This reflection continues with an invitation extended to churches to join in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
Powery is convinced that it is through the lens of Pentecost and by the light of its fire that the church can see itself as undivided no matter its differences. The language dares the reader to believe in this vision of wholeness.
Testifying to the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit, Powery asserts that we should not be limited to a denomination or a religious tradition. The racial contract must be burned up if we plan to live in community, he says.
It is the experience at Pentecost that demonstrates what it looks like when we enter each other’s worlds, speaking our neighbor’s language and sharing in the experience of the Divine — rather than fighting over it.
Race is a source of human division and the rationale for the mistreatment of African Americans and Indigenous peoples, which led to their “unbecoming” as human beings. This is more than enough reason for congregations to draw the line.
But the church has also been “raced,” and it is well past time for Powery’s informed reflection on the church’s image.
“[Dr. King] was killed in one sense because [hu]mankind is not quite human yet. May he live because all of us in America are closer to becoming human than ever before.” Mystic and theologian Howard Thurman delivered these words during his eulogy for the murdered civil rights leader. They serve as Powery’s inspiration for the book.
Powery argues that racialization is dehumanizing, and a racialized reality is not safe for everybody. “By racialization some human beings are made not to belong. They are raced by a lust for power and control rather than affirmed as human and holy by the Spirit’s breath,” writes Powery.
The social construction of race was not built with everyone in mind. Consequently, its categories will never provide room for everyone to belong, which is why the Holy Spirit must be central to consensus and community-building conversations.
You cannot talk about race without discussing the dehumanizing violence that goes along with it. That is the purpose of marginalization and othering.
Race is not about seeing human beings as a colorful mosaic but about power-grabbing while others are stuck pointing out our differences.
This book doesn’t waste time arguing about whether racism exists. Powery also doesn’t mince words when it comes to colorblindness.
Instead, “this book is geared toward the church and is an attempt to lure the church out of indifference, into meaningful engagement and hopeful opportunities in relation to raced relations, systems and structures,” he says.
A work in progress, we are becoming human. Powery has certainly turned up the heat with his latest project, challenging a “raced” church to reject the dehumanization of racialization and embrace its Pentecost identity as multinational and multilingual.
Thus, this chatty church then talks over race.