A Radical Vision of Religious and Democratic Belonging
Series: Encountering Traditions
- ISBN: 9781503631625
- Published By: Stanford University Press
- Published: June 2022
Oftentimes modern-day Pentecostalism has been associated with a charismatic and authoritarian leadership style, individualistic piety, political conservatism, and the prosperity gospel, which abets the unabashed pursuit of wealth and health. Although this association is not entirely unfounded, in Azusa Reimagined: A Radical Vision of Religious and Democratic Belonging, Keri Day seeks to correct this misconception by tracing and tapping into the origin story of the Pentecostal tradition. Part of the “Encountering Traditions” series, this book is a highly sophisticated and thought-provoking volume dedicated to a politico-theological interpretation of the 1906 Azusa Street Revival, which was led by African American preacher William J. Seymour and many others.
From the beginning, Day makes it explicit that she did not seek to write a “hagiography of Azusa” (6). Probing both the “beauty and ugliness” of her own tradition, Day takes up the task of reimagining (and refashioning) this tradition by taking a close look at a particular early Pentecostal church, the Apostolic Faith Mission. Although her work is focused on the Pentecostal tradition’s past, the tone of this volume is anything but nostalgic. She holds that Pentecostalism’s “dangerous memory” has a lot to offer as we engage in the contemporary US religious and political life. Building upon her earlier scholarship including Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis Books, 2012) and Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (Pelgrave MacMillan, 2015), Day utilizes her black feminist perspective to critically analyze the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and class, with Azusa as its focal point.
Besides the introduction, where Day articulates the book’s goal and theoretical framing, Azusa Reimagined consists of six chapters. In the first chapter Day delineates the historical and socio-economic context of Azusa, telling the stories of two 19th-century world fairs. By creating wealth as well as propagating the idea of “a cosmopolitan utopia,” world fairs functioned as “the American capitalist vision of Pentecost” (17). She also adds that this capitalist pseudo-Pentecost was deeply embedded in a white colonialism that situates the Anglo-Saxon people at the center of salvation history. After setting the historical stage, in chapter 2 Day discusses Azusa’s uneasy relationship with white evangelical orthodoxy. Day compellingly argues that Azusa should be seen as the antithesis of white evangelicalism, which was beholden to the emerging capitalist order. The Azusa Revival revolted against the economic racism at the time by endorsing slave religious practices like spirit possession and dancing, which were denigrated as “heathen” and “uncivil” even by elite blacks, to say nothing of white ministers. By highlighting Azusa members’ active participation of union protests in Los Angeles, Day further demonstrates that Azusa’s religious life fueled its adamant rejection of market orthodoxies.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to an analysis of black female leadership in the Azusa Revival. Day suggests that Seymour’s “religious leadership and visibility … come into being in and through a collective largely constituted by a community of black women preachers and pastors” (84). Examining the gender dynamic in Azusa, Day worries that what Saidiya Hartman calls “black women’s genius,” despite its subversive and countercultural character, thus far has been severely underappreciated. In chapter 4 Day turns to the “queerness” of Azusa, focusing on two different “erotic desires” produced respectively by racial capitalism and Azusa. In her account, world fairs were driven by a racial capitalism that reinforced the notion of white superiority and created a sense of belonging for white people. However, Azusa disrupted capitalist rhythms through its liturgical life, creating a new and distinct sense of intimacy and belonging.
The final two chapters are spent on the political significance of Azusa for US democratic life. In the fifth chapter, Day commends the “lawlessness” of Azusa, underlining Azusa’s deep suspicion of “American democratic institutions, especially of citizenship” (127). According to the author’s account, Azusa members saw American democracy as predicated on the exclusion, exploitation, and dispossession of blacks and many others. She argues that the defiant and lawless character of the Azusa Revival, which took a form of premillennial apocalypticism, should be understood as neither apolitical nor prepolitical but political on its own terms; it is a fundamental critique of the status quo. Day’s narrative culminates in the final chapter, in which she explicates a new democratic community exemplified by Azusa. Mainly relying upon Jacques Derrida and Karen Bray, she contends that this community, anticipating a “democracy to come,” embraced “a political moodiness about current practices of American democracy” (152).
Day is nuanced and thoughtful enough to acknowledge variegated legacies of the Azusa Revival; she considers both the potentials and limitations of Azusa even while lauding the former. Day elegantly weaves together diverse historical, philosophical, and theological literatures to vividly depict some crucial moments of the early Pentecostal movement and to reveal its egalitarian and inclusive nature. This book is also an important contribution to the ongoing theological discussion of “racial capitalism.” Taking a cue from the black radical tradition, she is at pains to demonstrate that Azusa can be interpreted as a radical critique of early modern racial capitalism. Here, I suspect the author could have grappled more with the difficult questions around the race/class relationship raised by many political theorists, but that might go beyond the scope of this monograph.
Day’s vision of apocalyptic politics embodied by “countercultural” and “prefigurative” religious communities is beautiful and powerful. It also appears to resonate with Sheldon Wolin’s “fugitive democracy” as a series of episodic, disruptive, and incomplete local events. Her theopolitical vision is ultimately a “politics of tending”; Day aims to foster and enact a different style of religious and democratic belonging here and now, which she thinks is impossible without attending to the “unredeemed.” While sympathetic to her opposition to statist logics, I nevertheless wish Day had elaborated more on non-reformist reforms and democratic accountability within, rather than outside, existing political institutions. To borrow Erik Olin Wright, “eroding” capitalism should encompass “taming” it in order to counterbalance the harms done by capitalism—especially on this side of the eschaton. This minor dissent, however, cannot depreciate Day’s achievements in Azusa Reimagined. Any student of black Pentecostalism, political theology, and racial capitalism will benefit from reading this inspiring text.
Keunwoo Kwon is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago.Keunwoo KwonDate Of Review:April 24, 2023