By Ric Hudgens
This Sunday, May 31, 2020, Christians celebrate the Day of Pentecost. It is a celebration rooted in the Hebrew “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot). Christians around the world observe it on the seventh Sunday after Easter. The Biblical origin of the sacred holiday is the Book of Acts, chapter 2, which describes the “descent of the Holy Spirit” upon the earliest church.
Pilgrims from around the Roman Empire gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast. Followers of Jesus, a man recently executed in public (but whom his followers believed was resurrected), also gathered. Acts 2 records, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
This was such a powerful experience they moved their private gathering to the public square where the ethnically and nationally diverse populace of the Roman Empire could hear. It was a coming-out declaration for the until then hidden church. It mobilized a new social and religious movement and provoked opposition from the powers, resulting in the church’s persecution and scattering.
Tragically, the remembrance of this day became interpreted in a privatized manner with little social significance. “Christianity” disembedded from the grassroots, nonpartisan regarding the poor and welcoming the sword Jesus disavowed, became a weapon of the power it had first opposed. An ally of those who had crucified Jesus.
Consequently, it is difficult for much of the modern church to grasp the connection between what is going on in Minnesota and what happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. The church has been a nostalgic defender of the status quo for so long any uprising against “the state” must be against God’s will.
On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed an audience at Stanford University with a talk entitled “The Other America.” (You can see it here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/news/50-years-ago-martin-luther-king-jr-speaks-stanford-university)
In his speech, King highlighted the need for economic and social equality and the connection between the ongoing Vietnam War and ongoing poverty: “If we spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an ill-conceived war in Vietnam and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, we can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet, right now.”
He also said: “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
King’s interpretation of riots as “the language of the unheard” has continued to resonate through the decades. “Our nation’s summers of riot are caused by our nation’s winters of delay,” he said.
I draw this connection between Pentecost and the Minnesota uprising this weekend because if we cannot see their relationship, we betray our privatized, spiritualized, racist understanding of Pentecost (and of much else).
The early Christian movements were rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus and, therefore, rooted in the Hebrew prophetic tradition from which he emerged. The religion of Jesus was never and could not be a privatized experience focused upon spiritual intimacy and personal peace.
The fruit of Pentecost in Acts 2 was the rebooting of Jesus’s mission. This is why the early church took the material form it did, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They formed small, egalitarian communities; shaped by radical generosity, sacrificial sharing, and the expansion of anticipatory politics among those oppressed by Empire.
They didn’t wait for Empire to bring them a better future but began to act directly, improvising through all the inevitable conflicts and opposition that such direct action entailed.
Jesus had articulated his mission as both a mouthpiece for God and a voice for the voiceless. I point to Matthew 25, where he had said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Aligning God’s voice with the least of these was a radical revisioning of established religion, but it was entirely consistent with the prophetic tradition.
In a nation as unequal as ours (unequal in multiple ways, including privilege, power, education, health care, judicial restraint) the Day of Pentecost remains a call to the church to take material shape around what Jesus called in the language of his day the “kingdom of heaven/God”. Such a vision cannot be confined to speaking in tongues in one’s private prayer closet. Nor can it ignore the social and racial injustice all around us. (Even the original Azusa Street Pentecostals in 1905 understood that!).
If a riot is the unheard’s voice, there must also be a recognition that they are unheard because (as Arundhati Roy reminded us), they are deliberately silenced. Deliberately silenced as the church has historically stifled the emancipatory cries of the poor, and resisted the uprising of the “kingdom” that upsets business-as-usual.
The God of the oppressed will not be silenced.