Flames, vapor, dreams and visions and masses crying out in many tongues. These are the central symbols of the major holiday that churches around the world celebrated the past two weekends (the Eastern and Western churches use slightly different calendars). It is a story called Pentecost and the beginning of church, as it has come to be known for Christians. I have understood Christmas and Easter through a revolutionary lens for many years, but the brilliant and bold Black-led national uprising for Black lives has illuminated the holiday of Pentecost in a whole new light for many of us.
Here is a politically aware telling of the Pentecost. A large crowd has gathered. They have recently seen the brutal, humiliating, public execution of one of their kin, a revolutionary rabbi named Jesus. They had suffered dehumanizing repression under violent rulers for centuries. As they gathered, fire arose in their midst and they called out in ways some could not understand. Some onlookers said their expression was illegitimate, that they must be drunk. But those who had endured so much scorn for so long ignored the derision and took care of each, sharing what they had. They encouraged their youth and elders to dream and share their visions.
The outsiders who scoff are the same in the Pentecost story, as they are not only on Fox News but also among white moderates and mayors and nonprofits and corporations making their waffling statements of concern. They acknowledge a problem, but in the next voice they condemn with equal vigor the fiery anger and boldness of the protests, especially the property damage. The scoffers in Pentecost and among us today say: “They make no sense — they must be drunk — they are barbaric — they are irrational — they are just inciting chaos and nonsense.”
A pastor friend in Minneapolis says, “instead of saying ‘riot,’ try out ‘uprising.’” So much is contained in the words we use and the narratives we repeat. (Religious communities know this, which is why we repeat our rituals over and over again, usually saying the same exact words and doing the same exact motions.) The story told by empires, by the ruling class, is always one that celebrates obedience, law and order. They have little to gain, in terms of money and power, by striving to hear what uprisings are saying. Since the coronavirus swept into this country just a few months ago, while most people have faced huge economic anxiety, billionaires in America have increased their wealth by almost half a trillion dollars. So why not speak in a language that is not catered for the rulers? Following the people of the Pentecost, I pray that we might continue to speak and act in ways not directed toward the scoffers and powers that be, but in ways that are wild, wondrous and meant for each other.
The reluctant leader of the uprising in the Pentecost story is Peter. As the fires sweep among them, he helps interpret what is happening by quoting from a text held sacred by his fellow Jews: Your youth shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams. May we embrace a radical re-imagination of the systems that tie society together to create something new upon the ashes of the old.
Read more of the June 10-16, 2020 issue.