This weekend, churches around the globe gathered virtually to celebrate Pentecost, that miraculous moment when tongues of fire descended on the followers of Christ and the gospel was heard in the varied languages of the world. Pentecost is the miracle that follows another miracle (the Ascension), which occurs in the aftermath of a wonder (the Resurrection).
In contrast to Christ’s disciples, we experienced Pentecost this year in the aftermath of a woe, following a trauma, in the context of a tragedy. The protests and riots of Minneapolis (and so many other cities) follow the death of George Floyd, who was choked to death while handcuffed and pleading for his life. For nine minutes, a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while the man called for his mother. This occurred in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And all this takes place within the wider context of a global pandemic that has killed 100,000 people. It feels more like we are in the middle of an extended Lent rather than the end of Eastertide.
Some will assume that I’m bringing politics into the church. They’ll wonder why I’m not upset about black-on-black crime, or the breakdown of the black family, or abortion, or looting, or whatever topic that helps us avoid looking at the thing itself. That “thing” is the 400-year history of racial trauma and oppression still plaguing blacks in this country.
What do protests, riots, and police brutality have to do with Pentecost and the passage in Acts 2:1–21? Does the death of the Messiah for our sins have anything to do with how we approach the flames of Minneapolis? Does the church have something to say, or will we be discipled by Fox News on the one hand and MSNBC on the other? As our country is divided, what do the words of Scripture mean right now?
There is no other world in which to talk about Jesus than a world in which black men can have their necks stepped on for nine minutes. That is to say: The only way to answer these questions is to look at the words of Scripture with the burning cities as our interpretive backdrop.
Acts 2:1–21 opens with the followers of Jesus gathered in one place. It is amazing to think that at one point in history, all the Christians in the world could fit into one room. Despite what the history books will tell you, Christianity is not some state-sponsored religion of terror created by Constantine to keep the populous in check. It began humbly with a ragtag group of 120 mostly regular folks who had encountered the living God.
Among them were women like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who came from rural peasant stock, and people like Matthew, the former tax collector. The two of them could not be more different. Matthew collaborated with the oppressors of Israel and extorted money from people to line his pockets. Folks like Mary were the victims of such atrocities.
What unites us as a church now? What would this unity look like today for the family of George Floyd? What would it mean for us to be together with them? What would it mean to be alongside the black community in the United States, which over the years has experienced kidnapping, slavery, the injustice of the Jim Crow era, and the litany of contemporary sufferings that mark our lives now?
It would mean that, as an act of love, the church says, “It should not have to be this way, and I will spend my life beside yours testifying to the values that the Christian tradition places on your black life.”
The church has the power to make this statement because the same Spirit falls upon everyone in the room. There is not one Holy Spirit that enables women to declare the word of God and another for men. There is not one Spirit that gives words to the rich and others to the poor. There is not one Holy Spirit that allows us to speak to African peoples and another that allows us to speak to Asians or Europeans. The one Spirit sends the one gospel to varied peoples of the earth.
The gospel’s work through the Spirit arises from our common status as image bearers. We are all fallen and in need of God’s grace. Any ideology that functionally or verbally denies that common status is a heresy. And anyone who can’t see that the heresy of racial bias infects some Christians in this land does so in the face of overwhelming facts.