What can do with the Holy Spirit?
What do we do with the Holy Spirit? Generally as Lutherans we’re not sure. We bring out red for Pentecost Sunday and then promptly put it away, apart from Reformation Sunday and ordinations. The Spirit is too wild. Too unhinged. Too out of control.
The Spirit doesn’t fit with our buttoned down aesthetic in Northern Lutheranism. Nevertheless there are Lutherans in other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere that embrace the work of the Spirit. That invite the unknowable and mystical elements of God that can ambush and surprise us with new truths and realities.
In part we look at churches around us that embrace the Spirit such as Pentecostal, Baptist, and evangelical churches as too emotive, too much hands in the air, too much God spilling into the aisles. Even though we might yearn for some of that excitement from time to time, even partake in it in measure doses, we’re not sure we can trust becoming a Spirit-centred church.
And yet Martin Luther had high praise for the third person of the Holy Trinity. According to Luther the Spirit enlivens Jesus in our midst. After Jesus is resurrected, God gives the gift of the Spirit, making Christ present in our lives even today.
Turning to our gospel reading, we hear the Gospel of John’s account witnessing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending upon Jesus and remaining on him. It’s a Trinitarian image of Father, sending the Spirit upon the Son.
Right as Jesus is developing his public ministry in the Gospel of John, the Spirit pours down upon him. It is a reminder God in the form of the Holy Spirit is with Jesus the whole time. So too the disciples who had been following John suddenly turn to follow a Spirit-infused Jesus, recognizing something divine afoot when John points to Jesus and calls him the Son of God. Here we see John the Baptist’s role continue as a true witness, pointing away from himself, in order that Jesus’ stature may rise.
One thing about the Holy Spirit is that expectations are upended. Plans are dashed. People who had made plans for their lives find themselves suddenly following a peripatetic teacher.
Spirit and Water
I wonder about the power of the Spirit in our lives as well. The Sunday after the Baptism of Jesus, we see the themes of water and Spirit return today in the Second Sunday after Epiphany. In baptism we receive the water bath together with God’s word, and we are anointed by the Spirit. In this sense we are with the first disciples, continuing this calling as followers of Jesus.
I think about water as we think about water defenders in Northern BC, the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and the recent blockade preventing free access to their unceded territory. John Borrows, a recent Dessert and Dialogue speaker, raised some important questions for us to consider. Borrows is an Indigenous legal scholar who helped begin the Indigenous Law program at UVic which is in its second year. There was something he said that helps frame the discussion around the current crisis with the blockade. Often in both the court of public opinion and Canadian legal courts, Indigenous people are forced to prove their claim to the land. There is an assumption that the Crown is a legal entity from time immemorial based upon which Canadian legal arguments are decided. Meanwhile Indigenous Law is at times treated as non-binding, an out-dated legal system without jurisdiction today. However, Indigenous Law predates the formation of the Crown in Canada and treaties were signed nation to nation. In other words Canada as a nation entered into legal agreements with Indigenous Nations including the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
In a recent article in the New Republic titled “The Colonizer Always Comes Out,” Nick Martin refers to a specific legal ruling:
“In 1997, the landmark Canadian Supreme Court case Delgamuuk v. British Columbia found that, as the CBC summarized on the Case’s twentieth anniversary, treaty rights were not legally “extinguished” when B.C. became part of Canada in 1871, and, further, that “Indigenous title rights include not only land, but the right to extract resources from the land.” This was a seminal case for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations, which had sued the G.C. government.
Under their legal system, the Wet’suwet’en’s elected councillors who support CGL have jurisdiction only over their villages, and the hereditary chiefs are the final word on land use in the traditional territory. As Peter Grant, the lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, stated last year: “We agree the rule of law has to apply, but doesn’t that mean that when there’s recognition of the proper title holder you deal with the proper title holder?”
In other words, the hereditary chiefs, not the elected chiefs, have the legal right to make decisions concerning traditional territories, which extend beyond reserves outlined in the Indian Act. Meanwhile we hear our governments both at the federal and provincial level, as well as the pipeline company, trot out the same divisive arguments. They argue they are the good guys. They’ve already done due diligence getting permission from elected chiefs. They’ve already consulted with Indigenous peoples. They’ve already got all the permits approved. They’ve already got a court injunction to gain access to the land and build the LNG pipeline.
And yet, the 1997 case Delgamuuk v. British Columbia reveals that the hereditary chiefs are legally entitled to make decisions concerning their traditional territories. Meanwhile governments, corporate interests, and lower courts, with the support of the police, continue flexing their muscles. Together with their asymmetry of power they are building a PR campaign suggesting Indigenous people not towing the line are extremist protesters and represent a public threat that needs to be kept under surveillance and subdued.
Wherever we might find ourselves on the current issue concerning Wet’suwet’en Nation traditional territories, is that we should at least be hitting the pause button. As a church we have a Christian duty to demand more time for an extensive public conversation before making sweeping, irreversible actions. Rather than perpetuating systemic colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, let us follow their lead on protecting water and land. This too is the work of followers of Jesus.
Continuing our discussion about the power of water, baptism, and the Spirit enlivening Jesus in our midst, I would be remiss not to include a few words about Martin Luther King, Jr. on MLK weekend.
King was among the greatest civil rights advocates and icons of the 20th Century, credited towards the success of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th Century both in the US and beyond. You can visit many countries and find a Martin Luther King, Jr. boulevard, park, or square wherever you go. Not unlike the Wet’suwet’en Nation, he favoured non-violent resistance and forms of protest. However, one benefit that King enjoys today is a nostalgic remembering of his legacy. During King’s life he was not especially beloved by the majority of Americans. A Gallup poll revealed that 66% of American disapproved of King in a poll taken in 1966.The reasons for this are not entirely surprising, since this is the case for most public figures who speak out against systemic injustice. In addition to protesting the racism suffered by African Americans, he also advocated for labour rights, and condemned the US’s participation in the Vietnam War. King’s war protest was so ill received that according to the Intercept, both the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers issued scathing critiques of King’s anti-war position. 168 newspapers denounced King for making critical remarks about the Vietnam War and President Johnson “ended his formal relationship with King” (Intercept.com).
I raise as a reminder that no country reveres its Civil Rights leaders until after they die, and even then they have a selective memory. In place of making sacrifice, long-term planning, and taking principles moral positions, instead we hear cheap mention of unity, which usually means capitulating to people and institutions with power.
In Canada consider the legacy of Louis Riel who was considered an enemy of the state. Then Prime Minister John A McDonald ordered Riel to be executed by hanging in Regina. Only today through scholarship is Riel being seen as a champion for Métis and Indigenous rights generally. I raise the example of Riel to remind ourselves we are all in this together. This not a US vs. Canada issue, but rather part of a global issue wrestling with justice.
Wrapping up, what are ways in which the Spirit is calling us like John the Baptist to point to the truth? Ways in which we are pointing to Christ in the world, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Ways in which the Spirit is erupting in new ways, filling us with grace and love. Amen.