“I can’t breathe,” were the last words of George Floyd, a Black man whose murder by an officer in Minneapolis who knelt on George’s neck for nine minutes. There is the unsettling parallel with the Pentecost event, which is about God’s gift of breath. And together with George Floyd we say the names of too many other Black folks who have died: Regis Kochinski-Paquet, Amhaud Albert, Nina Pop, Brionna Taylor, and so many more.
The cry, “I can’t breathe,” feels out of place. Like we’ve returned to Good Friday even as we’re celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit. However Jess Davis, a Lutheran colleague has encouraged preachers, especially white preachers today, to preach on the fullness of the reading from Acts, including flames of the Holy Spirit. She insists we don’t just talk about metaphorical flames. That we don’t just dance around the references to fire and flame as metaphor as we so often do. But rather preach into the reality that at times God reveals Godself as a pillar of fire that promises protection and security, warding off an approaching army. God reveals Godself as a burning bush, granting wisdom and knowledge.
God reveals Godself to the people both through love and grace, and also at times through anger that is slow to kindle, when the people turn their back upon God. As a predominantly white church we are more uncomfortable with the fullness of these references in Pentecost than predominantly Black churches. These are emotions and dispositions people of colour feel on a day to day basis. In our haste to unpack bad theology around hellfire and damnation, we have at times watered down proclamation of the gospel as though God doesn’t demand better of us. That God weeps and also responds with anger, speaking through the prophets that we turn back toward God.
As white folks we need to listen to the voices of those who hurting, who are angry, and who are demanding change. We are listening to voices rising from the embers of a charred city. One Black leader whose words challenged me and my comfort are Tamika Mallory, who is a founder and spokesperson for Until Freedom, and has served on national task forces. Until Freedom has had a presence at justice events across the US. In response to unrest in Minneapolis and beyond Tamika Mallory said [and this is abridged]:
“This is a coordinated activity happening across this nation. And so we are in a state of emergency. Black people are dying in a state of emergency. We cannot look at this as an isolated incident. The reasons why buildings are burning are not just for our brother George Floyd. They’re burning down because people here in Minnesota are saying…all across this nation…enough is enough.
We are not responsible for the mental illness that has been inflicted upon our people by the American government, institutions, and those people who are in positions of power. I don’t [care] if they burn down Target. Because Target should be on the streets with us calling for the justice that our people deserve. Where was AutoZone when Philando Castile was shot in a car, which is what they actually represent? Where were they?
So if you are not coming to the people’s defense then don’t challenge us when young people and other people who are frustrated and instigated by the people you pay. You are paying instigators to be among our people out there throwing rocks, breaking windows, and burning down buildings. And so young people are responding to that. They are enraged. And there’s an easy way to stop it. Charge the cops. Not just here in Minneapolis but in every city where our people are being murdered. That’s the bottom line. Do what you say that this land is supposed to be about. This land is not free for Black people and we are tired. Don’t talk to us about looting. Y’all are the looters. American has been looting Black people. America looted Native Americans when they first came here. So looting is what you do. We learned violence from you…So if you want us to do better, then you do better.”
Tamika Mallory, spokesperson from community organization called Until Freedom [abridged]
We miss the point of Tamika Mallory’s remarks saying defensively, “You can’t fight violence with violence,” or something similar. While we are viewing these horrific images that evoke sadness and anger form the comfort of our homes, Black people are offering up their bodies on the streets, and many are getting hurt.
Unarmed Black people and other civilians, often with their hands up, have been shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed, pepper sprayed. Journalists have been directly target and attacked by officers, in some cases while they are broadcasting live. Whatever we might think, surely we can agree it is a sad situation. Surely we can agree something needs to change.
While many of us respond with surprise at how quickly events have unfolded, Black folks aren’t surprised. They’ve endured decades of mistreatment. Voting disenfranchisement that occurs to this day, mass incarceration, red lining, the list goes on. On this day on May 31 and June 1, 1921 Black Wall Street, a prosperous African American neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were attacked by whites. 35 city blocks went up in flames. 300 people died, 800 people were injured. This injustice and many more have never been fully addressed. Most white folks in the US don’t even know it happened.
We may have different feelings and reactions about images we see on the news. Let’s put our immediate reactions on hold and listen to the voices of people who hurting because their people are being murdered. And no matter how much they plead for white folks to stop murdering them, nothing changes.
Andre Henry, a Black musician, preacher, and public speaker, reminds us in a sermon titled “We Need a Spectacular Intervention.” In it he recalls the Exodus story at times like this. It is a story of liberation of an oppressed people. God was willing to visit every pestilence and plague upon Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And still it wasn’t enough. Pharaoh chased them as far as he could and was even willing to sacrifice his army in order to continue oppressing the Israelites. The Exodus story resonates with Black people because they feel Pharaoh has been chasing them their whole life. And this is the hard part of the story for us to hear. Historically and collectively we are Pharaoh. While it may not be us personally, as a society we sanction the pursuing and chasing, giving Black people no rest. Again, not each of us personally, but rather collectively. Through public institutions, governments, authorities, that give them no freedom or rest, but make their lives hard. And whenever they say things like, “we need white people to be better,” often we get angry and defensive. Surely it’s not me, Lord.
They say “Black Lives Matter” and we respond, “No, All Lives Matter.” Imagine how these words hurt. Their siblings and children are dying on the streets and we’re often more concerned with not being blamed for their pain.
The situation in Canada isn’t so different from that in the US. Just like the US, Canada was founded on the genocide of Indigenous people. Just like the US, Canada has a bad track record in its treatment of Black people. We had de facto segregation in many parts of Canada. There were KKK chapters across Canada especially across the prairies. And still today Black people continue to feel unsafe and die at an alarming rate. We don’t know all the details, and yet we mourn the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto all the same.
Tongues of Fire
Returning to the Pentecost story in Acts, we hear the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a rush of violent wind. God is among these people chanting, speaking, crying out. And the people witnessing all this sneered. They were witnessing an act of God and dismissed it as not worth paying attention to.
Peter tries to rescue the situation saying oddly the people filled with the Spirit could not be drunk because it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. Obviously Peter wasn’t living through a pandemic. Sometimes you tune in to a 9 AM meeting on Zoom and you can’t see what people have in their mugs.
And then there are the last lines of the reading from Acts which make us as Lutherans kind of uncomfortable: “And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
Often this is the point at which Lutheran pastors start to explain why we celebrate Pentecost but we aren’t Pentecostals. Hold up there Holy Spirit! This stuff is a weird, it’s mysterious. These are the passages for which we apologise to non-religious friends for being kind of out there.
But this is a quotation from the prophet Joel. In the Book of Joel there are portents about a plague of locusts, there is foreboding prophesies, visions, cosmic events foretelling the day of the Lord. Peter is referencing a familiar story, telling them remember God would send us signs. Look, here are people from different backgrounds, different languages, suddenly able to understand one another. There is the violent rush of wind. There are tongues of fire. Peter is saying, sit up and take notice. Don’t be dismissive.
Not that we there is one to one equivalence of these stories and any particular action or event. We are not literalists, but we do take scripture and the Bible seriously. We sit with the discomfort of these texts, with mystery, with sadness, with anger, and pray for God’s grace in the midst of all this.
Today on this Pentecost Sunday, let us sit up and take notice. We have Black siblings who are prophesying, who are dreaming dreams, interpreting the signs before us. Let us not dismiss them. Let us not wag our fingers at them as though we know better how to organize nation wide protests, even though we’ve never lived a day in their shoes.
Let us be good interpreters of scripture and good interpreters of signs around us. To be a good interpreter requires waiting, listening, being patient, trying to put pieces of a puzzle together, and then waiting and listening some more.
Grace leads to Action
Through God’s grace and gifts of interpretation, as Pentecost people we are led into action. Consider how much movement there is in the Acts reading. Wind, fire, the Spirit, prophesying, dreaming dreams. And instead of chaos there is understanding, reassurance that God is with us, the gift of wisdom.
Pentecost is a reminder that even though Jesus ascended, Jesus never left, but returned, and is made alive through the work of the Holy Spirit. This third person of the Trinity we can never seem to find enough place for. It seems we’ve always set the table for the Father and the Son and are caught off guard, that the Spirit needs a chair at the table as well. And it’s the Spirit enlivening God’s presence in our midst even today.
Pentecost is a great day for action. Theological action. Action rooted in Jesus’ unbounding love for one another. We proclaim Jesus died, is risen, ascended, and continues to be present through the Holy Spirit. Through that love, we celebrate Pentecost through acts of love.
Last week Kasari Govender, the BC Human Rights commissioner, wrote an op-ed in The Tyee titled “This is the Moment to Shatter the Foundations of Racism in Canada.” She is responding in part to the anti-Asian violence that has increased in BC during the pandemic. And yet she writes about a great opportunity we share collectively: “But I also believe that transformative, disruptive, change is more possible now than it has been in my lifetime, because there is a flip side to the chaos of disruption at this scale. When our traditional structures of power are threatened. Fear is one byproduct and opportunity for real change is another.” Rather than focusing on the fear, remember the disciples gathering in the Gospel of John, were afraid, there is the gospel promise of real change.
As Pentecost Christians we can be that change. As church we have an opportunity to show the world we are an incarnation of Christ’s love. We have a platform and visibility few people have. We can step up and be leaders at a time when so many people are feeling demoralized, dejected, set adrift. We’ve done this time and time again at Church of the Cross, leading the way.
Let us listen to Black voices and dream dreams of being better as white folks, transforming disruption into liberation for our Black neighbours. We’re not doing this alone. The Holy Spirit has already rushed out to greet us in a violent wind, in fire, in wisdom, in prophesy, in the promise of dreams that lead to action. Amen.