Pentecost, the Spirit of America, and How the Church has Failed
The state of American politics is in quite a state these days, isn’t it.
I have begun to joke about finding time to watch the news only when I know I can also find the time to shower right after the headlines.
Insults, lies, bombastic hyperbole, language for which children’s ears should be covered, riots, slurs, bigotry, sexism, racism, bullying of the disabled, and xenophobia: all have become commonplace–and, to one degree or another, acceptable–in our modern political climate.
I’m not going to pretend that the above isn’t generated largely by Donald Trump, the heir apparent to the GOP presidential nomination.
Trump’s rise in U.S. politics is deeply disconcerting, not only because of his shocking unapologetic (and yet always shifting) views, but because the toxicity of his extremist and offensive opinions has reached such approval within the leadership and voters of his party, and with so many of the broad American electorate.
Although there’s no real question that the intense venom and spite tends to brew in vats on the Right, evidence of impatience, anger, and hostility can pour out from all points on the political spectrum.
And all of it–all of it–is an embarrassment to our better selves: individually and collectively.
Given where we seem to be these days in American politics, I’ve taken to reading up about the history of angry electorates. This article in the Atlantic of only last week, “American’s Violent Little Partisans,” just got caught up in my lit sweep.
In it, the author, Jon Grinspan, tells of a sixteen-year old boy of the mid-1800s named Benjamin Brown Foster. Young Ben lived in Maine and, frankly, had a desolate, discouraging, and lonely life…except for one thing: the kid loved politics.
Turns out that young people of that day and age found political parties The Thing. During that period of transition and uncertainty, partisan events were social events; opportunities to court marriage partners; communities for young people to leverage influence and move into adulthood; and places to find an anchor as the U.S. moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
For Foster–who for Grinspan was both specific person and representative of the age–political parties were all of these and more. Grinspan writes:
Though he was too young to vote, Foster looked forward to the 1848 presidential election, where he hoped to “advance a boy’s opinion” in favor of the new antislavery Free Soil Party. Nothing else in his stifled life drew “so much interest and excitement.” Foster considered party spirit to be one of the nation’s greatest gifts—“the cement of the union, America’s salvation.” (Emphais mine)
Isn’t that an interesting thing, that last line? “Foster considered party spirit to be one of the nation’s greatest gifts—“’the cement of the union, America’s salvation.’”
Reading that with Pentecost in my mind was quite the thing.
Sunday is Pentecost, after all, the day on which the Church gives thanks for the Holy Spirit, the presence of God-with-us, the dynamic energy of the Reign of God.
With a nod to Grinspan’s text, one of the Church’s greatest gifts, even?
Bookmark that in your mind, for a moment.
Some time ago, I had an exchange with a Lutheran legistator here in my state, a woman who was advancing a bill in the State Legislature that would do an end-run around a possible voter-approved initiated measure on this election’s ballot, one that would cap the rate of payday loans at 36% (right now, in our state, we have no such cap, and the average rate of interest on payday loans is 574%!!!!). This legislator wants to protect the payday lenders at the expense of the Least of These.
On the basis of basic economics, basic human virtue, and basic Lutheran teaching and theology, I called her out.
Her response? The Church, she said, has failed the poor.
We have failed the poor because we have not (in the wake of the social cuts spearheaded by her party) stepped up to the plate to offer assistance to those in need like we should.
I was stunned.
But then I realized that I had to concede to her the point that the Church has failed the poor…though not for the reasons she thought.
The Church has failed the poor, actually, and the foreigner, and the women, and the children, and the oppressed, when it–when we–have not made clear that the Spirit flowing through it–through us–is not one of mob spirit, is not one of greedy spirit, is not one of selfish spirit, is not one of ridiculing spirit, is not one of lying spirit, is not one of condescending spirit, is not one of exclusionary spirit, is not one even of partisan party spirit.
We have failed them all when we have failed to openly and unabashedly denounce politicians and politics which espouse and encourage these sorts of harmful spirits, and the culture which drinks from that tap.
The Church and its members are instead of Holy Spirit.
We are of Galatians 5:22-23 Spirit:
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…
If there ever were a time when the Church would do well to have a Feast and Fest of the Spirit–the Holy Spirit–it would be now.
For in our culture, our politics, our nation, there are any number of spirits about, but they are not holy.
Unfortunately, Pentecost can be seen as a party by and for the Church. Given that those who are in the Church have been claimed by and claim God, and the Spirit is the Spirit of God, it makes some sense.
But the Spirit whom we celebrate and for whom we give thanks on Pentecost is, of course, not the Spirit of and for the Church: it is the Spirit of God for the World.
The Church is, though, its ambassador: the ambassador of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It is the ambassador of the Spirit of salvation: a very different source of salvation than Foster’s.
Instead, the Church is the ambassador of the Spirit of salvation that gives forth, announces, and enacts, health, healing, and wholeness to the world…and openly speaks out against that which thwarts and mocks the same.
With all due respect to Foster’s trust in the spirit of partisan politics, Pentecost can inspire us to rededicate ourselves to the Spirit of Salvation.
With all due respect to the SD Legislator, Pentecost can inspire the Church to no longer fail the poor–and all the Least of These–by tolerating rhetoric and policies which offend the Spirit of God.
Now. Let’s all go get us some of that fruit of the Spirit, brew us up a very different sort of vintage, tap that keg for all the world, and have ourselves a party.