Holidays and Holy Days: Thoughts on Pentecost
Memorial Day Weekend has always been a difficult few days for me. Certainly, my life is nowhere near as rough as it is for those families and friends of men and women who have served in the American armed forces. However, Sunday is a particularly odd day for me. Why? Well, there are two ideas that currently reside in that central fold of convictions that comprise my Christianity. They are obviously not the only two ideas, but they (equally) obviously make this Sunday difficult.
The first idea is that I am a committed pacifist. I believe that when the Law says, “Do not kill,” when the prophets tell us to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks,” when St. Paul says, “Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” and when Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers,” “do not resist the evildoer,” and “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” that they all meant it. Naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
The second idea is that God and country are not the same thing. I grew up hearing from certain parts of my church that the United States was somehow a special nation, that God blessed it extra special. I grew up hearing “God Bless America” more times than I can count. Somewhere along the way, though, I saw a small un-presumptive little sign that said, “God Bless Afghanistan, too.” If I can be frank, the idea that some group of men founded the United States as a Christian Nation is a myth. To bind our own Christian ambitions to a nation is folly. The Church messed that one up big time not too long into its history. I would rather not keep repeating that error. Again, naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
At the same time, however, I do not sit as a mumbling cynical critic in the back row of church looking down on people for wanting to honor the men and women who die for their country. The families and friends of those people who have died have gone through a lot of pain. Veterans deal with more suffering and trauma than I could ever imagine. To neglect or shun either of those groups is contrary to the teaching of Jesus and is just wrong. They need support and love more than most of us sometimes, especially on Memorial Day. We ought to be there for them and love them as God would love them.
However, I refuse to condone violence and celebrate war. I do not dismiss the sacrifice of men and women. I do not disdain their efforts. I do not despise the pain they have endured. However, I think it must be possible to honor the sacrifice without celebrating the war. After all, the Christian response to threats, to violence, to wars, and to enemies is not more threats, violence, and war. The Christian’s response is prayer and love, as Jesus taught us. That is not what our federal holiday celebrates and endorses (honestly, it would strike me as odd if it did). Nevertheless, these ethics are supposed to be central to the mission and vision of the Church. What are we to do with that?
I think the answer lies with the special ecclesial day with which this Memorial Day weekend happened to coincide. On the Western Calendar, today is the Church’s birthday! (Cue music.) It’s Pentecost! You know, that day when the fiery tongues came down in the middle of a hurricane and made people speak in different languages. Many evangelical congregations do not talk about that one much unless it is to debate about the precise meaning of glossolalia. So, I think it would be interesting to see in how many of our churches this Sunday Pentecost got less screen time than Memorial Day. The fact that we let a federal holiday overshadow our holy day might be part of our problem.
You see, Pentecost provides a very different picture of the world than Memorial Day.
The American holiday typically enshrines values like safety, security, and freedom. They find those values and preserve them by sending American men and women around the world as part of the armed forces. The narrative goes somewhat like this: the world is safe and secure for you and me because he have armies all over the place and we would live in a very different world without the freedoms we enjoy if this were not the case. There would be little hope for us.
Now, consider the story of the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus ascends to heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit. His followers received said Spirit while gathered in an upper room wondering what Jesus was talking about. These people get up and start preaching and people from different nations all around the world can understand them. Peter stands up and begins to preach and thousands join this new movement. Then, the apostles go around Jerusalem healing people and performing miracles. The municipal authorities tell them to stop and even threaten them. How do they respond? More preaching! Then, the burgeoning religious movement begins taking care of each other sharing their possessions when there were needs and insecurities.
So, for the apostles and the first Christians: They found safety before God alone. They found security in each other. They found freedom proclaiming what they had seen and heard. Their response to violence was preaching. Their response to insecurity was giving. Their response to oppression was healing.
That is an entirely different paradigm than the American mindset. I do not mean to cast aspersions, ridicule, shame, or demean soldiers, veterans, or their family and friends. However, I think that our Scriptures present a different way of dealing with things than the United States. How different do you think the world would be if the Church responded like the first apostles to violence and insecurity? How different would our communities be if our individual congregations and parishes started acting this way? Would we live in a different world if we actually celebrated Pentecost? I would like to think so.
This Pentecost, then, let us try to remember where we come from and see if it helps us where we’re going.
Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace and guide your Church in being a peaceable people. Please give us the Spirit of the apostles that we might give to each other not counting the cost. Please give us special direction today to care for those men, women, and children affected by war and violence. Please help us to give them all the love that we can, loving them like you do. Grant us security not with swords and shields but that safety that comes under the shadow of your wings; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Posted on 27 May 2012, in Church and tagged Acts, America, Apostles, Freedom, Healing, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Memorial Day, Nonviolence, Pacifism, Paul, Peace, Pentecost, Peter, Safety, Spirit, United States, Violence, War. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.