~ Acts 2:1-21 ~
The Spirit comes…and stuff happens! Tornados, fire, and a sudden unexplained ability to speak other languages! And from there, as the story goes, the once-hunkered down, scared disciples go out and change the world. Whew! That spirit-stuff is really powerful…or so goes the story.
A critical part of the story is that those with whom the Spirit has visited are now a special category of person. In their very being the Holy Spirit resides. This affords them, those true believers, those who have experienced conversion, special insights not afforded to others, presumably those who have not had such an experience. The Spirit gives believers illumination, discernment, spiritual understanding, and judgments that non-believers aren’t privy to.
Now, in the beginning, the first few months and years after Pentecost, this was all pretty exciting. But in the course of time this idea became a problem. I call it the problem of being ‘redeemed’. If you see yourself in the special category of ‘redeemed’, or if you feel you possess the Holy Spirit in opposition to those who don’t, you will come to believe that whatever you believe or no matter how you behave is justified because, well, you are the possessor of God. Because I am redeemed my judgments are righteous and yours, necessarily, are not.
This has exposed a core, essential flaw in American Christianity. In our American spiritual arrogance we cannot see the sin that so besets us. That is the sin of deeply ingrained structural racism. Because White American Christians believe they are righteous by virtue of being redeemed they cannot see the racism that is part and partial of their character. As a result, American Christianity has lost virtually all credibility. And, as a result, they cannot see true spirit-filled faith when it stares them right in the face, a spirit-filled faith that works for justice and peace.
The Third Ward in Houston, TX is not unlike other big city African American neighborhoods that are experiencing the blight and despair of structural racism and structural poverty, making them really hard neighborhoods. He grew up in the neighborhood locally known as “the Bricks.” At 6’6” he was quite a presence in the housing projects. Most everyone in the neighborhood knew him to be a “person of peace,” looking to break the cycle of violence he saw among the young people. He was regarded as a de-facto community leader and elder statesman. He tried to use his influence to bring Christian ministries to the neighborhood. As one ministry partner described him, he “was a person of peace sent from the Lord to help the gospel go forward in a place that I couldn’t live.” He went on to say, “His faith was a heart for the Third Ward that was radically changed by the gospel, and his mission was empowering other believers to be able to come in and push that gospel forth…There are things that [he] did for us that we’ll never know until the other side of eternity.”
In 2018 he moved away of Houston to pursue a job opportunity through a Christian work program. He moved to Minneapolis. His name is George Floyd. And you know the rest of the story.
His ministry partners back in Houston, the young African American men he mentored, say that Big Floyd will be “immortalized in the Third Ward community forever.” They say every youth and young man growing up will know George Floyd. Guys will say, “Man, if he can change his life, I can change mine.”
These guys weren’t ready to see another video clip of a black man being brutalized by police so soon after the recording of Ahmaud Arbery shot while jogging and the video of a woman calling 911 on a black man bird watching in Central Park. But then they realized it was Big Floyd.
They know all too well the reality of this kind of killing. They are, after all, black men too. Despite the own earnest expressions of faith, of good deeds, of living out the gospel they have their own stories of being humiliated, suspected, and threatened by authorities.
Now his former ministry partners are left with remembering a man they knew as a gentle giant, an inspiration to the young people of “the Bricks,” a positive force for change. As one put it, “he was a fellow image-bearer.” In short, George Floyd was a man in whom the Spirit lived in most authentic ways. George Floyd lived out his life in a 2nd chapter of Acts kind of way.
But now George is dead. Yes, he died at the hands of one individual police officer who has rightly been charged with murder. But George also died at the hands of a racialized society that, in the end, doesn’t care all that much about black men’s bodies.
Sadly, American Christians, and I must say white American Christians, have allowed themselves to justify our racist history as just part of God’s plan for America. Or, since I am a Christian and have special spiritual insights from the Holy Spirit directly, and I don’t think of myself as racist then I’m not because if it was really a sin the Spirit would convict me of it. And since I don’t feel conviction about racism then, voila, I’m not a racist.
The problem with being redeemed, with believing that we possess the Holy Spirit, is that we can easily toss aside all kinds of difficult issues because, well, I’m redeemed. Denial is an easy copout. And in this case explicitly, white American Christians are complicit in the death of George Floyd. To remain silent is to condone. To make excuses is to participate in the atrocity. This is not a time to just let things go.
To be a person of the Spirit calls for careful attention to what that looks like and how that is lived out. It means questioning our assumptions and prerogatives. It means living with humility the life God has given us. It means a spirit of giving, not taking; of giving up, not demanding. For the Spirit brings life, grants peace and love, and healing. In this we are held in God’s hands, we are borne the Spirit’s wings. Amen.