The Duty of Remembering Pentecost

One of the most harrowing moments of my young life as a theologian in formation was when I found myself at an academic gathering listening to a seemingly innocuous academic exchange. The space was filled with people whom I believe share similar commitments as scholars, teachers, and people who stand for justice, equality, and inclusion. What I failed to notice was that over the course of the question and answer session, one by one, the voices of Black friends and colleagues in the space were silenced. It was not until the third or fourth voice was shot down that I started to wonder if something had gone wrong. This little instance haunts me. Why did the racial dynamics that silenced my friends not register for me? Why wasn’t I moved to respond? It punctuated Willie James Jennings’ diagnosis (shared and advanced by many others) that Christianity has a diseased social imagination. What can restore our vision?

Theologically, the root of this sickness is a forgotten and betrayed memory: Christianity has forgotten the Jewishness of Jesus, and with a misremembered Jesus, we have lost the power of remembering and imagining rightly what the basileia tou theou (the reign or even kin-dom of God) stands for, as well as the scandalous memory of affirmation of difference in Christ’s body.[1]

But today I want to emphasize something a little different. The church should also recognize it has forgotten and betrayed the memory of Pentecost, the culminating moment of the Christ event. The day of Pentecost narrated in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles reveals the Holy Spirit’s desire to embrace difference, plurality, and hospitality as a sign of the unfolding basileia. It also conveys a conviction that the Holy Spirit is active, driving the community of disciples forward and outward to carry forward God’s kin-dom—even to people they would rather not spend time with, as Jennings observes. It is a narrative that forms Christian identity and imagination so that the church can see different bodies and cultures as marked and blessed by the Holy Spirit, and it is the kind of event that the Christian church needs to renew in our time.

P. Solomon Raj, “Pentecost,” 1980s. Batik.

A better understanding of Pentecost can reconfigure Christian practice in the present and transform our imagination. Pentecost is a memory of movement, a narrative of the “actuality” of the Spirit, and a repeatable event. Perhaps this understanding can spur our desire for a new Pentecost, one that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, change structures, and enable people to come together again in Christ’s body.

A Memory of Movement

First, as a key interval in the history of Christianity, Pentecost (and indeed the whole book of Acts) points to a vivid memory of embrace and right relationship that should be part of the bedrock of Christian imagination. For Willie James Jennings, Acts depicts the “revolution of the intimate” through the intervention of the Spirit. “Fundamental to that new reality is the joining of Jew and Gentile.” The Holy Spirit moves, acts, and inspires and empowers the church to enact this joining throughout history.

In terms of the narrative plot of Acts of the Apostles, this involves the Galilean disciples first, then a diverse crowd of Jews and Godfearers, and subsequently additional outpourings of the Spirit among Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25), with an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40), and even a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10-11).

To be sure, biblical scholarship may rightly question and qualify how the day of Pentecost and the Acts of the Apostles as a whole should be construed as history, but this does not change the fact that something was remembered about the gift of the Spirit at and after Pentecost, and something was committed to writing. That something has to do firstly with the essential role of the Spirit, and secondly with the Spirit “upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21). James D.G. Dunn observes, “Without the Spirit there would be no story to tell. Without the Spirit there would be no church, no way to follow.”

As Jennings notes, Acts offers a history that we learn, one that has to do with “boundary-crossing and border-transgressing” to draw different people into communion and intimacy. That intimacy affirms cultures, languages, and difference.

With this in mind, I want to briefly transition here to a philosophical resource in Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of the self and how narrative forms the self. Ricoeur understands the self as fragile: I am at once capable of doing many things, yet at the same time imputable and capable of failing. Key to forming the self’s identity is narrative—especially the narrative of history and of memory, for narrative discloses “a possible world that I could inhabit.” Importantly, Ricoeur argues that the self is unthinkable without otherness or alterity, such that one can find oneself as another, that is in a reciprocal relationship marked by justice.

Memory, history, narrative all have an ethical orientation, and when it comes to history and memory, there is a duty not to forget. By adding Ricoeur, I want to emphasize that the memory of Pentecost is about the narrative identity of the church, and that its plot can communicate the duty “to do justice, through memories, to an other than the self.”

It may be helpful to recall one of the classical definitions of the Holy Spirit as “love” and as “gift.” Theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim links the understanding of the Spirit as love with Chi (as energy force), but also with biblical shalom justice, and with eros. As such, the movement of the Spirit should be seen as moving us to desire transformation. “The Spirit can move into the in-between spaces that marginalized people occupy, …reach those hard-to-get-to spaces, and bring healing and wholeness to the marginalized.” Pentecost proclaims that the Holy Spirit moves, and through this, the day of Pentecost should configure Christian identity towards that same kind of movement—one that moves in the Spirit towards justice, healing, and wholeness.

The Actuality of the Spirit: Life in the Spirit as Fleshly and Just

Second, the work of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost points to flesh—that is, to bodies that are graced, blessed, affirmed by God. Recall that the Pentecost event offers an interpretation by citing the prophet Joel (2:28-32 or 3:1-5): the last days have come since the Spirit is now falling upon all flesh. That promise is also a program for “life in the Spirit.”  But what does this life entail? Pentecost reminds the church that all bodies, all flesh matter to God. Life in the Spirit has to do with movement towards justice for other bodies, for flesh.

“The deepest reality of life in the Spirit… is that the disciples of Jesus rarely, if ever, go where they want to go or to whom they would want to go. Indeed the Spirit seems to always be pressing the disciples to go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together.”Willie James Jennings, Acts

In the Catholic Church, Yves Congar had called for a “renewed actuality of the Spirit” because the Spirit is the “co-instituting principle” of the church.[2] But to be truthful, Congar’s wish is only partially fulfilled. Despite significant advances ad intra in terms of lay ministry and leadership, lay participation in theological formation and scholarship, and the proliferation of ecclesial movements, it should be recalled that these are not the only gifts that the  Spirit can give to the church. A fully renewed actuality of the Spirit would be marked by public witness, by movement towards justice, by ecclesial repentance, and by joining.

On the one hand, one can rightly point to the presence and movement of the Spirit in the advocacy of #BlackLivesMatter and indeed wherever movements spring up to resist injustice, but what about the church at large?[3] I lament the fact that my own Church took some five years to publish Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love. The impression at the time was that it was not until the events at Charlottesville in 2017 that episcopal leadership realized the gravity of recent events. Like my seminar experience, this conveys a sense that the lives of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the Charlottesville Nine, and so many other lives did not register in the way that they should. One can be certain that  the church is not hearing “what the Spirit is saying” when othered lives and bodies do not register as sacred, and when ecclesial responses are lagging—even in the present. The Spirit calls for more than love. What about justice?

A New Pentecost for Racial Justice

It may surprise you to learn that the Pentecost is repeatable. The Catholic Church came to recognize this through the event of the Second Vatican Council. It was John XXIII who formally convoked the council under the aegis of the Holy Spirit by concluding his apostolic letter Gaudet Mater Ecclesia with the invocation: “Renew your wonders in our time, as though by a new Pentecost.” It is here that one may turn to a surprising witness: the Pentecostal movement, especially as initiated and informed by the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

Photo: William J. Seymour and various leaders of the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street, 1908.

Before the “new Pentecost” of Vatican II, there was a surprising manifestation of the Spirit initially in a small house in Los Angeles, and later at an abandoned church on Azusa Street, in the form of an interracial gathering under the leadership of William J. Seymour, a Black pastor and theologian who framed Pentecostal experience as a resource for overcoming racial division. That this took place amidst Jim Crow America makes Azusa Street all the more remarkable. Eyewitness Frank Bartleman remarked that “The color line was washed away [in the blood of Jesus]” at Azusa Street. Somehow, experience of the Spirit allowed these Christians to see and enact life together, to touch, pray, and collaborate in proclaiming the gospel. Could the rest of the church learn something from Azusa Street?

I bring up the memory of Azusa Street because the history of Azusa Street also involves its forgetting and a surprising intervention by the Holy Spirit that points to new possibilities. This history involves resistance and forgetting of Azusa Street, as well as a gradual retrieval of the indispensable black roots of Pentecostalism. More importantly, in 1994 there was a symbolic gathering of Pentecostals that, to me, showed signs of a “new Pentecost.”

At this “Memphis Miracle,” representatives of some of the major Pentecostal denominations gathered to dialogue about historical racism and consider how to respond to racism in our time. This included a spontaneous, moving ritual footwashing between Black and White Pentecostal leaders and the adoption of a Racial Reconciliation Manifesto that shows a desire to repent and confront racism wherever it is found (even outside of the body of Christ) and, positively, to find “oneself as another,” namely by committing to “drink deeply from the well of Pentecost as it was embodied in [the Azusa Street Mission].”[4] I can only suspect that if Catholics expressed a desire to drink deeply from that same well that we would not only renew the experience of Azusa Street and Memphis, but also have a fresh insight into the first Pentecost’s meaning.

Photo: the spontaneous footwashing at the “Memphis Miracle” of 1994.

I want to conclude with a personal testimony. I was raised in a Filipino Catholic Charismatic prayer community and experienced and witnessed Pentecostal grace at several “Life in the Spirit Seminars.” There are two things I learned from my own experience: first, it is that the Holy Spirit has a desire to affirm human flesh. I saw not only my own body but those of friends, strangers, and whole families as conduits of grace. Second, it is that Pentecostals are onto something with their bold prayer to the Holy Spirit. Of course, invoking the Holy Spirit is not anything new in terms of tradition, but in terms of effects, praying like a Pentecostal can surely bring something new. Pentecostals are reminding the rest of the church to pray for Pentecost, to utter the simple and dangerous words “Come, Holy Spirit” and to imagine what the Holy Spirit can do as Lord and Giver of life. There is a sense in Pentecostalism that the Spirit is ready to move (and is already moving). Could the wider church see a new Pentecost for racial justice? Come, Holy Spirit.

Dave de la Fuente is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology and a retreat minister at Fordham University. He is writing a dissertation arguing for a Catholic reception of the Azusa Street Revival. As an enthusiast of pneumatology, he enjoys discernment of spirits (preferably bourbon on the rocks).

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] See Ada María Isazi-Díaz, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal.” in Benjamin Valentin, editor. In Our Own Voices: Latino/A Renditions of Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010). I am also drawing on M. Shawn Copeland’s powerful theology of the body of Christ in Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).

[2] Yves Congar, “Renewed Actuality of the Holy Spirit.” Lumen Vitae 28 (1973). See also I Believe in the Holy Spirit, volume II. Interestingly, Congar also wrote a short treatise on racism, arguing that the church “is the antithesis of racism”—or at least ideally it should be. See Congar, The Catholic Church and the Race Question (Paris: UNESCO, 1953). 56

[3] For a Christological and pneumatological affirmation of #BLM, see Eboni Marshall Turman, “The Holy Spirit and the Black Church Tradition: Womanist Considerations,” in Thomas Hughson, editor. The  Holy Spirit and the Church: Ecumenical Reflections with a Pastoral Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[4] For further reading on this, see: “Pentecostal Racial Reconciliation Manifesto,” Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). 387-392. To be sure, this was not a perfect moment of reconciliation. It was mostly framed in terms of black/white relations, and in a retrospective, participants raised questions about systemic change after Memphis. For important historical examinations, see Walter Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997); Leonard Lovett’s essay “Black Origins of the Pentecostal Movement,” in Vinson Synan, editor. Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins (1975); Estrelda Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African-American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011); Estrelda Alexander and Amos Yong, editors. Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture (New York: NYU, 2012);