The Communal Call of Pentecost (and Others’ Calls Too)

By Russell Arben Fox

Today, among those who belong to many (though not necessarily all) Christian churches, will be recognized as the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost (or my preferred name of it, “Whitsunday”) is a Christian holiday, built upon the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which itself commemorates the revelation of the Ten Commandments and, by extension, the communication of God’s word, the Torah, to Israel. In the Christian tradition, the Day of Pentecost commemorates another instance of communication: a famously multicultural, international, and in some crucial ways, invariably socialist one:

When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples of Jesus] were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-12, Revised Standard Version)

The story as given in the Book of Acts in the Christian Bible presents us with no less than 15 different ethnic and/or linguistic peoples who could, via the power of the Holy Spirit, understand the message which the ancient apostles called them to: to, as Peter is presented as saying, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” And upon so doing, “[a]ll the believers agreed to hold everything in common: they began to sell their property and possessions and distribute to everyone according to their need” (Acts 2:38, 44-45).

One way of looking at this story is notice the three primary characteristics of the very beginnings of Christianity as an actual, social practice: first, that the Holy Spirit calls people to repent and embrace Jesus Christ as their model and their God; second, that this call is inclusive, reaching across ethnic and linguistic lines; and third, that those who embraced this call were drawn together—presumably across the aforementioned ethnic and linguistic lines—to share their resources and support one another collectively. Bernie Sanders, who isn’t any kind of theologian (and certainly not a confessed Christian one!), echoes these steps in his own democratic socialist/progressive liberal idiom, in his new book It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism:

If we accept that the truth will set us free, then we need to face some hard truths about American oligarchs. This country has reached a point in its history where it must determine whether we truly embrace the inspiring words in our Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”….We have to decide whether we take seriously what the great religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others—have preached for thousands of years. Do we believe in the brotherhood of man and human solidarity? Do we believe in the Golden Rule that says each and every one of us should “do unto other as you would have them do unto you”? Or do we accept, as the prevailing ethic of our culture, that whoever has the god rules—and that lying, cheating, and stealing are OK if you’re powerful enough to be able to get away with it? (pp. 100-101)

It would be easy to challenge many of the assumptions operating behind Sanders’s words here. Does “solidarity” have to mean a sharing of goods and resources? Does the Golden Rule imply any particular standards of socio-economic support? Does the notion of equality communicated in the Declaration of Independence really parallel the way equality is communicated in so many diverse religions throughout the millennia? But all those challenges, I think, however intellectually engaging or valid, miss the point of Sanders’s call—a point which his call shares with that one contained within the ancient story of Pentecost, and many others’ as well.

On my reading, it is the point that, for all the differences in human communities and human experiences, it is nonetheless possible to see something that binds us all together in common, and that “something” is something higher, something greater that the rulership of those who can empirically and physically command the force to do so. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his letter to Roger Weightman, it is “the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.” Rather, it is the possibility to be able to see in every other human being--whether born rich or poor, whether born a Mede or an Elamite or a Jew--a person deserving of equal treatment, a person that I cannot justly presume to be unworthy of the resources and treatment that I hope myself to receive. In the same way the Parthians and Cretans and a dozen others could all understand a common message, Martin Luther King, Jr., a descendant of slaves, could quote Jefferson, a slave-owner, in insisting that America’s Declaration mandated that the burdens that had been unjustly, ruinously placed upon Black Americans be lifted up, so that all could share equally in the blessings that Earth provides.

I have always liked the term Whitsunday, though it is not one I grew up with, because it calls to mind the idea of baptism, and the white, unmarked, indistinguishable clothes associated with that ritual. All coming together, embracing one another, as they embrace a higher, better life. But I recognize that for many, the ritual of baptism is instead associated with enclosing off oneself into  a particular, exclusive community of faith, a turn inward—and, of course, the bloody history of Christianity has been filled with millions who have interpreted the Holy Spirit’s call in such an exclusionary fashion.

Nonetheless, the call recorded in Acts 2—and the mutual aid, collective work, and social equality to which it points—remains. I’m enough of an intellectual in how I think about my Christian faith to wonder just how to properly interpret and distinguish between the particularities of these different calls: the Holy Spirit descending with flames of fire in the Book of Acts, calling all into a shared community of worship and support; Thomas Jefferson crafting (with help!) the words of the Declaration, inspired with the ideals of the Enlightenment and equal rights; Bernie Sanders, continuing into his ninth decade his long battle to help people understand that a socio-economic system that places us against each other, that makes an idol out of profit, and that takes self-interest as a basic premise, can never—at least not without significant regulation and oversight!—generate either equality or community. Still, Sunday is arguably supposed to be a day of rest from such intellectual work. So this Whitsunday, I instead want to simply resolve again, as I have so often before, to respond as best I can to that higher call. To work against any unconscious reliance upon the privilege that allows me to feel set apart from others, and instead see in all other people only fellow members of the community of God’s creation, a community wherein we can, if we take our religious faith and our own best understanding of our shared humanity as our guide, lift each other up, social and economically, wherever we may come from and whatever language we may speak.


Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University, a small, Christian, liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, and a member of the Wichita DSA chapter.

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